Chasing the flavours of India across the Straits of Malacca.

With chef Ranveer Brar at Line Clear, Penang, October, 2018

Back in Penang for a Nasi Kandar meal at Line Clear

I had gone to a restaurant called Nasi Kandar Line Clear in Penang’s Georgetown area in 2010. Penang is considered to be the food capital of Malaysia. So I took a flight and hopped across to the city during a holiday at KL back then and had a most memorable time. That was my first visit to the city.

I had a roti canai for breakfast with fish curry on the side that morning in 2010 at Line Clear. I followed this with a pulled tea called tea tarik which is similar to our masala chai. The place was recommended to me for its Indian food by a stranger, a local whom I had earlier met at the hotel lobby when I was asking the staff for suggestions on where to lunch. He then most kindly showed me around his favourite eateries. The gentleman told me that Line Clear was a bit of a legend in Penang. By 'Indian food,' I realised that he meant the food of India immigrants who had come to work in British plantations here from the Madras Presidency (modern Tamil Nadu)  in the the 19th century. The food of these Indian immigrants evolved with time and absorbed local flavours and is considered to be an integral part of the local cuisine of Malaysia today. The Indians were referred to as ‘mama (uncle)' by locals and hence the cuisine is colloquially called ‘mamak’ and Penang is considered to be the best place to enjoy it.

The Voyager of the Seas docks at Penang

I had never thought that I would come back to Penang but I did so a few weeks back. This happened after I had set sail on the Royal Caribbean Voyager of the Seas from Singapore on a three night trip earlier this month. The ship had docked at Penang on second the afternoon of the trip. The festive drum beats that welcomed us when we landed spoke to the Bengali in me as it reminded me of the dhaakis during Durga Puja which was about to start in a couple of days. 

                                         Do keep the audio on while watching this video that
                                         I shot from the balcony of my room when we docked 
                                         at Penang
A few of us, led by chef Ranveer Brar who was on the ship too, went into the city and Line Clear was were I suggested that we first go to eat.

That's Mr Anil talking to Ranveer and me
This time around, we got to meet Mr Anil, the current owner of the restaurant at Line Clear. This was thanks to a kind and elderly waiter of Indian origin at the restaurant who introduced us to him on seeing our interest in the place.

Anil told me that the restaurant was started by his grandfather, the late Mr Sikandar. Sikandar had come to Penang from India after living in Burma for some time in between. He (Sikandar) had set up Line Clear 83 years back said Anil. Initially he used to serve South Indian styled maida tava parathas (called roti canai here). He later introduced eggs to the menu and his customers then consisted largely of the local Indian farm labourers. I had ordered the egg coated roti canai during my previous cisit to Line Clear. The dish was a bit like the Moghlai paratha of Kolkata and the baida roti of Mumbai. The latter is also known as Burma roti here.

The local Malays too then discovered the eatery and began frequenting it, said Anil. The Malays asked for curry  of course, as that is what they associated Indian food with. So Sikandar introduced curry with nasi (rice), also known as nasi kandar, on the menu. Initially this would be served with fish and fish head and vegetables as meat was expensive Anil told us. Meat was served twice a week to start with. Duck ruled then. Chicken was introduced more recently. The Tamil immigrants  to Malaysia were largely Muslim and hence you see a fair bit of non-vegetarian food on what is offer here.

Now you get the parathas in the morning at Line Clear and the nasi kandar during the rest of the day. 

The proof of the popularity of the restaurant lies in its name. Legend goes that old Mr Sikandar would keep saying, 'line clear,' when customers would queue up for food, to ensure prompt service

This stuck on as the name of the place!

Choosing our food at Line Clear. You point to what you want at a Mamak
place and the waiter stacks the food on your plate. You then show the
 plate to the cashier who totals up the cost basis what he sees. The
food is very inexpensive, is high on spices and oil, and is well loved here

I got to try out the Nasi Kandar at Line Clear this time as I was there at the afternoon and not the  morning which is paratha time. 

I tried out a plate of biryani rice with ayam negara (black chicken, where soya sauce is added to Indian spices in the curry) and a chicken korma curry gravy. I also tried some white rice with squid roe and a snapper belly fry with mixed nasi kandar curry. This was the first time that I had squid roe in my life. I found it to be quite taste and flavour neutral and the texture to be soft. The cut of the fish reminded me of the kaatla peti fry of Bengal. The chicken was bit overdone and was livened up with the curries whose chilli heat and tangy flavour palate took me back to my recent trip to Mangalore and to the food I had there.

Ayam negara and biryani rice with cabbage on top
Squid roe with snapper fry below it
Teh tarik on the side. The tea was so refreshing!

