I have become enchanted by Malay culture, prompted by recent travels to Penang, conversations with people who identify themselves as Malay, and also by the confusion the word causes. Malay, Malaya and Malaysia all have different meanings, and those meanings can depend on whether you are outside looking in or inside looking out.
And I do love a good puzzle.
But even more I love to trace the history of culture through the food that represents it, which is why I decided to find out more about one special dish, the Nasi Kandar.
Nasi Kandar originated in Penang, where food traders from Tamil Nadu used to serve rice – nasi – and their home-style curry from wooden buckets balanced on either side of a long mangrove pole or yoke – kandar in Malay – that the vendor slung across his shoulders. Picture a milkmaid balancing her pails.
Kandar was the name for the pole, but today it refers to the entire dish. Mohd Rawther, owner of Ramzan restaurant, explained that the original Nasi Kandar sellers were independent men who came voluntarily from Southern India to take advantage of a business opportunity, selling home-style food to the workers.
The British rulers at the time granted these valuable traders licences, which remained valid once the colonialists had departed. This allowed the wandering Nasi Kandar sellers to set up “Ottu Kadai” stalls alongside walls where they could put down their buckets and form the mountainous variety of curry that is still seen today in the popular Nasi Kandar street side cafes and restaurants of Penang.
Nasi Kandar rice gets its distinct flavour from being steamed in wood, and the curries are various and fragrantly aromatic. The recipes are from the Tamil Muslim families, with Southern Indian kitchens adding regional variety that includes the use of pandan leaf and lemongrass stalk. Mutton, squid, chicken, quail, tongue, beef or oxtail and vegetables are cooked in curry sauces, which range from butter-rich to pale and creamy, to original dark gravy with a hint of aniseed. Very popular is ayam ros, a chicken rose curry with a sauce made from turmeric and tomatoes that has a rosy glow to it.
A lot of Nasi Kandar places, Rawther tells me, use a generic curry powder. But you can find places that mix up their own or add ingredients to the masala mix, and others that serve biryani rice with chopped herbs instead of the plain steamed rice.
The traditional rice, as I mentioned, came from wooden buckets, giving it a sweet flavour. The curries are always cooked until the meat is tender to the point of disintegration. Even the squid curry, a particular favourite, is soft as though melting.
We serve tandoori squid at Sarong, which emulates the flavours of the curries here in Penang, and I am tempted to try out some new dishes based on the inside information I gleaned from Rawther.
He was at pains to point out that Nasi Kandar curries are not a variety of meats served with a curry sauce, but that the sauces themselves must work to compliment the meats.
So for example his fish curry uses sour flavours including a little fenugreek, which he maintains attracts the “ladies”, along with curry leaf and chilli leaves. He adds a twist to his prawn curries with the slightly asam flavour of coriander and cumin.
The beef he cooks in traditional Kandar sauce using the black soy to create the dark gravy. Unusually, he also makes a duck curry, telling me that Malays are really embracing the eating of duck these days.
It had never been a popular choice for non-Chinese dishes in this part of the world. As with the mutton curry, he uses every part of the bird, chopping it into cube-sized pieces before frying it, ready to soak up the rich sauce.
When you consider the history of this dish you come to understand the tenacity of food culture and its survival over the years. This Nasi Kandar business is truly a heritage craft, and like much of Penang it has a living history.