AFTER contemplating, my husband and I finally drove to Bandar Baru Salak Tinggi to meet an old classmate at his restaurant. It is just a 45-minute drive from our home, but the thought of going there for nasi kandar, when many restaurants in the neighbourhood also serve the same food, is quite overwhelming.
Many years ago, making a round trip of 300km for ikan bakar was no fuss, but things have changed a lot now. More so with a stiff shoulder, and age factor too, driving around is quite bothersome for me. As such, I have to persuade my husband to drive me to Din’s restaurant.
I’ve known Din since our primary school days in Kelantan. He has been persistent in getting our classmates to sample what his restaurant offers. Every time we meet at social and community functions Din will remind us of his nasi kandar business. Some of us didn’t think he was serious about his new venture as he has never been in food business before, but quite a number of us gave him the benefit of the doubt.
Getting to Din’s restaurant is far easier than I thought. It’s just a few kilometres away from the Sepang International Circuit. Nonetheless we missed it on our first attempt because we were busy looking for a hip eatery in quite an up-market enclave. It turned out otherwise. As Din had mentioned many times, there is nothing chic about his restaurant. Nothing fancy. Just like Din himself, modest and unassuming.
There were many customers there when we arrived, but Din found time to entertain us. Anything we mentioned, he would quickly put on the table. We didn’t want the special treatment, but Din is always Din. Literally, he will do anything for a friend and this character of his we already know. What we didn’t know was how appetising his nasi kandar is. But, judging from the crowd that late Saturday afternoon, it must be good.
Good it was. The food was tasty. The dishes — fried chicken, lamb curry, fish roe and gulai kandar, to name a few, were simply delicious. Din himself was surprised to see the growing number of people patronising his restaurant since he started his business a year ago. It’s in the recipe, he said. “Nasi kandar masak cara Melayu”, he had proudly declared.
Logically, Din would not want to risk everything by starting big given his little knowledge and experience in operating a restaurant. Starting a business when the economy is at its low ebb is also a factor that dogged his mind. However, the consistent flow of customers gave him a good reason to look forward to.
Besides the recipe and pricing, his other strategy was to look for a suitable location, easily accessible with ample parking bays. So, a shop lot along the main road would do for the time being. To attract customers, Din hung a “cheeky” banner that read, “Restoran Nasi Gulai Kandar — Nasi Kandar Melayu”. Don’t take it as sarcasm — what Din meant was the fusion manner the dishes are prepared.
Nasi kandar is a popular northern Malaysian dish. From Penang, it seems. It was brought to Malaysia 70 years ago from India when Indian Muslim immigrants came to our shores, lugging around heavy baskets laden with home cooked dishes and rice. The word nasi kandar, came from a time when nasi (rice) hawkers or vendors would kandar (balance) a pole on the shoulder with two huge containers of rice meals.
Nasi kandar is served in most Tamil speaking Muslims or “mamak” restaurants, and Indian-Muslim stalls offering rice meals. For Din, being a Malay and selling nasi kandar is in itself quite an interesting proposition, although he is not the first person to have done so. There are so many Malays who have ventured opening chicken rice outlets, Arabian food outlets, and other delicacies which traditionally are not part of their culture. Likewise, we can now get nasi lemak in restaurants that are not run by Malays.
Every culture is different in the way the different types of food
are presented and served. Famous writers on gastronomy pointed out that having to eat food of a different culture brings us closer to that culture. In our country, we consider everything as national delicacies, as our own. Nasi lemak, nasi kandar and char koay teow is as Malay, as it is Chinese and Indian.
Food is a universal language. It transcends cultural, political, racial and religious boundaries. And, if there is anything that will continue to bring us together, it is our Malaysian gastronomy.
The writer is a former Associate Professor at the Language of Academy Studies, Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), Shah Alam.