It's a regional obsession, eating good and cheap. Padang restaurants (nasi padang) are Indonesia's answer to the call for delicious but inexpensive rice-based chow, competing with Malaysia's nasi kandar and Singapore's hawker cuisine.
Invented and imported by Minangkabau migrants from West Sumatra, masakan Padang (Padang cuisine, named after the capital of West Sumatra) can now be found all over the region - foodies from the Indonesian capital of Jakarta to Singapore's Kampong Glam queue at local nasi padang to chomp on all rice and curry they can stomach.
Keep 'Em Coming: Nasi Padang's Small Platters
The charm of Padang cuisine lies not only in its range of dishes, but also in its serving style, called hidang.
Padang food is generally served as a large number of small platters bearing different types of dishes. Diners are charged only for the platters that have been eaten from; untouched platters are taken away and served to other guests.
Sure, not everybody will think this is a sanitary way to serve food (your dish may have visited a number of other tables before it hits yours), but the food is cooked fresh every day, and the immense variety of dishes in a typical Padang restaurant may just win you over.
What to Eat at a Padang Restaurant
You'll know a Padang restaurant by the bowls of food stacked up in the shop window. These dishes are either selected from the window, or chosen from a menu, or simply brought by a waiter to your table without prompting. The food is always served with a generous helping of rice.
And the variety is mind-boggling, if you think having two main courses is living large. If you're sitting with a group of friends, you might be served upwards of a dozen dishes, and they'll keep coming as long as you keep eating.
Rice. This being Asia, after all, the dishes are all served with rice. Curries and sambal are often mixed with the rice before being eaten.
Curry. The prefix gulai is added to anything served in a coconut curry sauce. Minangkabau cuisine serves meats and offal smothered in curry, and the sauce is meant to be mixed with the rice. Some savory examples include curried egg (gulai talua, or gulai telur), curried red snapper head (gulai kepala ikan kakap merah), curried cow liver (gulai ati) , and curried cow brains (gulai otak).
Chicken. The Minangkabau serve chicken (ayam) several ways, from grilled (ayam bakar) to fried (ayam goreng) to Padang-style (ayam pop - stewed, then very briefly fried). A sambal, or chili sauce, is often served alongside each chicken dish.
Beef is a major foundation of Minangkabau cuisine, best typified by rendang: a dish of beef pieces stewed in chili and coconut milk, kept on the fire until the liquid has completely evaporated.
Beef is also served as dendeng, a type of beef jerky. Suckers for punishment may like dendeng Balado, or dendeng served in Minangkabau chili sauce.
A hearty beef soup (soto padang) can also be ordered as an a la carte item in many Padang restaurants; this is a favorite breakfast item for locals. If you want beef served on a stick, just ask for a sate Padang, or barbecued beef smothered in curry.
Sambal. Minangkabau cuisine is spicy, with chili sauce, or sambal, being everpresent in a Padang food spread. Sambal balado originates from Minangkabau food, a type of chili sauce garnished with large green chilies. Typical sambal dishes in a Padang restaurant include dendeng balado (beef jerky in sambal balado) and udang balado (shrimps in sambal balado). Find out more on this piping-hot condiment here: What is Sambal?
Other tidbits balance out the spread, such as krupuk (deep-fried crackers), tempe (fermented soybean cake, often served in a sambal sauce), perkedel (potato croquettes), and steamed greens.
Padang Restaurant Tips
Try eating with your hands. Many locals prefer to eat rice (and the dishes that come with it) by hand; they believe Padang food is just more delicious served that way.
It's easy once you get the hang of it - read up on how to eat with your fingers Indian style. If you just can't manage it, don't worry; you can ask for utensils without hanging your head in shame.
Be adventurous. Padang food is rife with mystery meats: your guide first tried curried calf brain in a Padang restaurant in Jakarta, and you'll miss out if you don't dig into such Padang favorites as ox tongue satay, beef lung served with fava beans, beef heart, and cowhide crackling.
You won't necessarily go away hungry if you don't try the strange foods, though - you'll have plenty of beef and chicken to tide you over.
You don't have to eat everything they put on the table. Don't like it? Don't touch it. You won't be charged for it.
That bowl of water is for washing, not for eating. Because Padang food patrons tend to eat with their bare hands, restaurants usually put a kobokan (a bowl of water with a slice of lime) on the table. Wash your fingers in the kobokan before and after you dine.
Some items have to be ordered a la carte. These dishes include beef sate, gado-gado, and soups like mie goreng, sop buntut and mie rebus. Ask a waiter if you'd like any of these dishes to be served.