A Malaysian Institution
A plate of rice topped with four different curries for breakfast? Sounds like a handful (or rather plateful) but that’s exactly what nasi kandar is about; a combination of tantalising, distinct flavours. Once you get used to the idea of consuming so many carbs and so much spice so early in the day, I guarantee you’ll be fighting for a plate of this truly Malaysian dish on waking.
Hailing from Penang originally, nasi kandar’s literal meaning is rice (nasi) and balance (kandar), which refers to the good ol’ days when hawkers used to carry rice and curry in two buckets balanced on their shoulders with a long pole. As time progressed, so did the complexity of the meal, which soon included ayam goreng (fried chicken), telur ikan (fish roe), bendi (okra) and kubis (cabbage).
Nowadays, any walk through Kuala Lumpur will have you passing a number of nasi kandar restaurants like Pelita or Original Penang Kayu; no trip to peninsular Malaysia can be called complete until you’ve tried this food institution.
Starting with a heaping mound of rice, the best way to eat like a local is to order like one. When asked what curry you want, ask for “kuah campur” (a mix of the curries) which may not look all that appetising, but you’ll soon be treated to an explosion of fragrant, spicy, sweet and tangy flavours.
Then you need to have the requisite sayur or veggies — most commonly bendi and kubis. Top it off with some ayam goreng, kambing (lamb), burung puyuh (quail prepared in herbs and spices) and sambal udang (tiger prawns in spicy curry). Remember in the case of nasi kandar, more is more, so go ahead and order as many side dishes (which will come on the same plate) as your heart can take.
While forks and spoons are provided, the best way to eat nasi kandar is by getting your hands dirty; pinch a little of your side dishes along with the white rice with your fingers and skilfully manouvre it to your mouth.
While many of the nasi kandar stalls you venture upon may leave you raising an eyebrow in regards to their hygiene, remember that this is one fare that’s best served in a dingy, simple environment – made even better if it’s consumed by the side of the road. An Indian-Muslim dish, this is a meal that had its founding on the streets of Malaysia among the working class. While enjoyed across all sections of society today, the best way to experience a food culture I’d argue is in its original state.
Most nasi kandar outlets are open 24 hours a day, so you can decide when your stomach can bear the heavy load — it doesn’t have to be for breakfast. For a decent meal, head to a Pelita Nasi Kandar franchise (find locations here) or Original Kayu Nasi Kandar.
If you’d like to try authentic Malaysian fare but would prefer a more comfortable setting, head to Rebung Chef Ismail for a traditional Malay feast or for a wider selection, Ming Tien Food Court is an affordable outdoor venue.
By Sarah Hishan
Last updated on 25th February, 2015.