Monday, August 08, 2011

The Taste of Simple Contentment

KENNY MAH discovers the simple joy of tucking into a plate of the deliciously spicy and evergreen nasi kandar

2001, The English Gardens, Munich, Germany
It’s summer. Our T-shirts are starting to stick to our bodies as we carry the dishes and the plastic containers deeper into the trees. Our skin is getting browner, a light sheen from our sweat and the sunblock. There is no breeze at all, just the rays from above. We don’t wear shades; we weren’t going to miss this beautiful day.

My friends and I—a tiny Benetton ad flying the colours of our host Deutschland, Italy, Denmark, Greece, the United States and of course, Malaysia—are having a picnic in the park. It’s summer, nothing unusual about this. Well, other than the fact that instead of barbecuing burgers and hotdogs, we’re having nasi kandar.

And just in case you are wondering, the answer is no. Nasi kandar isn’t a native Bavarian dish.

1987, Bayan Lepas, Penang
“You’ve never had nasi kandar before?” my grandfather asks me. “How awful.”
I nod, in agreement. Though, all things considered, I don’t really have any basis for my concurrence, considering I had no idea what it was. Food, probably. I am eight years old. The world’s my oyster, if my mom could ever manage to get me to eat one.

Distracted grumblings on my mom’s deficiencies in having my palate properly instructed aside, my grandfather tells me he’s very glad he brought me along with him on this trip up north. If I haven’t had nasi kandar before, he assures me, then Penang’s definitely the place to have it.

“Do you know why?”

I shake my head.

With an excited gleam in his eye of someone who’s about to share A Very Big Secret, my grandfather leans over and whispers in my ear ...

“Because nasi kandar was invented here! In Penang! Here!”

Of course, my grandfather is partly deaf so this whisper had as much volume control as a trumpeting bull elephant drunk on toddy.

Cue my turn, as the dutiful grandson, to perform my filial task and ask, “Tell me the story, Ah Yeh. Tell me the story of how nasi kandar was invented, please?”

I am rather hungry at this point and would rather eat this mysterious nasi kandar, whatever it is, than discover its origins, but you have to humour your elders. Especially if they are paying for the meal.

“Well, if you insist. This is the story of nasi kandar ...”

1884, Georgetown, Penang
The grand hotel stands tall and gleaming white. A sentinel looking out on the Straits of Malacca. The guests are almost entirely British, so the hotel is decked out in the precise manner that is expected of it. In time to come this will be known as the colonial style, but for now, its Armenian owners, the quartet of enterprising Sarkie Brothers, they know it only as the style that brings in money.

The brothers call their little goldmine, the Eastern Hotel, but none of the labourers they employ to build its twin, the future Oriental Hotel, knows either of these names. Why would they? They are illiterate, after all.

This is a job, nothing more. None of them will step inside the hotel once it’s complete. Now it’s only brick upon brick. They lay down the foundation. They work all morning and by noon, they are hungry. No carefully sliced pieces of cold roast for them. No chilled glasses of sparkling white wine. No endless sets of coordinated cutlery on pristine white tablecloth. For them, it’s down to basics.

Until the nasi kandar man arrives. An Indian Muslim, a strapping chap who deftly navigates the sporadically arranged wooden planks that provide the path to the workers while somehow preventing his wisp of a sarong from undoing itself and creating a mishap in more ways than one. Then there’s the minor challenge of balancing the mangrove pole upon both shoulders, a heavy pot balanced in a basket at each end.

He finally reaches his hungry customers, sets his pole or kandar down, rewraps his faded sarong which has seen better days, and gets down to the business of feeding them. From one pot, plate after plate of hot, steaming white rice. And onto these plates, ladles of spicy curry and meat from the other pot. Scoop, ladle, repeat.

And soon, the sounds of the future being constructed have given way to the amiable silence of a brotherhood of men eating their lunch with their fingers. The taste of nasi kandar is the taste of simple contentment.

2011, Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, Kuala Lumpur
The line is starting to wind around the block, getting longer by the minute. A couple of Australians in front of me, from their accents, sport reddish tans under their short shirtsleeves. A gaggle of office workers behind me are gabbing away happily in Malay and Hokkien. Looks like we got here just in time. It’s lunchtime.

This is one of the many great houses of nasi kandar in Kuala Lumpur. One of the older ones, one of the few that hasn’t been transformed into a sprawling chain of restaurants spread across the country. This shop remains small, housed in its original location. They certainly haven’t swept the ceiling for cobwebs in a decade or two.

Still, the changes are there. Gone are the sarongs and the kayu kandar—the pole that gives the rice dish its name. All that’s left of the nasi kandar man is a portrait iconised in the shop’s signage.

The place is air-conditioned now. Uniformed waiters with bristly, moustachioed smiles now wear hygienic little caps as they bustle about taking orders for drinks, which are almost always a limau ais (iced lime) or a teh tarik.

And at the end of the queue, not unlike a pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow, are countless choices of delicious dishes: fish head curry, lamb korma, masala crabs, fried chicken and fried fish roe, beef rendang, spicy brinjal and ladies’ fingers, prawn sambal, soy sauce beef, dry curried bitter gourd, mutton curry, cuttlefish, catfish and cockles.

We make our choices and the server adds them to our plates, not forgetting to flood the mounds of rice with a generous splash from every curry pot. The mix is quite messy but tastes marvellous.

Nasi kandar used to feed poor immigrant workers from China and India. Today, it is a feast for everyone.

2001, The English Gardens, Munich, Germany
A picnic is supposed to be a social activity, a time for getting together and sharing stories and foods. We share what sustains us, what feeds us. And sometimes our food is our story.

I shared the idea for a nasi kandar picnic with my summer university mates last week and everyone loved the concept. We all bring something from our own countries and we’ll all share everything. Apostolis has some horiatiki, a Greek salad of tomatoes, feta cheese, olives, cucumber and red onion in an olive oil dressing. Maria offers some of Germany’s best sausages—from the pork-and-marjoram-flavoured Nürnberger Bratwurst to the delicate yet hearty veal-based Weisswurst.

The two Mikes from Chicago make us laugh when they turn up with French fries and Chicken McNuggets from the local McDonald’s. Thor brings beer—not Danish beer, but the best Bavarian beer Deutschmarks can buy—deliciously cool Paulaner Weißbier. Manuel wraps things up with some smoky rolled pancetta and also, prosciutto from Parma.

And me? I cooked rice, of course. Pure steamed white rice, kept piping hot in the rice cooker pot. Let’s not forget a Chinese-style chicken-and-potato curry and some Indian lamb masala curry. Just like the real nasi kandar man would, I ladled plenty of both curries over the rice and we ate it with the odd assortment of foods that we all had brought. Not quite the same as what is found back home, but who’s to say it isn’t right?

I persuade some of them to try scooping up the curry-soaked rice with their fingers. Some manage to get a few grains into their mouths before bursting out into laughter. I think of my grandfather and my first nasi kandar meal we shared, and I know this is how it’s supposed to feel.

This is the taste of real nasi kandar, the taste of simple contentment.

Reproduced from the July-September 2011 issue of Quill magazine


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