Nasi Kandar has to be Penang’s “state dish” - essentially a rice dish where you choose from a wide spread of spiced and curried side-dishes, all of which would be piled onto your plate of steamed white rice. The Nasi Kandar -man then spoons over a mind-boggling blend of curry sauces over your mound of food. What you end up with is a delicious spicy combination of textures and flavours which will stick in your mind long after your meal is over.
Historically, Penang’s Nasi Kandar vendors are Tamil-Muslims who hail from the Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu, Southern India. These migrants came to Penang in the early-1900s during the British colonial era. During that time, Penang’s spice retail business was dominated by spice-women who came from Tenkasi and Kadayanallur, both towns in Tirunelveli District of Tamil Nadu, India.
These days, some of Nasi Kandar eateries have expanded into chains, e.g. Pelita and Kayu. But all of them are still owned by mainly third-generation descendants of the original Ramnad Nasi Kandar founders. Sadly, one of the pioneer Nasi Kandar eateries, Cravan Café, which would have been nearly a century old if it’s still open today, had just shuttered a few years back - its old location, which was perhaps the only eatery in Penang to remain open throughout the Japanese occupation during World War II, and the curfews during the racial riots of 1969, had been taken over by another Penang Nasi Kandar stalwart, Kassim Nasi Kandar.
My fave Nasi Kandar place in all of Penang has to be Line Clear on Penang Road. It’s got a permanent queue of hungry customers during peak meal times and remains, IMO, the only Nasi Kandar spot which manages to retain (to a certain degree) the unique smells of traditional Nasi Kandar curries - the result of blending the cooking techniques of Tamilian chefs from Ramanathapuram (Ramnad) with the spices provided by the Tenkasi and Kadanayanallur spice-women.