nasi padang, and I didn’t know it

Beth and I were walking around Kemang this morning, looking for something to eat for an early lunch. Many places were closed, and at least one of the warungs I found a sign for didn’t even exist anymore (such is the way of Indonesian street food, apparently). But after visiting an ATM for some cash, we stumbled into a sign that said “RESTORAN SEDERHANA MASAKAN PADANG.”

My Indonesian language skills are nearly zero, but as with any foreign language, my vocabulary is 90% food words. I know this doesn’t surprise any of my friends, but it has surprised people in foreign countries I’ve visited when I know all kinds of words related to eating, but not the word for “money” or “bed” or “toilet”. So I recognized that this sign meant “restaurant SOMETHINGSOMETHING cuisine Padang.” Knowing that the Indonesian and Malaysian languages put adjectives after nouns, I knew this last part meant “Padang style cuisine” whatever the hell “Padang” means.

So we went inside, and got a shock. The host directed us to a table, but instead of bringing us menus, a platoon of waiters rapidly and immediately descended on the table, bearing all kinds of stuff. In about 20 seconds, they put something like 15 small plates of food down, along with a plate of rice for each of us, a cup of hot tea for each of us, and two small bowls with warm water. Beth and I looked at each other with WTF expressions. She tried to explain that there is no way we can eat all this food, but none of these guys spoke enough English to understand. I thought maybe on Saturdays the lunch is like a prix fixe thing where you get all this stuff for one price, whether you want it or not. Beth thought maybe the guys were pulling some kind of scam on us by forcing us to pay for way more food than we ordered. So before the main waiter left, she got him to explain as best he could about each dish. His English was limited but he knew “chicken” and “beef” and “egg” and “chile” which was a little helpful.

This isn’t my photo, but this is what our table looked like with all the plates on it. Photo from Wikipedia.

We picked out the half dozen plates that looked most appetizing, and then pointed at the rest and pantomimed for the guys to take them away. Then we started to eat. Most dishes had two of each thing on it, like two pieces of chicken, two eggs, etc. The other dishes had a small pile of stuff, like green chile, sliced vegetables of some variety, etc. The food was all really good, and we ate with fork and spoon in the Indonesian way, which we had learned two or three days earlier.

The Indonesian way (also, supposedly, the Malaysian way and the Thai way) is to use a spoon and fork, but no knife. Fork goes in left hand, spoon in right. You use the spoon edge to cut pieces of whatever you’re eating, then use the fork to scoop that and some rice onto the spoon, and then put it all into your mouth. In theory, all tough stuff should be cut up in the kitchen, which is why you don’t need a knife at the table. At the end of the meal, to signal you’re done, you put the fork down on the plate facing down, and then put the spoon on top of it, also facing down.

Anyhow, while we were eating, I noticed that phrase again on the rim of my plate — “masakan padang.” So I looked it up on Wikipedia. Between that and observing the other people in the restaurant a while, a few light bulbs came on for me. First, the service style is normal, and is part of the Padang style. They bring out plates of everything they are serving that day. You just eat whatever you want, and then at the end of the meal they come count it up and charge you for what you ate. Second, this style of food is also typically eating with the fingers, not with fork and spoon, which explains the finger bowls. Lastly, I learned that the restaurant we were in is one of a very popular and famous chain of Padang restaurants.

We ended up eating the rest of the meal partly with fingers and partly with the fork and spoon technique. Everything we had was very good, I thought. At the end of the meal, when I made the universal gesture for “bring me the bill” the waiter added up everything. It came to around $11, which is a little more than I expected (five times as much as dinner last night) but way less than what we’d spend for two meals and drinks at the Irish pub nearby.

Now that I’m writing this back in our room with internet, I found the website for this restaurant chain. And here is the Wikipedia article that explains the style of food and eating experience we had.

Last night was our first Indonesian warung experience and today was our first nasi padang experience (of a style I now know to be called “hidang”). My self-directed Asian food studies are coming right along.


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