It is public knowledge that Nasi Padang (literally translates to Padang rice, but meaning Padang food) has become the country’s most famous contribution to Indonesian cuisine. When you pay a Padang restaurant a visit, you will enjoy a very unique dish. Instead of going to the counter for a direct order, you simply sit down and waitresses will bring various dishes to the table. Padang Restaurants are spread across Indonesia; no matter which city you go, there is always a Padang restaurant around.
One of the most delicious Padang foods is rendang, a dry beef curry cooked with coconut milk and spices for several hours until almost all the liquid has been evaporated. Every Padang restaurant is based around this dish, and families love to cook it at home, especially during the holidays. There’s a deep philosophical connection to the food. The beef is a symbol for the ninik mamak (tribal leader), coconut is connected to cadiak pandai (the intellectual), chilli relates to the alim ulama (spiritual leader) and condiments represent society as a whole. In the past, rendang was only for the aristocratic. Now everyone eats it.
As a true Minangnese, who was born and grew up in Ranah Minang, I dare say that I really rely on nasi Padang for breakfast, lunch and even for dinner. I will always go for nasi kapau (made from young jackfruit mixed with other vegetables), ayam balado (spicy fried chicken) and sate Padang (spicy satay) over imported fast foods.
One might say that I make overstatements. You have my word! Many Padang people favour it. Despite their extensive network and lengthy journey of life, Minangnese are still dependent on Padang cuisine for breakfast and lunch, let alone a great meal like dinner. Some of my friends—particularly those with Javanese or Sundanese backgrounds—often shake their heads and are astonished by my seemingly tacky culinary behaviour.
Let me tell you, this is not about a blind love for local food. Rather it deals with the Padang gastronomy. Having shared with other Padang food lovers, the Minangnese rely much on their local cuisine by reason of three major things: cabe (chilli), gulai (curry) and beras (rice). On many traditional functions, such as weddings and thanksgiving ceremonies, the three—spicy chilli sauce, thick curry and perfectly steamed rice—should be served to the guests.
Spicy chilli is instrumental in increasing one’s appetite. How could you eat a meal if it doesn’t give you a good appetite? In addition, not simply do spicy dishes make you eat more and more, but they also make your lunch and dinner more ritual. Though food served is not much, Padang people would have a delicious meal so long as there is chilli in it. They believe that dishes without spicy chilli sauce are not real dishes. Yet Padang chilli sauce is not the same as various chilli sauces found in Java, called sambal, since it is made of curly red chillies.
What about gulai? This turns out to be the next essential element as we take our tour around Padang cuisine. In Padang, smart cooking means the capability of preparing gulai (curry). Rendang, asam padeh (sour and spicy stew dish), kalio (watery and light-coloured gravy), to mention just a few, are variations of Padang gulai. You are not ‘good at cooking’ for making fried chicken, griddling pancakes or stir-frying vegetables. When someone excels at cooking gulai, he or she is knowledgeable about spices. That is why, to many Padangnese, ingenuity in cooking is identical with gulai cooking skills.
Last but not least, rice should be taken into account. The majority of Indonesians consume it as their staple food, however, it is so unique that Padang people can only enjoy steamed rice. They would never eat sticky rice like their Javanese brothers and sisters. No matter how poor they are, Padangnese never shift to corn, potato or sweet potato as an alternative to rice. For Padang people, a meal without rice is like a day without sunshine.
Padang food is not only made of meals, but also traditional snacks. While organizing functions and events, for example, I resort to serving and mixing modern cakes with local snacks. Along with brownies or muffins, kelamai (a sweet coconut palm sugared snack), kue talam (sweet glutinous rice cake) and lapek (banana pudding) are dished up as well.
A small change has begun to occur in recent years, thanks to the development of information-technology and burgeoning young people who are always interested in learning something new. In the past few years, Javanese food and beverages have failed to attract Minangnese customers because they are too sweet for the taste of Padang people. Noted restaurants in Java, like Wong Solo and Ayam Goreng Nyonya Suharti were unable to survive in West Sumatra.
Now, restaurants and cafes serving dishes of the archipelago such as ayam penyet (chicken with tempe and sambal) and pecel lele (fried catfish and rice with a side of sambal) are welcomed in many cities around Ranah Minang. The key lies in their ability to adapt to the taste of consumers in Padang. Like it or not, Padangnese culinary traditions are truly extreme. While Javanese, Sundanese or Jakartans can enjoy different meals without effort across the country, Padangnese still have trouble finding ‘foreign dishes’ suitable for their palates.