Question: What was the first thing Mr Neil Armstrong saw, when he landed on the moon? Answer: A Padang food restaurant!
This is an old joke in Indonesia, but it illustrates aptly how ubiquitous West Sumatran food is available throughout the Indonesian archipelago. There is virtually no town anywhere in Indonesia lacking a restaurant or foodstal where the tasty cuisine from the Minagkabau region is served. True enough, it is not the only ethnic food that is wide spread throughout the country, but only Padang food comes in so many varied ways that any ethnic group could dine on it every day!
There are some peculiarities attached to this unique style of serving and consuming this type of food. In the authentic Padang eateries, you'll be seated at a table and served by a waiter carrying as much as 15 different dishes. They'll all land on your table but you take only what you want. Some say this is a reflection of the democratic culture amongst the Minagkabau!
Alternatively, you might want to try the ampera, a buffet style of serving the food. It somehow lacks the spectacular serving by a waiter, but it certainly lives up to the same incredible amount of variety on the display shelves.
One might ask about the reason behind the omnipresence of Padang food restaurants in Indonesia. The answer lies in a typical Minagkabau tradition of rantau, literally meaning 'to travel far away to find a livelihood'. For men, this is almost a natural thing to do when they pass into adulthood, since a matrilineal system regulates the inheritance of property and family fortune. Men are often reluctant to cultivate the resources owned by their sisters, therefore they prefer to move to another part of the country to make their own living. Needless to say that the primary choice is setting up a … restaurant!
The requisite items on any Padang food menu will be rendang (beef chops with spicy cocunut seasoning), dendeng balado (crisp beef with chili toppings), fried carfish, balado chicken, several vegetable dishes such as stewed cassave leaves and jackfruit, next to a variety of curry dishes or kali, which will include curried egg, fish curries prepared with and without coconut milk and various kinds of beef offal, topped off by a tasty perkedel (mashed potato cake).
Let's not forget that Padang food uses every spice under the tropical sun. A single dish may have up to 15 ingredients. The trick lies in the formula that balances all these spices. This differentiates one Padang restaurant from another.
Anyhow, you too should try one of the many great Padang food restaurants when traveling (anywhere) in Indonesia. They come in as many kinds as there are spices in their food. They range from simple roadside stalls to air-conditioned, fancy eateries where one can enjoy an important part of the rich ethnic cuisine of Indonesia.