Tableful of Spice

By James Oseland

Published on April 11, 2007

I'd always known what my dream food would taste like. It wouldn't be squishy and insipid, like the pot roast and canned fruit cocktail I grew up on in the California suburbs. Instead, it would be loud and bright and confident—a fire truck roaring through the night.

I found my fire truck in 1982, while I was in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta visiting Tanya Alwi, a friend from college. Trolling the city's dusty streets in search of lunch one sweltering afternoon, we ended up at Rumah Makan Simpang Raya, a celebrated nasi Padang restaurant. As we sat down, Tanya explained that Padang was the capital of West Sumatra, home of the Minangkabau, a Muslim ethnic group famous for its fiery chile-laced cuisine. Nasi Padang literally means Padang rice, but the term refers to Minangkabau cooking in general—not just to the rice but to all its accompaniments, too.

People love nasi Padang not only for its complex and vivid flavors, Tanya said, but also because of the way it's served. As many as two dozen dishes are brought to the table at the same time, with rice as the centerpiece. Diners then help themselves to as much or as little—or as many or as few—of the dishes as they wish. "It's the real rijsttafel (rice table) of Indonesia, not some colonialist invention," she added with a sniff, referring to the well-known though ersatz Indonesian-inspired multicourse meal dreamed up by the Dutch, who began establishing control over much of the archipelago in 1602 (and continued their rule until 1942).

In minutes, our own table was layered with an exotic jigsaw puzzle of 15 or so small bowls containing gulai cumi-cumi, a butter yellow coconut milk squid curry; rendang, the cuisine's most renowned dish, made of long-stewed beef fragrant with kaffir lime leaves, ginger, and turmeric; dendeng balado, lacelike wisps of dried beef splattered with red chiles; gulai rabung, a luscious burnt-orange-hued bamboo shoot curry; and other equally colorful and diverse offerings.

In the few months I'd been traveling in Indonesia, I'd sampled many of the country's most famous regional foods, from the lime-sour stews of the Spice Islands to the tiny deep-fried burung dara birds in South Kalimantan to the delicate stir-fries of West Java. But they were as different from nasi Padang as German food is from Italian. Minangkabau cuisine, which Tanya said could be found at restaurants throughout Southeast Asia, was a kind of Asian cucina rustica —earthy and wild, lush and vibrant. This is it, I thought after I'd gorged myself—a baptism by ginger, kaffir lime leaves, coconut milk, lemongrass, and ruby red chiles that cleared my mind and made my brow sweat.

In the years following my initiation—and long after I'd lost touch with Tanya—I ate Padang-style food more times than I can remember, in Singapore, in Kuala Lumpur, in Los Angeles, in my own New York City kitchen—but never at the source. What was I missing? Was the lemongrass grown in West Sumatra capable of causing a seismic shift in the flavor of a particular dish? Could the wise, weathered hands of a Minangkabau ibu (mother, in both Bahasa Indonesian and Minang, the Minangkabau dialect) light up a rendang in a way a restaurant cook overseas never could?

My quest to find the answers lands me, one overcast day, on the original bus ride from hell: a 20-hour trip from Dumai—a port village in east-central Sumatra, where I disembarked after an uneventful two-hour ferry ride from Melaka, Malaysia—to Padang. The distance is only about 250 miles as the crow flies. But crows don't have to negotiate precarious switchbacks over narrow mountain roads. The landscape of central Sumatra is a study in exaggeration: craggy green peaks randomly shoot up from dark thickets of jungle as if God had made it this way so that no one could plop down an interstate and a Denny's.

It's 5 a.m. when, numb and spent, I finally get my first glimpse of Padang off in the distance, beckoning like a candlelit pool in the surrounding mountains. Dawn is breaking gray and pink as the bus enters the sprawling town. Finally liberated from those treacherous roads, we shoot past slightly ominous-looking houses with swaybacked roofs meant to resemble buffalo horns—a symbol sacred to the Minangkabau—and the occasional horse-drawn carriage taxi (in Padang there are none of the annoying motorized pedicabs found in the rest of Indonesia).

As I exit the bus at the station, loudspeakers on the surrounding tin-roofed mosques crackle and hiss with the day's first call to prayer—or, in my case, to breakfast, a bowl of delicious chile-and-shallot nasi goreng (fried rice), which I scarf down at a nearby stall as though I haven't eaten in years.

To taste nasi Padang is to taste the essence of the Minangkabau, an ancient culture whose fundamental tenets include egalitarianism, self-discipline, respect for nature, matrilineal inheritance (women, not men, own most of the property), and, perhaps above all, concern for outsiders. This last is one reason why Minangkabau meals are so lavish: to allow a stranger to leave the table hungry is considered a terrible sin.

Although the Minangkabau didn't construct the elaborate temples of Cambodia's Khmer kingdoms or compose the masterly gamelan music of central Java, they did make a name for themselves throughout Southeast Asia as spice growers and traders. And they got rich doing so.

At least a thousand years ago, East Indian seamen were probably the first foreigners to arrive in the province en masse. They sought locally grown pepper, nutmeg, and cinnamon and bartered with savvy Minangkabau merchants. The Indians were followed by Arab and Chinese spice traders and, later, by the Dutch. All these visitors bestowed on the area aspects of their own cultures.

The Indians brought both Hinduism and Islam to Sumatra. The former fell out of favor after several centuries, making Islam the predominant religion, which it remains today. The Chinese brought their love of commerce, while the Dutch brought their love of all things orderly, constructing immense flood-control canals that continue to keep Padang (relatively) puddle-free during monsoon season, which generally runs from October through March.

