I have nothing against mamak food in Penang. They have established themselves as the prominent nasi kandar producers in Malaysia. However, I must say that, after living in Penang for more than 10 years, things have taken a frightfully different turn. The emergence of the "new school" nasi kandar restaurants where they serve a dizzying array of food, ranging from local to western, may have an effect on their own nasi kandar. I am sure that many people love eating at nasi kandar Pelita, Nasmeer and many more. Their brightly lit restaurants, with a festive-like ambience and big television sets and open 24 hours daily are certainly crowd pullers.
I always prefer what people may say as "old school" mamak food. Instead of the usual roti canai with dhal gravy with sambal, I prefer the one with kuah campur (mix gravy). There's one too many choice to be made at these modern nasi kandar restaurants, I'd prefer a simple one.
Alor Setar never escaped the invasion of these modern nasi kandar restaurants. However, there is one dish that these restaurants could not match up with even until today, the Nasi Lemak.
Historically, the Malay and Chinese version of nasi lemak is made with the basic rice, coconut milk and ginger concoction, eaten with the traditional sambal tumis ikan bilis, cucumber and hard-boiled egg. The mamak nasi lemak is different as they have more herbs/scpices and less or never use santan in their rice at all. I recognize the smell of karapolay, or curry leaf, pandan, cinnamon, cloves and even serai in the rice, but nobody can confirm whether there's coconut milk is used or not. The rice is eaten with a selection of curry and meat you can choose from. What makes it even rarer is, nasi lemak is only available in Alor Setar, then and now.
In the 1970s, there were many mamak outlets with their own nasi lemak menu. With the rapid development of Alor Setar town, many old shops were torn down and these shops make way for new buildings. Many of the legendary mamak shops such as No. 36., Nasi Lemak Royal and Nasi Lemak Empire disappeared from the legends of Alor Setar's mamak cuisines. In the late 1990s, there was quite a resurgence of these nasi lemak mamak where they reappeared in numerous places.
I would say that Nasi Lemak Mamak is one of Alor Setar's treasure trove where they have been luring tourists and visitors from outside of Kedah, and even locals to visit them again and again, as it is a taste that they always remember.
Just like any restaurant, nasi lemak mamak's taste differs from one place to another. The legendary Nasi Lemak Ali at Tanjung Chalee is quite known for being very spicy, while Nasi Lemak Mi Abu has little selection for curry but heavenly. One thing in common that all of them have is, their curries are "old school." I'll try to explain this old school curry when I am done studying the cooking method of it.
One of my favorite mamak haunt for nasi lemak will be "Nasi Lemak Royal Pantai Johor", located in Pantai Johor, about 10km from Alor Setar City, and about 500-800 meters from Istana Anak Bukit, the DYMM Tuanku Sultan Kedah's palace. There are about 4 or 5 other stalls who are selling other type of food in that area. From my observation on my nights there, I can safely say that about 75% of the patrons there go for the nasi lemak.
They have quite a spread of nice side-dishes to go with the nasi lemak. I would recommend the fried chicken. The spices which they use to marinate the chicken penetrates into the flesh and each bite is full of flavor. My selection for the night? Nasi lemak with fried chicken, lady's fingers and "kuah campur"(mixed gravy).
One thing we need to know is that, as a rule of thumb, never tell the mamak what gravy you want, always tell him "kuah campur". For this, the mamak knows which and how much of each gravy to mix into the rice. It's his personal touch that enhances the eating experience at any mamak shop.
As I was saying before, there are quite a number of side dishes. There's chicken, beef, egg, liver in different types of curries and gravy. Strangely, there's not much choice on vegetables though. There were some cucumber acar (pickle) and boiled lady's finger or ochra.
I would say that the food is quite family-friendly. It's not that hot in taste, just slightly spicy. I think maybe that's why there were a lot of families eating there that night. The rice is always hot, and there's always a line. The price is quite standard and you can choose whether you want to eat there or take out.
So, if you are in Alor Setar and looking for a place to eat, I'd recommend Nasi Lemak Royal Pantai Johor for a nice sumptuous treat. See you there.
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