Indian Socio-cultural Influences in Penang: Both Rich and Prevalent

Tea kadai at Little India back in the day.

PENANG WAS A colonial port on the margins of the East India Company’s sphere of influence, and a magnet for free traders. Its economy depended largely on the shipment, wholesaling and retailing of bulk goods such as edible grains, pulses, condiments and spices.

During the 19th century, a ship’s arrival was often given little prior notice, and dock workers – who were largely South Asians – would while away their time at tea kadai (stalls). These brawny workers loaded and unloaded goods, often surviving on one daily meal.

These koota-kadai, or waterfront workers, were concentrated along King Street and Queen Street and belonged to a khootam, which usually numbered 50 members and was headed by a supervisor (thandal) and a clerk (kanakku pillai) who was in charge of managing the workers’ daily working income to be divided and distributed among them at the end of the month. About 50 such khootams worked at the Weld Quay Waterfront, handling cargo in the tongkangs or wooden barges.

Nasi kandar was the meal of choice. At a cost of two and five cents in 1900-1930, it made for a quick and affordable meal, and fuelled the workers through the labour-intensive work day. Indian Muslim hawkers could be seen on foot1 at major piers and jetties like the Kedah Pier, Railway Pier, Victoria Pier, Swettenham Pier, Church Street Ghaut, Weld Quay2 and around Little India, deftly balancing large rattan baskets filled with rice, curry and an assortment of dishes including ladies’ fingers, eggplant and fried fish, carried kandar-style on their shoulders. “Kandar” refers to both the act of carrying rice with a kandar pole on the shoulder, and the wooden pole itself.3

Kuih-muih sold in a vaakol (basket).

Interestingly, the local Malays also took to selling their kuih in this manner. This is called “Koi-Kanda” since the delicacies are placed in a vaakol (basket) to be carried around.4 Mutton and chicken paya, kuah and laksa, and bubur cha cha were also sold this way.

Before World War II , the hawkers vended on foot. To safeguard public health, the British had initially refused them licenses to sell any food in shop houses. But this restriction was lifted after the war, allowing entrepreneurs like M. Mohamed Thamby Rawther, Mohammed Kassim and M. Shaik Dawood Sahib to elevate the kandar business by establishing nasi kandar shops.5,6

Interestingly, Ahmed Seeni Pakir, the sixth generation of the Rawther family, says the demand for the authentic nasi kandar dish never slowed down even during the Japanese occupation in the 1940s. He says the men prepared more beef curry during this period as they noticed the Japanese soldiers and generals liked the dish.7

How prices were calculated in the past, without the cash machine.

M. Shaik Dawood Sahib was among the first entrepreneurs to set up a nasi kandar shop.

Meera Restaurant and Hameediyah Restaurant were the earliest in the business, in 1907 and around 1905 respectively; while others like Kassim Nasi Kandar, Nasi Kandar Immigration, Nasi Kandar Beratur, Craven Nasi Kandar, Line Clear, Nasi Kandar Dawood (which only operates during Ramadan), Merican Restaurant, Merlin Restaurant, Ramzan Restaurant and Maaj Restaurant have retained their popularity to this day.

Cooks were recruited from the Indian cities of Ramanad, Tenkasi, Kadayanallur, Tirunavelli and Pannirkulam, and often from the same village and kinship networks. Not only did the nasi kandar business provide job opportunities, it encouraged entrepreneurship among the Tenkasi women who had migrated to Penang as well. Tenkasi and Kadayanallur were the main suppliers of freshly ground spices and spice pastes; to sustain the nasi kandar business, these women provided micro-credit to the hawkers who’d repay the loan.8

Likewise, the Tamil Muslim community added more variety to Penang’s street food, from light bites and mains like roti canai, mamak poh piah, mee goreng sotong, mee rebus and pasembur; to desserts like bubur kacang and bubur gandum; and beverages such as air bandung and teh tarik. In fact, the much-loved teh tarik had humble beginnings at the kadai that once lined King Street, Queen Street and Penang Street.

