Thursday December 9, 2004

HARDCOPY: How the new 'nasi kandar'
redefines Penang

By Syed Nadzri

MOST people in Penang seem to be taking all the criticism about their Pearl of the Orient having lost its lustre in the right spirit - especially the nasi kandar connoisseurs.
There's now a nasi kandar shop every 20 metres on every major street in Georgetown, they say. But most of them can only claim to serve nasi kandar.
"They get away with serving rice and a variety of curries and the nasi kandar tag is theirs," says Kadir Ibrahim of Bayan Baru. But most people in Penang know what's happening and that visitors from out of the State are often taken in.
"But what we are unhappy about is the misrepresentation of what nasi kandar really is. After all, it is part of the Penang heritage," he adds.
Just as it is for all kinds of changes that have taken place in Penang, the explosion of nasi kandar stalls, I guess, is the price to pay for development and commercialism.
Twenty years ago, there were only a handful of nasi kandar shops in Penang, the reputable ones mainly operating in the sidelanes and five-foot ways - among them beside the Kapitan Keling mosque on Pitt Street, behind the State Immigration headquarters on Beach Street, Line Clear on Penang Road, a shop on Prangin Road, at Simpang Enam in Jelutong and in Bayan Lepas.
Now you see big restaurants declaring they serve the best nasi kandar in town sprouting up all over, the kind of businesses you often see in Kuala Lumpur nowadays - the sprawling 24-hour brightly lit outlets with dozens of waiters dressed in uniforms.
Old-timers often lament this change in the character of the nasi kandar. They would prefer their favourite food in the less comfortable surroundings of sidelanes with "special smells". They would prefer their favourite food to be served in that unique fashion where the gravy gets splattered all over. This to them is authentic nasi kandar.
A recent NST report quoted Penang Malay Association president Datuk Mohd Yussof Latif as saying that nasi kandar originated in the heart of George Town covering areas like Penang Road, Jalan Datuk Koyah, Jalan Transfer, Jalan Argyll, Jalan Sekerat and Lorong Ceylon as staple food for the Indian Muslim traders.
Traditionally, nasi kandar, he said, was put into large brass pots placed in two baskets and carried by the vendor on a kandar or tote pole balanced on his shoulder. Hence nasi kandar.
"In the early days, nasi kandar was only available in the morning. The vendors would operate by the roadside or under shady trees - never from a shop," he said.
Yussof said the nasi kandar lauk traditionally consisted of fish curry, beef, liver, eggs, cuttlefish and coconut sambal. "It was only very much later that chicken came to be included. Other dishes like kurma were never part of authentic nasi kandar."
Osman Mydin, one of the partners of Line Clear, is aware that there is keen competition now in the nasi kandar business. But he doesn't seem to be very worried.
"Although we do not provide the comfort that some restaurants do, we have quite a big base of regulars, some from out of Penang," he says.
Osman says he has received many offers from people in Kuala Lumpur to open a Line Clear branch there. But he is just not interested, arguing that it won't be easy to move operations to places outside Penang.
Even opening branches, he adds, is out of the question because getting the right cooks is not easy.
Indeed, connoisseurs readily admit that the nasi kandar served by restaurants in Kuala Lumpur doesn't even come close to what you get in Penang.
Some say that apart from the ambience, the method of cooking and possibly even the tap water in the Klang Valley make a lot of difference to the taste.
In fact, a restaurant serving nasi kandar on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman is said to be transporting lorry loads of water from Penang for the purpose of cooking the dishes.
But Osman dismisses the water theory. "It is the spices that make all the difference. And then, of course, the cooks' personal touch separates the quality of the nasi kandar. And like most specialist cooks, we do not share our recipes - not even among our friends in Penang," he adds.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"