Making good Nasi Kandar is a dying art form. The more 'nasi kandar restaurants' opening every month, the more it dies. It's like kung fu. The movie version and the real thing just ain't the same. So whilst the name lives, the art form dies. Recently I got the chance to go back to Penang and found the stall my grandpa used to go to and right there I was a kid again, eating nasi kandar beside him...
Just like how my grandpa ate back in the day...
Kedai Kopi Tai Min
Opposite Jelutong Police Station
Everyday 6am till noon.
Really old school nasi kandar taste. Cheap.
Finishes Fast. Have to get up early for the best.
I can count with one hand nasi kandar sellers that still practices the old art form. Most of them are in Penang and one of the them is this nameless stall in Kedai Kopi Tai Min along Jelutong Road (just opposite the Jelutong Balai Polis). You can't miss this place. They have queues that start as early as 6.30am. Just look out for that and you're there. Nasi kandar that is made the old school way has a smooth taste, although (mind you) we are talking about curries here. And the mixing process of different curries personalises the plate to you. So, no two nasi kandar plates are ever the same. Also, due to the double boiling process perfected over the generations, the rice is not starchy so that you can eat more.
The nasi kandar stall at Tai Min is now run by Mohamad Ali bin Amier. A 3rd generation nasi kandar 'currista'. According to Ali, his grandad started selling from the Merdeka days and from the same spot. He was not a cook or chef. His recipes were a trial and error based from his memories eating back home at the Ramnad district, India. A successful obfustication of recipes resulted in a small stall way back when Malaysia just got its feet and starting to stand up tall.
Since day one, they have always served their nasi kandar wet. The currys are light, flavourful and forms a small pool on your plate. It is friggin drenched. Thin but not quite watery. The rice is what the malays call 'ceroi' (the rice does not stick) which for some reason carries the curry gravy quite well when mixed together. You must try their famous beef curry with the black gravy. Slow cooked over fire for hours, the beef is tender. The black gravy is a closely guarded secret but in general made from curry mixed with soya sauce. A good nasi kandar seller must have good black gravy and theirs are wonderfully delicious. The right amount of curry spice with the right balance of soya sweetness.
Fish lovers should get their Ikan Bawal curry. This fish swims perfect with the watery nasi kandar and gives it a lighter taste if you are not too keen on heavy curries in the morning. Of course, no nasi kandar is complete without some boiled okra on the side. Mind you, they do not have a billion dishes here as nasi kandar of yesteryears were no doubt a much simpler affair compared to the New World kind. Old school concentrates on what counts.
Try EVERYTHING and if you feel a bit heaty, a hot glass of barley will cool you down just nice. Otherwise, Tai Min's local milk coffee is the way to go. Strong and confident. Just the way I like it.
According to Ali, it takes about six hours to cook all the dishes but the preparation is quite tedious. For example the spices are fried today but it goes in the pot only the next day. Also the spices are hand 'blended' using the traditional batu giling (there is a person who specialises on this alone in Penang). So you need patience and passion in this business.
He still does his business the traditional way. The rice is actually cooked at another nearby location and the pot is 'kandar'ed over the shoulder to Kopitiam Tai Min several times in the morning. Contrary to popular belief, the kandar pole is long but not round. It is actually flat so that the weight is distributed more evenly on the shoulders.
Let me sum up by mentioning one of the many differences between a Nasi Kandar and a nasi kari seller. I mentioned Curristas earlier because a true blue nasi kandar seller will actually mix the curries for you. If you are a regular, he will remember your curry preferences and mixes it just the way you like it. If you are new, he will try to decipher what kind of 'curry mix' you are and he needs to get it right. Why? If he does, you will come back. My late grandfather is very particular about this. If the currista does not get his curry mix right, he'll 'kena' nicely. Firstly in Tamil, then in Hokkien. The curries on his plate gets rebalanced or repaired. Old folks, they get away with a lot of things. So,there is such a thing as 'reparing your curry'.
Whilst eating at Tai Min, you will notice a large number of patrons packing up their nasi kandars to go. This is neatly packed by Ali's team and properly sealed in. Here's the big secret. If you pack the nasi kandar and leave it long enough for the curries to seep deep into the rice, it has an awesome taste.