Challenging Fiery Padang Food

One of the typical Indonesian cuisines is the local food from Padang, the capital city of West Sumatra Province, which is full of Padang merchants who have good business heads, unlike other cities in Indonesia where Chinese merchants control the area's commerce. It is said that the Padang liking for emigrating or working away from home spread their home cooking all over the country of Indonesia. In the places where Padang people go, there are always busy Padang restaurants.


A Padang restaurant is easily recognized by its show window, in which plates of food are orderly piled up; even a street stall displays its little show window. Why shouldn't try such a popular food while I'm here, I thought, so of course I did for the experience.

 No sooner had I sat at the table when a waiter, without taking y order, brought a finger bowl, which was followed by plates of food. Soon my tables was full of dishes; stewed meat, deep fried dishes, boiled eggs in yellow curry sauce, dried beef lungs and beef brains. These were all taken from the plates in the show window.


When I looked around the restaurant people were eating, skillfully using a spoon and a fork or using their right hands. I had a try at copying them. With the thumb, the first finger and the second finger, I mixed rice and some stewed beef, so far so good.., but only found it difficult to bring some of the mixture into my mouth, dropping the loose lump through my fingers. Rinsing my sticky fingers in the finger bowl, I tried anew with a spoon of beef. There must have been a kilo of chili peppers in that mouthful at was burning hot! It left me dripping with sweat and gasping for breath. Throwing rice and water into my mouth did not cool it at all. Although I knew Padang dishes are famous for their fieriness, it was beyond my expectation.


I went on with the other dishes. Some tasted nice and some tasted nothing but hot. Lastly, out of curiosity, I persuaded myself to try brains. I timidly had a bit of it, which was as small as a child's fist and still showed its wrinkles. It wasn't hot and the taste itself wasn't so bad either. But, with the thought that I was eating "the brains" and the feel of that spongy thing dissolving in my mouth, I couldn't enjoy the taste of it and all I wanted was to finish with my duty as soon as possible.


The calculation of the bill is totally different. Dishes such as stewed meat and soup are charged for numbers of plates touched. Countable pieces such as eggs, fried chickens, and brains are charged for numbers of pieces eaten. The untouched plates and left over pieces are to be put back where they were to be served again to new customers. Adding to its extreme hotness, the idea that somebody might have touched the food before you may be the reason why this popular food among Indonesians is kept away from foreigners, especially Japanese.


However, when I talked to my English friend about Padang food, she said she eats it to cure a cold. Instead of snuggling up in a mound of blankets she reaches for Padang food to sweat out the cold and revitalize her flagging energy. That might be a good idea.


#68 Parkway Vol.8 No.5 October 1994