GEORGE TOWN, Penang: Queueing for up to an hour under the hot sun is no issue for customers of the famous Hameediyah nasi kandar restaurant in downtown Penang.
During most days, the line spills out of the premises and into the busy street, a sign of the restaurant's popularity.
Options are aplenty, with fried seafood, cabbage with masala spices, ladies’ fingers and more.
The workers operate with efficiency, piling the customers' picks on either white rice or yellow briyani.
And then comes the best part - ladles of piping hot gravy are poured on the rice, covering almost the entire plate.
The curries – choices of chicken, mutton, fish head and prawn – fill the air with a mouthwatering spicy aroma.
Mr Muhd Lufti Hamzah, a Penang resident who frequents the restaurant, said he is addicted to Hameediyah’s curry.
“The curry is really the best in Penang, and when I taste it, the flavours just meld perfectly. I will queue for this,” he added.
For more than a century since the establishment opened in 1907, the concoction of chilli powder, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and a dozen other Indian spices in the curry stew has drawn a steady stream of customers.
Today, Hameediyah continues to command a loyal following among the locals in Penang, as well as foreign visitors wishing to sample one of the state’s most famous dishes.
With its long history of serving the popular fare, it is likely the oldest nasi kandar restaurant in Malaysia.
THROUGH BRITISH COLONIAL PERIOD, JAPANESE OCCUPATION
Ahamed Seeni Pakir, the sixth-generation owner of the establishment, has his great-great-great-grandfather to thank for the successful business he now runs.
He shared stories of how the late Mohamed Thamby Rawther began selling nasi kandar during the British colonial period.
A spice trader from India, Mr Mohamed Thamby rented a shophouse at Campbell Street to sell rice with curry to show his customers how to use the spices in their cooking.
He and other Indian traders would balance a pole, or ‘kandar’ in Malay, across their shoulders, with two baskets on both ends carrying pots of rice, curry, vegetable and meat. This method of carrying food gave nasi kandar its name.
Mr Ahamed said the nasi kandar sellers would sell the dishes at the trading docks at nearby Penang Jetty, calling out to attract customers.
“The area in front of Mr Mohamed Thamby's shophouse had an angsana tree and open field. He would walk from the tree to the jetty, yelling ‘Nasi kandar!’ The locals loved it,” he said.
Business continued through the Japanese Occupation during World War II, Mr Ahamed said.
“The Japanese soldiers stationed in Penang were very fond of curry, and my parents told me they would come to Lebuh Campbell to eat nasi kandar as well. It was universally popular,” he said.
After the war, the British granted a permit for Hameediyah to operate as a restaurant, and that was when business started to flourish, he said.
“During those days, our customers didn’t have much of a choice.
“We would scoop rice, curry, a vegetable dish - which was usually ladies’ fingers - and an egg for all customers. It came as a set. But they still loved it, I can still remember the queues during the Merdeka days,” he added.
Mr Ahamed said he sympathised with customers who have to wait at least 30 minutes to an hour to order their food.
“They don’t mind queueing for a long time, provided they get to eat,” he said.
“They come with family and friends on celebratory occasions or just for a hearty meal. It’s an ideal place for a family feast,” added the 65-year-old.
In addition to this Campbell Street restaurant, Hameediyah has three other outlets – one in Penang and two near Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur.
What is the secret to Hameediyah’s continued success?
It makes its own curry and masala spices using fresh spices and ghee imported from India, Mr Ahamed revealed.
“We don’t buy commercial spice mix. We don’t use MSG or other processed spices to achieve a certain taste. We stick to the age old method based on a formula that has been passed down for generations,” he said.
The spices are used for the restaurant’s signature dishes - beef rendang, chicken kapitan, chicken curry and briyani rice - and the cooks treat each pot of curry with great care.
“When making the curry, we sample it more than 20 times before we declare the taste is right,” he said.
While it has an array of established dishes that is popular among customers, Mr Ahamed is aware that the outlet needs to offer new options to attract repeat customers, especially with the intense competition among nasi kandar outlets in Penang.
“We have exotic choices, like geese, rabbit or ostrich curry for those who want to try, but it’s not for everyone,” he said.
The outlet at Campbell Street also has a station dedicated to making murtabak, a thick meat pancake savoured with curry dishes, and a traditional stove for baking naan.
A French visitor, who wanted to be known only as Amelie, told CNA that she visited the restaurant every day during her two-week stay in Penang.
“The curry is something out of this world,” said the 29-year-old. “Since I don’t usually eat rice, I have murtabak and naan to go with the different gravies.
“I’ll fly back to Penang again just for this.”