Malaysian Food · September 29, 2021

nasi kandar feature

Nasi Kandar: The Popular Indian Curry Rice Dish from Penang

Nasi Kandar: The Popular Indian Curry Rice Dish from Penang

Nasi Kandar is a rice dish originated from Penang. It was popularized by Tamil Muslim rice peddlers from India. It is a meal of steamed rice (which can be plain or mildly flavoured), served with a variety of meat, curries and side dishes.

The name means “rice on the shoulder”, which relates to the way the dish was served back in British colonial days. “Kandar” is an Urdu word which means ‘shoulder’. It refers to the mangrove pole or yoke that Indian rice peddlers used to carry food on their shoulder for sale down the streets of Penang. At each end of the pole, there was a large pot in a basket suspended from it containing plain white rice and on the other end, another pot filled with curry such as meat curry or fish curry. The peddlers would dispense the food from the baskets. The Chinese and Indian workers at the port of Penang that time basically survived on Nasi Kandar because it was cheap, quick, and could be eaten right on the street.

As the British left and eating habits changed, the more successful Nasi Kandar peddlers settled down into stationary outlets, leaving the “kandar” pole forever. Settling down allowed them to serve a greater variety of rice, curries and side dishes to a greater number of customers, no longer just plain white rice served with a single curry dish.

Today, customers can choose from a variety of curries like fish, chicken, beef, spleen, mutton, prawns, squid, crab etc. and vegetable dishes like eggplants, okra, cabbage, long beans and cucumber. Other side dishes include fried chicken, fried fish, friend prawns, sliced beef, fish roes, eggs and pappadoms etc. When ordering Nasi Kandar, you can specify how much curry and gravy you want in your rice: none, a little, or the most popular choice – flooding (the locals call it “banjir”).

Although the initial Nasi Kandar cooks were Indian nationals, the dish is considered to have more Malaysia’s DNA because it was developed in Malaysia and has been adapted to suit local palates.