MALAYSIAN ICON: Some like it drenched, some like it dry. Some like it fresh, some like to take it home. But one thing’s for sure, they all like it hot, hot, hot. Nooraini Mydin sheds some tears as she tucks into the authentic nasi kandar that had been around from her childhood days
AMEER’S nasi kandar has been around since before I was born, which makes it more than half a century old, but unless you’re a local or have been initiated into it, you’ll never be able to find it.
Perched at the end of a Chinese cafe on Jelutong Road, facing the Perak Road police station, this purveyor of Penang’s favourite food doesn’t even have a sign.
The name “Ameer” used by regulars actually belongs to current proprietor’s father but the stall has been around for three generations.
Like many who have a passion for their work, Halim Ameer neither courts nor desires publicity. Turning down my request for an interview, he casually reminded me that he’d given me the same answer some 30 years ago.
The name nasi kandar comes from the way the food was traditionally carried in two baskets hanging at either end of a pole. If you’re lucky, you might even get to see this nostalgic spectacle when the workers bring in freshly cooked rice and curry to replenish the stock.
Nasi kandar is traditionally a breakfast fare, so the stall is open from dawn until 10am seven days a week.
Old timers back from morning prayers at the Jelutong Mosque, factory workers from the night shift, office workers, mothers back from the market and other regulars keep the place abuzz.
During festive holidays, the queue snakes down the road as returning Penangites make a beeline for their favourite stall on arrival and before leaving the island because, like the lingering kiss of a lover, Ameer’s nasi kandar is the taste you want to remember after you’ve parted.
Halim and his team seem to work to military precision. Halim dishes the food and two others take care of the orders from sit-in and takeaway patrons.
The takeaway guy deserves praise for a sharp memory and deftness — each customer doesn’t just order one pack, each pack having it’s own peculiar requests — half rice, one meat, bendi (okra) and half an egg, lots of curry; full rice two meat, one fish and one bendi, etc.
A stack of newspaper sheets lined in plastic patiently await the delightful mix that Halim drops and off he goes, flapping the paper this way and that and within moments he’s ready for the next, scribbling codes on the different packs so there’s no fighting when the food gets home.
Sofia Aliar, who is in her early 50s, grew up in Jelutong, a five-minute walk from Ameer’s.
Her family still prefers eating Ameer’s nasi kandar despite moving to Bukit Jambul.
As she tucks into her breakfast, she recalls her primary school days near Kampung Melayu when the mamak would peddle nasi kandar which he’d carry in baskets on a pole.
“He’d sit on a bench and sell takeaway rice wrapped in banana leaves. This was the time before plastic bags,” she reminisced.
“I remember buying curry, which the mamak would put in an empty condensed milk tin.
“The nasi kandar was a simple fare with only daging rendang (beef in spicy, dark sauce), fish curry, boiled eggs and bendi.
“What I like about Ameer’s is that the selection is still simple unlike these new places which have every dish imaginable. That is not nasi kandar anymore.”
Another Ameer fan is former KUB group managing director, Datuk Nazar Samad, a Jelutong boy who used to take Ameer’s nasi kandar to school from the 60s.
“In primary school our pocket money was 10 sen, so you only get the rice and curry with no meat,” he recalls with great nostalgia.
“Then, when I was in secondary school and my pocket money was raised to 20 sen, I could add a piece of meat as well.”
Nazar recalls the time he was stationed in South Africa and how, on trips home, he’d pack stacks of Ameer’s nasi kandar into his freezer to take back with him.
“There’s no question of just packing the curry alone because nasi kandar isn’t the same unless the curry is allowed to soak into the rice.
“I would then be able to have one nasi kandar every week.”
Even though Malaysians abroad tend to share goodies brought from home with friends, Nazar confesses that when it comes to nasi kandar, it is strictly for immediate family only.
Among my treasured childhood memories are of certain Sundays when my father would get his peon to buy nasi kandar for us, which he would deliver in a tiffin carrier.
I remember waking up to the mouth-watering smell and seeing the dark coloured meat nestled in the rice soaked in the mixture of fish and meat curry.
Pure heaven. Years later I was able to return the pleasure when, coming home from university on the night train from KL I would stop off at Ameer’s to buy nasi kandar for the family.
To me and a host of other Ameer fans, nasi kandar is not just food.
It is an experience — to be cherished, enjoyed and shared.