Spice World

With its scores of dishes, Nasi Padang is Indonesia's ultimate feast

James Oseland

A
ikan balado, grilled mackerel

B
dendeng, air-dried beef

C
ayam panggang, grilled chicken

D
dendeng balado, air-driedbeef with chiles

E
rendang daging sapi, slow-cooked beef curry

F
gado-gado, mixed vegetable salad with shrimp chips

G
gulai ikan lado merah, fish curry with red chiles

H
gulai ayam, chicken curry

I
udang panggang, grilled shrimp

J
gulai masin kepala ikan, fish head curry

K
petai balado, stink bean sambal

L
perkedel kenteng, mashed potato fritter

M
ayam goreng, fried chicken

N
telur dadar, chile-spiced omelette

O
gulai urat daging, beef tendon curry

P
acar, cucumber with eggs and shallots

Shafts of sunlight pierce clouds of smoke and steam as I plunge into the heat and noise of the kitchen at Bundo Sati, a small restaurant in Jakarta. It's only 8:30 a.m., but the narrow room is full of alchemical activity: Sheaves of herbs and vegetables lurk imposingly in corners; cooks cleave bones and meat on huge chopping boards with resounding thwacks; others diligently stir the seething contents of enormous woks, each bursting bubble perfuming the air. Thus coalesces the many-splendored array of dishes that compose this restaurant's nasi padang.

Nasi padang(literally "Padang rice"), a meal of rice eaten with myriad beef, seafood, poultry, and vegetable dishes, hails from the Minang kabau people of Padang, the regional capital of West Sumatra, Indonesia. Immensely popular throughout much of Southeast Asia wherever migrants from Padang have settled, nasi padang is common in Malaysia and Singapore, where I'm from. It's one of my favorite ways to eat. But I've been told time and again that Padang food outside Indonesia is an imprecise précis of the real thing.

When my appetite and vacation time finally align, I book a trip to spend the day at Bundo Sati, revered in Jakarta for the freshness of its renditions of iconic Padang dishes. I want to see how the masters make them, so I arrange to watch the cooks prepare nasi padang's many elements before sitting down to lunch.

Even as a newcomer, I quickly realize that I could navigate this kitchen by smell alone, eyes shut

Even as a newcomer, I quickly realize that, slippery floor notwithstanding, I could navigate this kitchen by smell alone, eyes shut. The scent of caramelizing meat leads me to a cook daubing chicken pieces with a chile-red, coconut-creamy impasto of sauce before he browns them over red-hot coals. The soothing wet-earth aroma of fresh turmeric trails from another corner, where an assistant runs peeled roots through a hand-turned meat grinder, yielding a blindingly orange mince for spice pastes. A cool, sweet perfume brings me to an alcove where a wiry gentleman loads a pillowcase-size bag with freshly grated coconut, kneads it with some water in a basin, and clamps it between two heavy wooden boards to extract a stream of santan—coconut milk—the lifeblood of many a Padang dish. All the measuring is done swiftly and surely by keen eyes and practiced hands. I watch and learn, trying to take in as much as I can.

The cooking started more than two hours ago. As dishes are finished, the staff stacks them in the restaurant's front window—the better to seduce passersby. That early in the morning, the air-conditioned dining room is calm and quiet, with just a couple of people having a coffee and a bite at the clean white tables, but by noon the tables will be jam-packed. Manager Pak Masril, who has worked here since 1978, tells me that roughly 500 diners drop by daily, mostly for lunch and dinner, streaming in and out slowly but steadily. One cannot rush a meal whose parts add up to such a spectacular whole.

Throughout the morning, ingredients are delivered to the kitchen door. Cooks hold up fish heads, tiger prawns, and cuts of mutton, showing off their freshness. The arrival of a huge bunch of petai pods occasions much tongue clucking all around, for this prized ingredient, which looks like a broad bean but tastes like sulphurous green almonds (it's often referred to as stink bean in English), has an outrageously high current asking price, around 100,000 rupiah (about $8) a pound. But omitting this beloved food from a Padang menu would be unthinkable, and so the young lad tasked with shucking the pods does so very, very carefully. Even the nasi putih, white rice, has unexpected dimension: The cooks combine two high-quality varieties for a blend with the ideal texture for soaking up gravies and sauces without turning to mush.

