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Nasi Padang: Leading the field

Restoran Nasi Padang Minang is the only stall in Kedai Kopi International Hotel on
Jalan Transfer. There you will find many mouthwatering Minang dishes. Restoran Nasi Padang Minang is the only stall in Kedai Kopi International Hotel on Jalan Transfer. There you will find many mouthwatering Minang dishes.

Authentic Minangkabau fare a hit in Penang.

PENANG is synonymous with nasi kandar and it is home to some of the country’s best stalls. Finding good nasi padang here, on the other hand, is like trying to find a unicorn in Teluk Bahang National Park!

While both kinds of street food comprise rice eaten with an assortment of meat, seafood dishes and curries, that’s where the similarity ends.

Locals love having nasi kandar banjir (flooded) with a mix of curries, while fans of nasi padang (translated as “field rice”) prefer the dry sambal, perhaps with small servings of other dishes (mainly vegetables and fresh, leafy greens) and gravy usually cooked with santan (coconut milk), turmeric, ginger, galangal, lemongrass and cili padi – lots of it!

Redolent with spices, the best nasi padang here can be found at Restoran Nasi Padang Minang – a humble stall in an old Chinese coffeeshop in George Town.

Nasi padang, brought here by the Minangkabau community, is popular in Western Sumatra, Indonesia.

Salim Md Aras Agus, 61, who helps at the famous family-run stall, is very pleased that the authentic cuisine of his community has gained such a strong following outside of Negri Sembilan where the Minangkabau originally settled in the 15th century.

“Of course, we are extremely proud of our culture, which is very much part of our cooking.

Nasi padang
lovers come for
the dry sambal
and dishes
cooked in coconut
milk. Nasi padang lovers come for the dry sambal and dishes cooked in coconut milk.

“This is what I grew up on, so personally, Minang food is my passion. One spoonful and I can tell if a dish is authentic.

“It is very heartening to see that our diners comprise people from all walks of life and races, yet share the same love for nasi padang,” he says.

If you are a “stargazer” (read celebrity hunter), you’ll be able to spot local personalities like Datuk M. Nasir, Datuk Aznil Nawawi and Datuk Ahmad Tarmimi Siregar (who just happened to be at the stall when Star2 popped in).

“We’ve had politicians and national leaders like former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi come too but we treat everyone the same.

“If there is an empty seat, you are most welcome otherwise you will have to wait your turn like everyone else.

“No one gets special treatment as that would not be fair,” he says, right before Ahmad Tarmimi comes over to say hello.

Restoran Nasi Padang Minang is the only stall in Kedai Kopi International Hotel (named after the budget hotel located upstairs).

The coffeeshop along Jalan Transfer (at the junction with Jalan A.S. Mansoor), has been around since the 1950s.

The stall is open daily except during Hari Raya and “when the family is tired”.

The Minangkabau beef rendang is delicious. The Minangkabau beef rendang is delicious.

Salim says the stall is manned by 10 family members and when all agree to take a break, the stall is closed.

“We don’t have a specific day off.

“And, yes, sometimes customers come and they are disappointed,” he says, sounding a little apologetic. Salim’s family was originally from Kedah, but moved here to set up their stall.

“It was my uncle and aunty’s business. The family came to Penang because there were many factories and opportunities to eke out a living here.

“Back then, the stall only served some 10 to 15 dishes but now we have 20 items daily, not inclusive of at least 10 different ulam like the pucuk janggus, pucuk putat, paku-pakis and pegaga plucked from the forests of Balik Pulau,” he says.

The retired civil servant, who drives all the way from his home in Kedah to the island every day to help at the stall, laments the difficulties of sourcing for fresh ulam these days.

In the old days, the ulam was delivered from Perak, but now, the family get their supply from Balik Pulau, more than an hour away from the city.

The “local salad” is still among the stall’s most popular items because of its health benefits and refreshing, crisp taste.

Sold fo between 50 sen and RM1 per bundle, the ulam leaves are never left overnight as the taste, quality and medicinal benefits would be lost.

Salim notes that the ulam is also popular among the younger generation.

Finger-licking fish

The women in the family are mainly tasked with the cooking duties and they are up as early as 5am.

He says in the Minangkabau community, all the women cook well.

The children learn by watching their mothers in the kitchen and the recipes are passed down orally.

“The women will be cooking right up until about 10am and then the men take over to serve the diners.

“I can cook too. My speciality is preparing the deep fried cincaru sambal (hardtail scad stuffed with sambal).

