What Is Nasi Kandar?

A. Leverkuhn

Nasi kandar is a type of rice dish from the area of Penang in Malaysia. This simple rice dish often comes with more complex sauces and sides that influence its flavor. The term nasi kandar is also used for a certain kind of restaurant that tends to serve these dishes.

Nasi kandar is a type of rice dish in Malaysia.
Nasi kandar is a type of rice dish in Malaysia.

In nasi kandar cuisine, the main rice dish is not heavily spiced. It is often stored in a wood container to give it a distinct taste. Those who are familiar with this cuisine explain that the term in the local language refers to “rice on the shoulder” or rice carried balanced on a person’s shoulder. Classically, some forms of this dish have been street food, where the method of cooking, as much as the ingredients, defines the food.

Tripe may be included in a nasi kandar dish.
Tripe may be included in a nasi kandar dish.

Along with steamed rice, nasi kandar often includes meat elements curried or otherwise sauced. These can be poured, or “flooded” in local dialect, onto the rice. This results in diverse and extreme flavors for the average nasi kandar dish.

In terms of its general composition, nasi kandar is not unlike some other rice dishes from around the world. For instance, the Spanish paella also uses rice simmered in different elements, as does the Arabic kabsa. The main difference is that nasi kandar is not cooked along with sauces, but is combined later, as the food is actually served. A similar dish, nasi dagang, may be a bit more like other international rice dishes.

Many of the meats used in this dish are exotic and often fairly expensive. Though chicken or beef is often used, some organ meats, such as the spleen, may also be used. Pork is generally not used according to local custom.

Some of these dishes also include seafood. A nasi kandar dish might include shrimp or prawns. It also might have some kind of fish curried or otherwise added. Even squid and fish roe are not uncommon additions to this dish. Other favorite include ox tail, tripe, or even small bird meat. Some of these meat dishes are traditionally paired with specific flavors, like honey or red curry.

There are also vegetarian versions of this dish. Some cooks might use eggplant. Others might use local varieties of squash or okra. Many of these will also include heavy curry spices, and possibly thin noodles or other garnishes.

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