“Padang” is one word that will cross your way as soon as you arrive in Indonesia, written at many signs and restaurant windows. Masakan Padang, that means Padang food, is the typical cuisine of the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, and Padang is the capital of this region.
But you don’t need to travel so far to try this popular Indonesia cuisine, as the padang food is a bit everywhere in Sumatra, as also Java, Bali and Lombok…. and already become international, being easily found in neighbouring Asian countries.
As Sumatra is a dominant Muslim region, the Minangkabau (also called Minang) cuisine follows halal rules rigorously… so no pork!!!
The Masakan Padang restaurants are easily identified be the way the food is presented: in plates carefully piled for more dry food or in big metal bowls or trays for more juicy dishes, like curries. The plates are exposed at a window and visible from the outside, and most of these restaurants open from the morning until the evening making the food available during all day. The food is served at room temperature and just the rice is kept warm.
There are two types of serving in a Padang restaurant, the pesan (ordering) and hidang (serve) method. It took me time to understand how it works and sometimes I was surprised with the bill in the end, as a meal could cost 10.000 Rp or 50.000 Rp… without meat or fish dishes!!!
So the pesan is when the customer chooses the food from what is exposed at the windows, and the waiter takes a bit of each bowl and put on a plate with rice. This is the most common for people that are eating alone or at the more modest restaurants. At some restaurants is even the client that serves his own food. Depending on the number of dishes chosen, a meal like this can cost between 10.000 Rp and 20.000 Rp, for vegetarian/egg dishes.
The hidang is when all the dishes available are served in small plates that are placed at the client’s table… it can be more that ten different dishes. You don’t need to order anything and in the end, you pay just what you eat. This system is more common when people eat in groups, family or friends, as the portions served are much bigger that at the pesan system. I try once this system and a vegetarian meal cost me more than 50.000 Rp, for the same number of dishes!!!… but it doesn’t really worth if you are alone!
The takeaway system, locally called bungkus is always available at Masakan Padang eateries and is very popular with the locals. Most of the places just wrap the food in a paper (with one plastified side) but some restaurants the banana leaf is still used to parcel the food!!
The Padang Meal
The typical Padang meal isn’t complete without these three things: rice (nasi), a juicy curry (gulai) and some green leaf boiled vegetables, that can be papaya leafs, spinach or cassava leaf. Then you can add meat, fish or egg, which can be fried or boiled, but usually seasoned with a red chilli sweet sauce. The omolete are also common, but sometimes they look more like a cake, cut in slices.
The sambals, a spicy sauce made from chillies, usually with a bright red colour but that can also be pale green, are a must in any plate, and give a special touch to any meal. The sambals in Indonesia are not extremely spicy.
The most popular curry of Masakan Padang cuisine is made with unripe jackfruit (gulai nangka) that is cooked with coconut milk and seasoned with ginger, galangal and turmeric, with the kaffir leaves and the lemongrass giving a fresh flavour to this delicious dish, that range from sweet to spicy tastes. The gulai nangka can also be cooked with green beans and cabbage.
Dishes at Masakan Padang
The dishes available at the Masakan Padang restaurants change from island to island, and from region to region, according to the availability of the ingredients and the local taste: in Sumatra the curries are usually spicy, but in Java they are a bit sweeter and is common the presence of tempeh (fermented soybeans compressed in a tender block) and tofu (tahu) dishes, that are also easy to find at the masakan padang eateries in Bali and Lombok
At Sumatra the eggplant is widely popular, grilled and seasoned with a chilli sauce… looks spicy due to the red colour but n fact is sweet and very tender.
About meat, the chicken is the most popular option and can se cooked in thick gravies, with a big range of tastes and colours, or in a drier version, boiled or fried. Beef and buffalo meat curries are also common at the Masakan Padang windows; the internal organs can also be present in these curries.
The fish is very popular, no matter if you are close from the sea or not, as the dry fish is quite common in Indonesia. Most of the times these are small fishes that deep-fry, looking very crispy and dry. The very small ones are used dried are sometimes mixed with tempeh or with vegetables, but is almost impossible to spot them at the plates or food trays. But the bigger fishes can be found fried of floating in thick coconut curries.
Due to the big vegetarian choices available, like tofu, tempeh and green leaf vegetables that you can’t find in western countries, vegetable curries, jackfruit curries, and eggs in many ways… the Masakan Padang restaurants are a great choice for vegetarians!!!! Note that tempeh and tofu are more common in Java, being unusual to find it in Sumatra.
Curiously there is any sweets or deserts in the Padang restaurants… but I think that is part of the Asian style meals.