“The cincaru is relatively new as we only started serving it about a decade ago,” he shares, while deftly turning the fish over in the boiling hot oil.

More than 50 cincaru “jump out” of the wok every day. And on weekends, it’s a lot more.

Salim has, many a time, turned customers away when the fish ran out.

“We buy the fish fresh every morning from the wet market so when it’s finished, that’s it.

“We won’t run off to the hypermarket mid-day even if we run out of fish because quality is important.

“I have customers who will keep coming back (every day, if it’s sold out) until they get their fix for the week,” he says, laughing.

Salim’s jovial face belies the obvious discomfort of having to stand for hours frying the fish daily.

The stacks of crispy fish left on the food counter are usually snapped up before they even have a chance to cool.

Plain white rice is transformed into a meal fit for a king simply by Salim’s piping hot cincaru.

The secret to the delicious protein dish is the generous portions of caramelised onions and of course, the raw onion sambal stuffing.

Amazingly, the fish is truly prepared to perfection every single time as the flesh inside is never overcooked.

The cincaru is very garing (crispy) on the outside but the flesh inside remains juicy and does not have even a hint of bitterness.

Salim attributes this to the cincaru’s “thick skin”.

“The oil must be hot enough for the fish to cook properly.

“At any given time, I have six of them ‘swimming’ inside the wok.

“This dish is actually a ‘modified’ version of Kedah’s ikan bantut sambal although different spices are used in the latter.

Salim says that many customers ask for the recipe.

“I can share the ingredients and method of preparing the fish but the sauce mix is a secret,” he says smiling.

The cincaru sambal costs RM6 or RM7 depending on its size.

Indonesian flavours

Besides the locals, foreign visitors and Indonesian medical tourists who come here for treatment flock to the stall mainly for the original Minangkabau dishes like the paru goreng, ayam kuah lemak, ikan masak cili api, masak lemak pucuk ubi, dendeng, ayam kelio, lemak balitong, sambal goreng and rendang.

The dendeng, or thinly-cut boiled beef slices stir-fried with fiery red chillies, is a tasty dish for sure, but it’s the more common beef rendang that has me hooked.

Salim says the Minangkabau version of the dish is very different from the Malay one.

“The spices we use give the dish a different aroma.

“We get many Indonesian customers as they are not keen on the nasi kandar.

“They prefer gravy that is rich with coconut milk over the red curries Penangites love.

“Nonetheless, we also serve Malay and Indian-Muslim dishes that you will find at most other stalls,” he explains, noting that the Indonesian customers usually compliment them on the authenticity of the dishes served here.

The lemak balitong is another dish worth mentioning if not only for the fact that it is extremely difficult to find stalls selling the sea snails here.

Salim agrees.

“Not many people want to serve it because balitong is expensive.

“It used to cost only RM8 per kilo but now the price has doubled,” he laments.

As for the beef rendang, I challenge any bona fide, hot-blooded, red meat lover to resist the huge beef chunks that are so tender, it takes minimal chewing for the sweet, fragrant juices to explode in your mouth.

If you are very health conscious, go for the grilled marinated fish and ulam, eaten with the sambal goreng mix of spicy chillies, anchovies, petai and lime. It’s simply too good to pass up.

Healthy, tasty and authentically Minangkabau, the sambal goreng is an ideal condiment to any meal be it noodles or rice.

The family pays RM30 daily for hired help to prepare the various different sambal using the traditional batu giling.

The family believes that the electric grinder robs the chilli paste of its “kick”.

“It’s true that we use a lot of coconut milk in our cooking but if you look at the Minangkabau community, we are not obese.

“It’s all about portions and eating in moderation.

“If you get rid of the santan, it is no longer authentic,” he stresses.

The stall is open from 10.30am until the dishes are sold out, which is usually around 8pm.

The family business looks set to continue thriving as the third generation is already waiting in the wings to take over.

Salim’s relative Zulkifli Alias, 36, and his brother have pledged to continue serving their Indonesian grandmother’s famous nasi padang dishes at the stall for a long time to come.

There are no plans to open other outlets anywhere else as the family is worried about maintaining the quality of the food.

“We are very fortunate to have a regular string of customers who have been with us since the early days. The family never expected the small business to become so popular especially here in Penang, where tasty food abounds.

“Working so closely and seeing each other every day obviously does result in some friction, but because we are family, nothing goes unresolved for long,” Salim says before tucking into a late lunch at 3.30pm.

Soon, a hungry dinner crowd will come a-calling and Salim will have to be back on his feet again.