At the chef's table on the seas with Chef Ranveer Brar

I was by myself the last time I was at Line Clear. Not so this time. I was there with chef Ranveer Brar this time as I mentioned earlier. 

How come, you ask?

Well, Ranveer is now partnering the Royal Caribbean International group through Tirun Travels, India, to help them improve the Indian food offerings on board their cruises and to give it a stronger flavour of home. The food Ranveer and the chefs on board were putting up was in fact for another set of Indians who were travelling across the straits of Malacca just as the those from Madras had done a couple of centuries back. This time for R&R though and not in search of employment. The Voyager of the Seas carries many Indians on this route it seems and the idea was to give them the sort of food that they craved for.

I was invited to come on board to see that they were up to. I jumped at the opportunity. I have known Ranveer for a while and admire for his knowledge of food and the thought that he puts into it. We both moved out of our respective corporate careers at the same time and I marvelled at what he as achieved since then. Plus I had never been on a cruise before and was quite excited at the prospect of it.

As we were about set sail from Singapore. With chef Ranveer
and chef Harshmani (in orange) who was assisting him and
  Varun Chadha of Tirun Travels (in green)

In fact Ranveer first took us to an Indian grocery shop in, that caters to the local community in Penang, after we landed there as he wanted to check out the spices on offer for the pantry. We used local taxis, driven by Indians, to move around. Entering the shop was quite overwhelming for me as it felt as if one had entered a grocery shop in Kolkata’s Gariahat or Mumbai’s Lalbagh masala market or the markets in Mangalore that I had been to recently. 

Not a foreign land for sure.

An Indian grocery shop at Penang

It was interesting to see so many Indian brands and spices in the shop and the ubiquitous fish curry packets too. There were more labels in Tamil than in Hindi in the shop. Some of what was on offer was made in Malaysia too and I was most intrigued to see a pack of ragi (millet flour) noodles there. 

As someone who loves to eat and is fascinated by the world of chefs and the creation of food, it was great to be able to be a fly on the wall and to listen to the discussions between Ranveer and chef Anil George of the Voyager of the Seas and his team. Chef Anil is a Pune boy and is the executive chef of the Voyager of the Seas. He is responsible for catering to the food requirements of passengers from across the world who come on the cruise. His team consists of people from all over the world too and it felt good to see a fellow Indian at the helm of this multinational kitchen crew.

Chefs Anil George and Ranveer Brar in the galleys of the Voyager of the Seas

I got to spend time with the two chefs in the huge galleys (kitchens) of the cruise ship and later again the next day when they sat and dissected the Indian food that had been prepared for the day's lunch. 

The amount of planning and clockwork precision that had gone in to the cooking of the food and in making sure that the ship's routine was not disturbed was awe inspiring. 

Ranveer himself has worked in and managed kitchens of all scales of before course…hotels, chain restaurants, standalone ones…in Indian and in abroad. The kitchens of a cruise liner though were a new playing field for him and that’s where the seasoned expertise of chef Anil came into place.

All chefs on the deck. Ranveer Brar with Anil George and his team on
the Voyager of the Seas

It seemed that a lot of things that are taken for granted while cooking on shore are not possible on a cruise. Things ranging from not getting a daily supply of produce when on sea (for obvious reasons!) for example to simple things such as not being able to hand cut onions (can't let the fumes get into the other food stations) to not being able to pre-soak dals (the water can get infected with bacteria in the closed kitchens of a cruise) to not being able to deep fry in deep kadhais (open flames are a fire hazard on rough seas). 

A crucial task at hand was to create a largely vegetarian menu for the Indian travellers seeking it and to understand the technicalities of what constitutes regular vegetarian and 'Jain' food. The ship's chefs were used to cooking with meats and fish as this had a longer shelf life than vegetables. Moreover the vegetables used for the western and Asian (far eastern) stations were different from what was required in Indian dishes and required a level of proficiency and adeptness in handling them. 

Adding to the challenge, was the fact that there were limited stations available for Indian food as the cruise had to cater to people of all communities and the fact that most of the chefs were not well versed with cooking Indian food. I learnt from Ranveer that even the chefs who come out from Indian hotel management schools are more likely to be formally trained in French or Italian cooking than in their native Indian food!

So the two chefs put together their collective wisdom and expertise to figure out how to come out with optimum solutions to overcome these obstacles. The aim was to ensure that the Indian food did not come across as a compromise one and that it was one that gave joy too and made people happy.

It was clear that chefs Anil and Ranveer were bent on making the best out of their surroundings rather than spending their time lamenting about it. They were not going to let the obstacles facing them act as hindrances and were planned to use their native ingenuity and professional expertise to break through, driven by a desire to feed people some good desi khana (Indian food).