However, agriculture, particularly rice cultivation, is still the province's economic mainstay, and the legacy of spice lives on in the food (nutmeg and cinnamon provide background notes for many Minangkabau curries) and outside the low-slung warehouses that line Padang's port canal. There, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, anise, coriander, cardamom, and pepper can be seen drying in the sun on large rattan mats—aromatic quilts that keep the city forever fragrant.

"People all over the world celebrate special occasions with a feast," says Hassanudin (one-word names are commonplace in Indonesia). "We celebrate every day with one." I've hooked up with Hassanudin—a dashing lifelong Padang resident in his 40s who teaches geography at a local college—through the local tourism office, and after a millisecond of arm-twisting, he's agreed to introduce me to his favorite eating places over the next several days.

Our first stop: Rumah Makan Pagi Sore, a wood-trimmed restaurant whose windows display the day's offerings in large enamel bowls—a technique employed by most restaurants in West Sumatra to seduce passersby. When we arrive, the lunch rush is loudly under way, but it's not long before an emperor's feast in miniature is automatically placed in front of us, with a huge bowl of rice set in the center of the table.

The dizzying spread, more elaborate than any other I've ever encountered, includes gulai kambing (goat curry with coriander and cinnamon), ayam panggang (chicken cooked in a coconut milk curry, then quick-grilled), gulai hati sapi (beef heart curry), keripik kentang balado (crispy slices of fried potato with chiles), gulai tahu telur (tofu and hard-boiled-egg curry), daun singkong (boiled bitter cassava greens)—an antidote to all the pungent dishes, selada (cucumber and egg salad), gulai paku (wild fern curry), and gulai tempe (tempeh and long bean curry). Where to start may be one of the hardest decisions I'll ever make.

"Don't think for a moment that this is undisciplined food," Hassanudin says, sensing my bewilderment. "It is as refined as anything in France. You must craft your lunch with restraint." I watch as he carefully composes his meal, the goal being to create a balanced narrative of both taste and texture. First he spoons a portion of rice on his plate, following it with small helpings of the incendiary stewed goat, the mellow grilled chicken, the velvety tofu curry, and the cooling cassava greens. Then he deftly plunges his right hand—the utensil of choice in Padang—into the curry and rice, bringing the mixture to his mouth without losing a morsel. Moving on to the greens, Hassanudin tells me about the three basic components of Minangkabau food, which is always served at room temperature.

First there are the dishes called gulai , a catch-all term for quick-simmered stews made with coconut milk. While gulai dishes can appear indistinguishable from one another, they all have their idiosyncrasies and thus offer a broad range of tastes. Next are the dishes referred to as balado , which basically means anything that has been slathered with crushed red or green chiles. Although the Minangkabau are among the world's most unabashed chile lovers, balado dishes invariably emphasize the main ingredient—be it a hard-boiled egg or slices of fried potato—not the heat. Then there are the panggang , or barbecued dishes, which usually involve fish or pieces of chicken that have been partially cooked in ginger, chiles, and thick coconut milk before being grilled over coconut shells. (In West Sumatra, cooking fires are always fueled with coconut shells, which impart a vaguely herbal quality.)

After we finish our meal, a waitress in a Marlboro T-shirt tabulates our bill—about two dollars!—charging us only for the dishes we've consumed. Here, as in the other nasi Padang restaurants where I've dined, you're allowed to help yourself to the sauce in a dish free of charge.

Later that night Hassanudin and I find ourselves sunk in a booth at Rumah Makan Semalam Suntuk, a raucous, neon-lit restaurant where waiters race about while balancing mind-bending numbers of plates on their skinny arms.

We have come not to eat a proper Minangkabau meal but to slurp down cool glasses of es pokat, a sweet avocado and crushed-ice shake doused with thick chocolate syrup and sweetened condensed milk. Who knew that avocado and sugar could make such an exquisite elixir? I belch my approval—a natural act actively encouraged in this part of the world. "I have never, ever seen a foreigner eat our food with such enjoyment," Hassanudin says with a grin.

My most memorable eating experience in Padang, it turns out, does not take place in a restaurant. Early one morning, Hassanudin and I are at the city's huge, mazelike central market, where everything from shirt buttons to a kilo of miniature limes can be purchased. "Today I have something special planned," he says as we attempt to trace the route back to the car. "We're visiting Ibu Rohati, the cousin of my friend Arzein. She's quite a good cook."

If the amazing aroma that greets us when we enter Ibu Rohati's kitchen is any indication, Hassanudin is dead-on. For the rest of the morning I watch as this casually elegant woman quietly tends to the day's culinary duties: peeling knobs of fresh turmeric, bruising stalks of lemongrass, massaging grated coconut in water to extract its snow-white milk. Ibu Rohati is preparing, among other things, gulai masin ikan, a fish gulai whose star ingredient, a rosy pink red snapper, was just hours earlier swimming in the Indian Ocean.

Despite her hospitality ("More tea?" "More sugar?" "More TV?"), I feel self-conscious. Not only are men, let alone food writers from New York, strangers in Padang's home kitchens, but matriarchs traditionally guard their old recipes as if they were the family jewels. Ibu Rohati, however, doesn't seem to mind my frantically trying to jot down everything I am observing: never let spice pastes ( bumbu-bumbu ) burn; tie whole lemongrass stalks into knots so that they won't fray during cooking; always add the thicker pressing of coconut milk just before a dish is to be served—it will curdle if boiled.

A few hours later, cooking completed, Ibu Rohati disappears, but she returns shortly, transformed from a housewife in jeans into an Asian princess in a fuchsia kebaya, hair piled high in snaky black coils. She drifts by, bearing to the table the fruits of her labors: selada, rendang, ayam panggang, the gulai, and, of course, rice.

Just before sitting down, Ibu Rohati leans over and whispers to me in broken English. "There is no secret here. Only love," she says. I put my notepad down and eat, reveling in the flavors of a dream come true.

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