Malaysia is Like a Plate of Nasi Kandar
“You can travel the world, see the sights, hear the slang and sounds, breathe fragrance otherwise foreign to you and taste exotic food. But home is where the spice and rice is more than nice – especially 7am nasi kandar.” – Jahabar Sadiq.
Nasi Kandar as we know it today would be almost unrecognisable to those living during the time of its origin. In the bustling streets of colonial George Town, meandering their way among Indian- Muslim immigrants who were mainly merchants, traders and labourers, were men who carried two baskets of rice and dishes on a wooden pole. The aroma of fresh, hot food would precede their arrival, and workers would swarm them as soon as they put down their pole. There, by the roadside, were the beginnings of a veritable Malaysian institution.
When did the seller of food put away his wooden pole to set up a stall – and later, a restaurant?
“In the early days, the nasi kandar sellers just walked about selling their wares, but from the 1980s onwards they started to have their own premises,” says Mohamed Hussain bin Mohamed Farook, whose family jointly owns Nasi Kandar Astana Mathina, an establishment that has branches in Penang, KL and Selangor.
And as demand grew, more dishes were added to the nasi kandar menu. Mere eggs, meat and vegetables were not enough, and seafood and deep-fried dishes were added – a change Hussain claims began in the 1980s just when nasi kandar began moving into permanent premises.
The selection has since expanded to include fish roe, okra, quail prepared in herbs and spices, sambal udang, ayam goreng, cabbage, lamb and mutton. Many nasi kandar eateries are becoming multi-cuisine as well, offering Western food and all styles of fried rice imaginable. And quantity has increased as well: “One branch alone easily needs 50 chickens a day and 15kg of meat,” says Hussain.
In Penang, nasi kandar outlets usually have their own signature dishes and quirks: Nasi Kandar Deen in Jelutong is where the gravy is mixed with the rice; Tajuddin Hussain Restaurant on Lebuh Queen has the rice and curry served separately and is famous for its ayam masak ros; Nasi Kandar Ali Ameir in Jelutong kept the “kandar” tradition before they shifted to a new shop: every morning, the workers would “kandar” the curry and rice on their way to the shop.
But one cannot talk about nasi kandar without talking about Nasi Kandar Kampung Melayu in Air Itam. Founded in the 1970s, it is famous for its spicy fish and meat curries, concocted from hand-ground spices. “What makes us different from other shops is we use freshly slaughtered meat to maintain the perfectly thick curry, and add a lot of onions,” says Zainab Mohd Eusoff, who is married to the current owner, Abdul Nazir Abdul Razak. Their regulars come so often that the staff remember their favourite dishes.
The main contender for the oldest nasi kandar in Malaysia is probably Hameediyah Restaurant. Established in 1907, this centuryold institution constitutes a pilgrimage for nasi kandar enthusiasts. In an interview with The Star, the restaurant’s fourth and fifth generation owners said the restaurant traces its history back to Nalla Kader, an immigrant from Tamil Nadu who sold mee goreng and pasembur at 164, Lebuh Campbell.
Apart from the restaurants, the Malaysian Muslim Restaurant Owners Association (Presma) functions as a platform to standardise the price, deal with the government agencies and settle Customs paperwork for foreign workers. Hussain argues that reliance on foreign workers is inevitable: “Ten to 20 years ago, one restaurant only needed six to seven workers. Now, each branch requires about 30 to function, due to growing demand and 24-hour operations.” According to one nasi kandar operator, easily 90% of their workforce are foreign workers.
There is a perception that nasi kandar is unreasonably overpriced, but to the restaurant owners, the increasing cost of raw materials of chicken, meat and fresh vegetables determines the price.
“For example, the price of fish has risen from RM12 per kilo to RM19. Expensive rent is also a challenge,” says Datuk Sihabutheen Kirudum, owner of Pelita Nasi Kandar and former president of Presma. “If we compare this to the 1980s when items such as food, clothes and petrol were still affordable, there is a big difference. We cannot force the owners to standardise their prices; we can only give them recommendations.”
Founded in 1994, Presma now has 3,000 members. “While we (Presma) do not have the authority to standardise prices – which are determined by market prices, consumers’ decisions or the business owner – Presma acts as a medium between the restaurant owners and the Ministry of Domestic Trade, Co-operatives and Consumerism to share information on issues related to Muslim food businesses registered under Presma,” says Noorul Hassan Saul Hameed, president of the association.
There was in fact another game changer: satellite TV. In 1996 Astro was launched in Malaysia, and that changed the landscape for nasi kandar sellers.
“Back then we (nasi kandar sellers) didn’t need to provide for entertainment; it was purely an eating place for people from all walks of life. It was quick and easy – whether it was breakfast, lunch or dinner, patrons just grabbed a bite and left,” says Hussain. “Astro was something novel and offered many different channels at a time. People came in droves to watch live telecasts of football matches at our premises and that was when it became the lepak place and meeting point that we know today.”
To keep up with fierce competition, many nasi kandar sellers are expected to equip their premises with Astro, air-conditioner and, now, Wi-Fi.
In a way, the social history of nasi kandar reflects the history of the nation. Just as nasi kandar has moved beyond “man with a kandar” to become franchises with multiple branches, its customers are no longer labourers from the streets of George Town; they are now Malaysians from all walks of life.
There will be no nasi kandar without the Indian Muslims, no char koay teow without the Chinese, no nasi padang without the Minangkabau.
Given Malaysia’s shared immigrant identity, there is much to cherish, not disown. Diversity should be enjoyed the way our curries are – flavoured and banjir.
Tambah nasi, boss.
“Kandar” refers to both the act of carrying rice with a kandar pole on the shoulder, and the wooden pole itself. The term exists in many languages including Albanian (kandar), Ottoman Turkish (kantar), Persian (qentâr) and Arabic (qin ār).
Nidhal Mujahid is a sociopolitical analyst at Penang Institute. He graduated from the International Islamic University of Malaysia with a degree in Political Science (Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Science).
Ahmad Al Farooqi Bin Haja Mohideen is an officer at the Penang State Executive Council. A graduate in Political Science from International Islamic University of Malaysia, he enjoys keeping himself occupied with reading Malaysia's political issues.