Saturday, March 30, 2013

Nasi Padang in West Java

Many Indonesian restaurants outside of Indonesia offer a rijsttafel option on their menus for diners wishing to try a variety of Indonesian dishes.  Popularized by the Dutch during their colonization of Indonesia, rijsttafel (rice table) is essentially an Indonesian buffet, with a large array of dishes for the diners to enjoy.  According to Wikipedia, the rijstaffel banquet enabled the colonial masters to showcase the variety of dishes from the islands throughout the archipelago that were under Dutch control.  After Indonesia gained its independence following WWII,  anti-colonial backlash caused the rijsttafel to fade away from Indonesia.

Nasi Padang is one of the precursors of the rijstaffel.  In a Padang restaurant diners are served numerous dishes to accompany a plate of rice.  Although it is originally from the Minangkabau of West Sumatra, nasi Padang is served in restaurants throughout Indonesia.  It's my understanding that because the Minangkabau are a matriarchal culture, with property passing down from mothers to daughters, the men move away and create their own businesses.  As a result, go just about anywhere and you can find nasi Padang. 

Nasi Padang restaurants not only offer a great variety of dishes, they are also cheap.  While as many as twenty dishes may be served, you are only charged for those you eat.  Plates that contain distinct cuts of meat, such as the plate with two pieces of rendang, are priced per piece.  For a satisfying meal as a reasonable price, it's hard to beat a Padang restaurant.

As much as I appreciate the merits of Padang restaurants, I am not a real aficionado.  I'm generally happier with a simple plate of good tahu lontong or a bowl of soto ayam, than with four or five indifferent dishes. It may be that I associate nasi Padang with buffet restaurants, an association that is not really fair, for I've seldom been disappointed by the food at a Padang restaurant.

  Last July while visiting Tjing's brother's family in Jakarta, we took a day trip to a remote area in West Java.  Although it was during Ramadan, we found a small nasi Padang restaurant open in one of the small towns we passed through.  One of the things I appreciate about Java is that even Muslim restaurants remain open during the fasting month, their windows covered and doors closed so as to not tempt faithful Muslims, but aware that there are customers who are not fasting.  Religion always has seemed a personal choice to me, and I can't understand how any person's belief in one religion or another gives him (or her) the right to insist that others follow the tenets of that religion.  It seems to me that if you believe so strongly in the truth of your God, show a little faith and humility and allow Him (or Her) to sort things out in the end.  Just sayin'.

In any case, the food at this restaurant was outstanding.  The rendang, ayam goreng, sambal kentang, and kari telor (egg curry) were all excellent.  They also had a dish of terong buncis (eggplant with green beans) that was remarkable.  It was just a small restaurant beside the road in one of the towns we drove through that day (more than eight hours of which were spent driving to and from our destination), but it was one of the better meals I had last summer.  I believe our tab for lunch came to 50,000 rupiah for the four of us (a little over $5). 

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