THE authentic nasi kandar carries with it certain characteristics in the way this food from Penang is served. First, there has to be adequate spillage of gravies all over the place. Kuah campur (a goulash or mishmash of curries) is a must as the rice is served in a single plate mixed with an assortment of dishes.
The person serving, who also has to pour the correct combo of gravy on the plate of rice, has to do so with a certain gait, complete with a shake of the head. And, if beef is added to the serving, he would test the piece of meat by squeezing it with his bare fingers to see whether it is too tough.
Next, the nasi kandar food counter, spillage and all, usually occupies a corner of a larger coffeeshop. Sometimes it is in an alleyway. Rarely is real nasi kandar sold in a shop of its own. That is before the current rave for nasi kandar, where you get what is liberally called “nasi kandar” wherever and whenever rice is sold with curries.
But, that is about all the untidiness of this dish should ever be. The sloppiness and lack of spruceness does not and will never compromise on hygiene. Certainly, it does not mean squalid or disgusting conditions, where dead rats, their droppings, cockroaches and other yucky pests are found.
So, when the ever-popular nasi kandar stall Line Clear, along with two other food outlets, were forced to close after Penang City Hall and Penang Health Department officers found rats and cockroaches at its premises during a joint inspection last Monday, it was caught in a non-bargainable situation.
The closure was initially for two weeks under Section 11 of the Food Act 1983, which says, among other things, that closure not exceeding 14 days would be ordered on any premises selling food, “where such premises is in a condition that fails to comply with the sanitary and hygienic requirements and such that it is likely to be hazardous to health. The proprietor, owner or occupier of the premises who fails to comply with the order commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or to fine or both”.
Such is the seriousness of the offence and for taking customers for granted.
Two years ago, it was the famous roti benggali, also in Penang, which was found to be wanting. Council officers on spot checks found rat droppings in one of the bakeries, which also had two trolleys with stacks of dough left beside the toilet with its door ajar, when the raiding party came while bread was being made.
Officers conducting the checks also discovered human hair-like items in a container with oil, which was used to knead the dough. Several workers were simply throwing excess dough on the wet floor instead of collecting them in a bin for disposal later.
But, similar conditions were found in five others premises — two each in Kepala Batas and Nibong Tebal, and another in Bukit Mertajam. I still feel the authorities should name and shame them. Sadly, none of the bakeries were named by the council — which was wrong if there was a lesson to be learnt.
The authorities, however, cleared them for reopening after a while, just like the case of Line Clear, which reopened after three days. Is that justified?
Owners of the premises may claim that it was sabotage that led to the unhygienic discoveries. But, sabotage or no, dead rats and rat droppings were indeed found and a deterrent punishment ought to have been given. The only thing is, the premises was named this time.
The safety of thousands of customers must take precedence over everything else.
I was a regular customer of Line Clear in the 1980s when I was with the New Straits Times’ Penang bureau. The office was in Chulia Street, just a stone’s throw from the outlet. It was not even called Line Clear then and there were only two long tables for customers to have their meals. The food was excellent, but there were no long queues at the food counter like it has now.
The sanitary condition was therefore more manageable. Now it seems Line Clear mainly attracts customers from outside Penang. There are big crowds all day long and that is where the problem lies when it comes to keeping the premises clean and sanitary.
To all nasi kandar stalls, the health safety of customers is not something that could be compromised. What if there was no spot check last Monday?
The writer is a former NST group editor