What a wonderful attitude was that!

From the kitchen to the table with chef Anil George and Ranveer Brar

I did get to try some of the food that the chefs dished out basis their earlier discussions. This was during lunch on the last day on board. You know what, had I not known better, it would seem as if I could have been in any corner in India having the meal and not on a ship in foreign seas. 

The spices in the dishes were on point and evoked memories of home. The experience reminded me of what Ranveer said when we were at the Line Clear the previous evening.

“Our sense of spices is hardwired into the DNA of us Indians and we carry this with us wherever we go.”

This was the start of a journey and I am sure that good things lie ahead for Indian food lovers on board as the chefs work on creating a winning formula.

With Ranveer Brar at Line Clear, Penang

Behind the scenes:

Here's a video of us at Line Clear:

This was the first time that I was on a cruise. I had never thought of going on a cruise before and  used to think that that I would be bored if I did so. Or, on the extreme side, get panic attacks on being in the middle of the sea. I thought that the rooms would be cramped and uncomfortable. My mother thought that I would get seasick, and made me call my doctor friend and get a prescription for pills from her the day before I set sail. I did so. For once in my life thinking that her worries had substance.

Turned out that none of the above happened. The pictures below will tell you why.

I love the sea and could not get enough of looking at it. Panic attacks?
Far from it. This was inner peace. This is the view from the pool area

The room assigned to me was a state room with an ocean view. The room was spacious and the bed comfortable, the bathroom fairly large and the shower capsule compact and efficient. I treasured the solitude of the sitting in the balcony with just the sea, my thoughts and a cup of cappuccino (part of the special non-alcoholic beverage package) giving me company.

That balcony

If bored of your own company, which I rarely am, then the various shows and activities going on such as the Broadway shows, Dreamworks Parade and live jazz and song performances, the many restaurants and dining rooms, gyms, library, casino, duty free shops and so on on board the Voyager of the Seas, would keep you occupied.

Inner peace poh style. The Dreamworks parade at the promenade

In the dinner hall
Cappuccino at the Promenade

Izumi, the Japanese restaurant

Broadway musicals

Part of the activities on board was a biryani making class
by Ranveer

I missed my mother in law, who enjoyed a cruise
herself earlier, during the synchronised dance events
at night. I was busy treating myself to a Ben& Jerry
ice cream in the middle of the dancers who I am sure
she would have joined
Plus got to get off at Penang so it was not that we were on board all the time. We first went to Line Clear as you read earlier.

Prawn curry

Steamed okra

That's Mr Sikandar

With the Line Clear boys and Anil

We later went to the Chinese street food stalls of Penang of which both Ranveer and I had fond memories of from our earlier visits. He had come here more recently than I last had and took us around to a soya chicken cart where we had chicken legs and where I tried out chicken feet once again, and which I had quite enjoyed at Hong Kong earlier. It is like having chicken wings with just the skin and the fat.

We tried some ducks soup too and some lovely pork sausage skewers. I struck me that Georgetown seemed to have more malls and modern buildings and cafes now compared to when I was here in 2010.
A Chinese grocery shop

The street food shop lane parallel to Line Clear

Steamed sausage skewers with fish sauce

It's chicken feet time

Plus there was a pleasant surprise at the end. We docked at Singapore in the morning at the end and my flight was at night. I love Singapore and wanted to use my time to the max but I had a suitcase with me. I headed straight to the Robinson mall in a taxi. I went to the Toast Box outlet there for a runny eggs, kaya toast and coffee breakfast.

I met our friends Priya Barve and Aniruddha Ghosh from Mumbai, who live in Singapore now and run the Bombay Howrah Dining Car, Bengali and Maharashtrian, supper club here. They hosted me to a lovely dim sum meal at a Cantonese restaurant called Lei Garden at Chijmes opposite Robinson Mall.

I came back to the mall, bought Royce chocolates for K & me (Ghana bitter), Nespresso pods for me (Columbian), some art equipment for our friend H and Durga Puja clothes for K at Forever New and for me at Mango. All with no effort despite having the suitcase as it was all so well organised.

At the end, I managed to have a lovely Peranakan seafood laksa and Hainanese chicken rice at the Changi Airport T3 terminal and thus maxed my time at Singapore before taking my flight back to Mumbai.

I came home and told K, 'let's try a cruise some time.'

'Sounds like fun,' she replied after I told her what had happened.

Kaya toast, runny eggs and kopi at Toast Box

With Priya and Aniruddha at Lei Garden, Singapore

Chicken rice at Changi

Laksa at Changi
Where I had the laksa from

And the chicken rice from

If you have like this then you might want to read the following:
Disclaimer: I was hosted by Tirun Travels on board the cruise.