Nasi kandar can be regarded as Penang’s “State Dish”, if there is one. Its curries are mainly of Tamil-Muslim origin, with very distinct tastes and aromas which set them apart from other regional Indian, Malay, Indonesian or Thai curries widely available in Penang.
Traditionally, dating back to the early-20th century, Penang’s nasi kandar vendors (e.g. Syed Ibrahim of Hameediyah, Kirudu Mohd Kuppaikani of Pelita and Sirajuddin Mohd Mydin of Kayu ) hail from the Ramnad district of Tamil Nadu in India, whilst the spice-women who traditionally provide the spice blends and mixes which characterise nasi kandar curries came mainly from Tenkasi and Kadayanallur districts in Tamil Nadu. This unique combination of Ramnad cooking techniques and Tenkasi/Kadayanallur spice blends resulted in the extraordinarily aromatic and distinct Penang nasi kandar curry flavours.
Curried fish-heads, waiting to be served.
A nasi kandar server is a “mixologist” of sorts - his skill is judged by how well he mixed-and-matched the various curry sauces on your plate, resulting in a hodge-podge of sometimes contrasting flavours which will somehow come together to become a better sum of its parts.
One tends to over-order at a nasi kandar counter, when faced with the eye-popping variety of curried dishes! Look at our lunch platters today:
The clientele at Line Clear Nasi Kandar kept coming, despite the recent change of hands between two squabbling cousins of the clan that has run Line Clear for the past 86 years.
Line Clear Nasi Kandar
Alleyway near 161 & 177 Penang Road, George Town, 10000 Penang
Tel: +604-261 4440
Opening hours: 24 hours, 7 days a week
Our first lunch in Penang, it was back in last September. It was in walking distance to where we lived.
Line queueing was moderate, but moving fast.
The fish heads were impressive, but we weren’t that hungry.
With the help of an old mister (the one wearing the peach shirt in the above photo), he spoke to us in English about our order.
Small squid, omelette, fried chicken, unknown green vegetables rice
Very big prawn and cucumber rice
It was delicious, we were quite timid for the ingredients, should have asked for more different meat/combination. Mr Peach shirt didn’t recommended too much sauces for us, probably because it was spicy.
The “green vegetable” is okra/lady fingers - one of the indispensable side-dishes for nasi kandar
Back again to Line Clear for lunch yesterday - to suss out the current set of kitchen crew that took over in the eatery’s unique annual rotation of ownership between the clan’s four family branches.
Line Clear Nasi Kandar eatery, started in the 1930s by brothers SN Seeni Pakeer & SN Sekandar, requires the license holder ownership to be rotated among their descendants - currently there are 4 surviving cousins - annually. However, Abdul Hamid Seeni Pakeer (68), had been running it for years - attracting famous diners from all over the world (including the late Anthony Bourdain in 2012) until he was challenged in a bitter, well-publicised 2014 court case by his 3 cousins, Sahubarali China Mohd Hanibah (60), Abdul Latiff Ali Thulkarnai (57), and Pathumah Iskandar (69) to revert to the rotational system.
Abdul Hamid subsequently lost his court case and relinquished control to Abdul Latiff. However, Abdul Hamid left with quite a few of the core kitchen crew in 2016. The standards at Line Clear went down after the debacle and change of cooks.
However, we heard that the other cousin, Pathumah Iskandar, who took over recently has improved the cooking standards quite a bit.
What we had (prices are NOT cheap these days!):
This one cost us RM22.50 (US5.45), which is double what I prevously paid for nasi kandar at this place. I was told that squid and fish roe are the killers.
This plate was cheaper: RM12.50 (US$3).
Overall, yes, I must admit that the curries are of higher standards than the ones last year when Sahubarali China Mohd Hanibah was in charge.
So, Kentucky Fried Chicken Malaysia has jumped onto the “nasi kandar” bandwagon by introducing its new “P Ramlee Burger” (named after a Penang-born film icon from the 1950s-60s) yesterday.
One essentially gets a fried chicken sandwich slathered with a “nasi kandar” curry sauce.
KFC has over 600 branches in Malaysia, so there’s usually one round every other corner. I couldn’t resist popping into my neighborhood outlet just 10 minutes’ walk from my apartment and grab one.
Honestly, it’s pretty good, actually. A large piece of fried chicken, with pickled cabbage and onions (like the sort one finds in Tamil-Muslim restaurants) topped with ketchup, mayo and a healthy splash of thick, piquant Tamil-Muslim curry - it exuded a heavy, generously-spiced aroma reminiscent of a fish-and-vegetable curry we get at “nasi kandar” eateries.
Even the cynic in me was impressed - no doubt KFC was just exploiting Malaysians’ fascination with Penang “nasi kandar”, but it actually worked!
P.S. - Just sharing photos of a lunch-time queue outside Hameediyah, one of Penang’s more popular “nasi kandar” restaurants, which I saw last weekend. One can safely assume that everyone in the queue are not local Penangites, but inter-state visitors - some from as far as Kuala Lumpur (350km/220 miles) or Johore (700km/440 miles away) who’d come for a gourmet holiday in Penang.
Penangites would shake their heads that these visitors who were willing to stand in a line under the noon-day sun for up to an hour, just to get into a nasi kandar eatery.
Introduced my visiting uncle and aunt from Singapore to Penang nasi kandar. Yup, both of them (in their sixties) had never tasted nasi kandar before - that’s how distinct Singaporean food is from Penang food.
They sat and I went to order. These were what we ended up with:
Verdict? My uncle and aunt were absolutely gob-smacked by the different types of curry sauces used here, and the different scent and taste profiles of Nasi Kandar spices: their origins being a unique combination of Tenkasi, Kadayanallur and Ramnad influences from Tamil Nadu, India.
They’d never ever encountered flavours such as these, and they pronounced it the best curry meal they’d ever had!