In the past, teh tarik was made with fresh milk. The South Tamils, especially those from the Mukkulator Clan, dominated dairy farming and the Palani Tan Dairy Farming became an important traditional trade in Penang. Fresh milk was sold kandar-style, but this was soon replaced by bicycles and motorcycles. Gradually also, condensed milk was introduced in lieu of fresh milk: “We would receive it in a paalkolai, the milk tin, because it comes in a larger quantity but we have to pay 5 cents more. A normal cup usually costs about 20 cents,” recalls Abdul Aziz, a tailor at the Jual Murah bazaar.9

The milk vendor association Paal Sangam is still in existence. In Tamil, paal means milk while sangam translates to association. It runs its own café along Jalan Dato Keramat and to this day, serves as a meeting spot for the Indian community on the outskirts of town.

At the premise along Jalan Dato Keramat after the annual general meeting in 1961.

Another interesting discovery is the roti benggali. Contrary to popular belief, the bread is uniquely a Penang product, and is not from Bengal. But its name is subject to debate. According to The Chulia in Penang: Patronage and Place-Making around the Kapitan Kling Mosque 1786-1957, roti benggali could have been inspired by the Northern Indian roti penggal or sectioned bread. It may have also referred to panggali, which means kin or shareholder; though over the years, it came to be permanently known as benggali. The Aerated Bread Company, Crown Bakery and Ismailia Bakery were some of the earliest to introduce the bread to Penang.

Around Little India, viduthi (homestay) and messes also provided meals for the waterfront workers. Veloo Villas along Penang Street is believed to be one of the earliest to be established, while Letchumi Villas, Saraswathi Villas, Krishna Villas and Mani Villas were some of the first food operators. These viduthi are pioneers of the banana leaf eateries in Penang, with the Indian Settlements at Air Itam and along Hutton Lane supplying the banana leaves. Quite a number of butcher shops were also operated by Indian Muslims at Little India. Some of these are still in business and out of respect for the Hindu community, they do not sell beef. This extends to the Indian Muslim restaurants along Queen Street, where the Sri Mahamariamman Temple is located.10

1 Marcus Langdon (2020, January 26). Interviewed by Balakrishnan Preveena: Little India and Its Food Network. 2020
2 Weld Quay is also known as Kitengi Teru in Tamil, which means “warehouse street” referring to the warehouses that line the road.
3 is_like_a_plate_of_nasi_kandar
4 Abdul Aziz Bin Mohammed Hussain (February 10, 2019). Interviewed by Preveena Balakrishnan: Little India and Its Food
5 Salma, 2014)
6 (Haji Salleh, 2011)
7 oldest-nasi-kandar-restaurant-still-going-strong
8 (Salma, 2014)
9 Abdul Aziz Bin Mohammed Hussain (February 10, 2019). Interviewed by Preveena Balakrishnan: Little India and Its Food
10 Sarbunnnisah Bt P.S.A Mohd Hussain, August 10, 2020). Interviewed by Preveena Balakrishnan: Little India and Its Food


• Bayly, C. (2012). Penang And Bomaby: Indian Ocean Port Cities In teh Nineteenth Century . Proceedings of the Penang & The Indian Ocean Conference 2011 Conference (pp. 12-23). Penang : Think City.

• Haji Salleh, B. (2011). Trade and Trades: Economy and Cultures Between South Idia and Wet Coast of Peninsular Malaysia: Special Focus on Kedah and Penang. Proceedings of Penang and Indian Ocean Conference 2011 (pp. 36 -51). Penang : Think City . • Langdon, M. (2020, January 26). Food and Little India. (P. Balakrishnan, Interviewer)

• Le, C. B. (2017, January 7). What Food Tells Us About Culture. Retrieved from Freely Magazine: https://freelymagazine. com/2017/01/07/what-food-tells-us-aboutculture/

• Perry, M. S. (2017). Feasting on Culture and Identity: Food Functions in a Multicultural and Transcultural Malaysia. The Southeast Asian Journal of English Language Studiesm, Vol 23(4): 184 – 199.

• Rai, R. (2014). Indians in Singapore: 1819-1945. New Dehli: Oxford University Press.

• Richards, G., & Himanshu , B. (2011). The Photographs of Ooi Cheng Chee :Portraits of Penang: Little India. Penang: Areca Books.

• Salma, K. (2014). The Chulia In Penang: Patronage and Place Making around the Kapitan Keling Mosque `1786-1957. Penang: Areca Books.

Preveena Balakrishnan is based in Penang. She runs her own research studio, Vamssa Research Studio, which researches and documents the heritage of the Indian community in Malaysia.

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