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James Oseland

At noon, Pak Masril nudges me into the dining room for lunch. I sit down and signal my readiness, and the parade of curried, fried, grilled, and spicy dishes proceeds. A waiter sets down dozens of small white porcelain dishes — nearly 30 in all—that frame their contents like works of art: oil-sheened curries redolent of coconut and the leaves of Kaffir lime, pandan, and turmeric plants; bronzed fried grouper and tangles of boiled cassava greens; dark and unctuous beef rendang slow-simmered with coconut milk and aromatics; and a host of sambals, chile-spice relishes enjoyed as dressings and as table condiments. Hot rice is spooned onto my plate.

I dig in, helping myself to a little of this, a little of that, alternating tastes and textures to my liking. (Another part of_ nasi padang_'s appeal: You eat what you like, leave the rest, and pay for only what you've consumed.) I pick curried chicken off its bones, savoring harmonies of coconut and a citrusy spice blend, and follow it with beef tendons, stewed until their cartilage melts into their pale curry. I break into a perkedel, a fried spiced potato ball whose lacy eggy crust contrasts winningly with its smooth interior. Then a nibble of ikan balado, meaty mackerel in a thick, complex salty-hot sambal of tomatoes and chiles. The petai wink like jewels from amid a stir-fry of cubed potato and beef liver and red chile sambal.

As I eat, I feel that I'm absorbing culinary rhythms like the rice soaks up curry, retuning my understanding of Indonesian food with a constant stream of small epiphanies—the fillip of shallots and creamy peanut sauce on a smoky stick of satay; the way a crisp tapioca wafer softens in a bowl of soto ayam, chicken soup. While Padang food is known for its fieriness, the chiles dazzle as much for their gradations of flavor as for their heat: Red Holland chile strips slow-cooked until mellow and sweet make a topping for paper-thin marinated beef slices, which have been air-dried and deep-fried to a toothsome tenderness; a sambal made from steamed and sautéed green chiles has a vegetal flavor and a soft burn, blanketing crisp-fried fish like green velvet.

The polyphony of it all fills my senses and stomach to the brim

And the curries! They have unbelievable polish, artfully weaving ingredients into a unified, resonant whole, subtly combining flavors to yield dishes so seamless that individual spices are difficult to pick out. In the fish curry, gulai ikan lado merah, tender fish is napped with coconut milk shot through with lemongrass, turmeric, garlic, ginger, shallot, tamarind, and just enough chile to underline everything. It's so suave and smooth that I find myself drinking deeply of it like soup, finally stopping only with heroic self-control.

The polyphony of it all fills my senses and stomach to the brim. I wallow in the contrast between a deep-fried egg's plush yolk and an intensely red, piercingly hot-sweet sambal infused with chiles, onions, and Kaffir lime leaves, then reset my taste buds with an austere soup of oxtail, potatoes, carrots, and tomatoes. A waiter shows me how to drench a plate of puffed buffalo-skin cracklings with curry gravy. They snap and pop like cereal on steroids, the combination of crunch and slurp totally irresistible. Worlds away from the versions I've eaten outside Indonesia, these dishes bring vividly home to me the true genius of Minang-kabau cuisine: There is a finesse, a balance to the way it integrates flavors that satisfies past the sensory level and down to the soul. Ah, I find myself saying, and ah, as this spice aligns with that one, like tumblers in a lock.

Fat, silky-sweet pisang ambon bananas, a local variety, are on hand for dessert, but I can really, truly eat no more. I am full, I am large, I contain multitudes. I hail a waiter, who notes which plates are empty and which have been pushed aside and tallies the bill.

But wait, I need caffeine to fight post-nasi torpor—perhaps a kopi telur, egg coffee? A cook whips it up before my eyes, beating a bright orange egg yolk to a custardy froth with honey, vanilla, and hot water, topping it up with condensed milk and dark coffee brewed with a cotton sock of grounds. It tastes like coffee crème brûlée in drink form, a rich exclamation point to the day's discoveries. I walk out into the muggy tropical afternoon not just more awake, but more alive.