When there is a queue of twenty people out the front, take the hint. It is either very good or super cheap.
Most of the time, I have a plan to eat my way around but after knocking back a handful of dumpling meals, I was satisfied by Hong Kong. This opened up the chance to eat at random. This joint , just near Temple Street, was doing a roaring trade in something that involved a giant stack of claypots which was reason enough to eat there.
Across the road is a hole in the wall place selling boiled offal in curry sauce. Once a family had joined the queue for the claypot joint, an emissary was sent over to the offal house to pick up a styrene clamshell of chopped tripe to see them through the queuing. Standing in line is reason enough to eat and the claypot restaurateurs were happy to let patrons bring in their own offal entree. This is probably a great measure of a food obsessed nation: that the only appropriate behaviour when waiting to eat is to eat something else. And there is always something else to eat at hand.
Once crammed into a communal table, I ordered what the people next to me ate.
Oyster omelette, deep fried until crispy with a sweet chilli sauce. This dish pops up all over Southeast Asia, but I’d never had it before in this crisp form.
Burnt claypot chicken rice; advertised as “Four Seasons Claypot Rice” on the menu. Rice is cooked in the claypot over a relatively high heat, which steams the chicken and burns a rich toasty layer of rice onto the bottom of the pot.
The local tactic for eating this dish is to pour a slug of soy sauce into the dish and then sit and wait for five excruciating minutes. The only two valid reasons that I can muster for the wait is firstly, the pot is damn hot; and secondly, maybe the extra liquid and steam from the soy lifts and softens the rice that is burnt onto the bottom of the pot. Maybe soy sauce represents the missing fourth season. If any claypot junkies can enlighten me, I’d love to know.
The apparent simplicity of Hainanese chicken rice is what makes it an addictive comfort food. It looks like simple steamed chicken and with fatty, chicken stock-cooked rice but is so fecund in people’s memories at it is impossible to begin to judge it. There are objectively bad plates of chicken rice replete with ropy strands of fowl; dry, stock-free rice and the umami-punch of MSG. What makes the perfect plate is harder to define. Certainly, moistness and tastiness of the bird plays a part, but can it be too moist? Some come served with a bonus small bowl of thin stock. Is this essential and should it be judged separately?
Each region puts its own twist on the recipe. The above plate is Melaka’s version, served with golf-ball shaped spheres of rice. Some places serve the chicken over rice, others present the components on separate plates. It is important to eat both some rice and some chicken in each mouthful, but when do you eat the thin bowl of stock that comes alongside the plate? I tend to eat it Cambodian-style, dipping a spoonful of rice into it, which in Malaysia, probably makes me look cretinous.
See also: Robyn and Dave at EatingAsia seek out the origins of chicken ball rice.
For chicken rice with balls: Hoe Kee, Jalan Hang Jebat (Jonker Walk), Melaka (Malacca), Malaysia.
Sitting at a breakfast of roti canai and kopi, you start to wonder if the roti could be flakier, less oily. If a few more layers of the papery pastry was possible. If only you’d stopped at the neighbouring nasi kandar vendor who will give you a knowing look as you depart past him. There is a creeping feeling that you’ve missed eating something vital. In this way, slowly, the Malaysian island of Penang burrows deep within you and drives you insane. It is one of the few towns on earth where savouring food, above all else, is a total obsession pursued by an army of fanatic and devout locals. Everyone that you meet has a food story, a favourite haunt, a noodle joint that is in decline but they can’t stop eating there because the vendor will discover their infidelity. It is but a small island.
The curry breakfast – roti with a few spoonfuls of daal – is the perfect start to the day. The hit of chilli heightens the experience of that first bump of caffeine like cutting your heroin with methamphetamines. It is a primer for the task at hand: devouring an island like an insatiable food junkie.
Nasi kandar was introduced to Penang by Indian Muslim hawkers in the 1930s, who plied their rice (nasi), curries and sweets door to door from a pair of rattan baskets balanced on each end of a kandar stick. While the individuals hawkers moved into corner cafes and Chinese shop houses over time, there are still a minority of vendors who carry their food by kandar (and bicycle) into the Penang suburbs. There are hundreds of nasi kandar joints to try; almost every second stall in Penang’s compact Little India has the flat grill for roti; identical stainless steel Bain Maries of the day’s fried fish, chicken, or squid; and a cornucopia of curries in giant saucepans. Not to mention that streets throughout the island’s suburbs are rife with them.
My picks for nasi kandar:
Kayu Nasi Kandar
This restaurant looks like the sort of place worth avoiding, with its flashy sign, clean interior and chrome chairs mocking the external patina of grime that other nasi kandar restaurants wear as a badge of honour for their decades of service. Their young roti chef is the master. He works split shifts from early in the morning until about 10:00am, has a long lunch until about 4:00pm, and then starts again for the dinner crowd. Eat their roti chanai in the mornings, curry kapitan later in the day.
Location:216 Penang Road, Georgetown
Kedai Kopi Yasmin
Almost directly opposite Kayu Nasi Kandar, and next to the shabby alleyway of Nasi Kandar Line Clear (so named because its owner would yell “Line clear” whenever the queue for curries ended.). They tend to close down their roti grill a little earlier than Kayu.
According to the staff’s greasy t-shirts (in my books, as reputable a source as a peer-reviewed journal) this place has been serving the same dishes for 100 years. Think about that the next time that a waiter reads out the day’s specials to you.
Location: 164A Campbell St, Georgetown
See also: a Penang local’s tips to nasi kandar