One of the great things about living overseas is that you’re sometimes forced to move out of your comfort zone. That’s actually a good thing – as the post-modernist French philosopher Jean Baudrillard once said, “To open our eyes to the absurdity of our own customs is the charm and benefit of travel.”
By nature of living in another country, your eyes are opened a great deal. Especially when it comes to food.
We’ve been exposed to many new foods during our time in Indonesia – rice porridge, cooked rabbit on a stick, tempe, even sea cucumbers. But I was still not prepared for my first visit to a padang restaurant.
I gave a talk at a U.S. embassy facility in Jakarta last week, and I was returning to Bandung in a van with another professor and a group of students from UNPAD, the school where I teach. My professor friend Dandi loves to eat (I made sure we had donuts for the early-morning trip to Jakarta) and it had been a few hours since his last meal, so we stopped at one of the many rest areas found along the toll road for dinner.
If you were to take a poll on what type of food is most available around the world, it is likely that Chinese would win by a large margin. The Chinese have been traders for thousands of years, settling just about everywhere, and they bring their food with them. I’ve never traveled to a country that hasn’t had at least a few good Chinese restaurants.
Padang is the Chinese food of the Malay Archipelago.
Padang is the capital city of the province of West Sumatra. The people who live in the area are known as the Minangkabau. The Minangkabau people have been quite mobile historically, finding their way across the Malay Archipelago. And just like the Chinese, they are known for their food.
Padang food uses coconut milk and chili to achieve its famous taste. And the Minangkabau people are known for their love of cattle products, especially offal – the entrails and internal organs. So a meal in a padang restaurant provides an interesting assault on your taste buds, and for many westerners your gag reflex as well.
There are no menus. We sat down at one of a number of long tables, and within a minute or so a waiter brought an array of dishes balanced on his arm like a waiter in a Groucho Marx movie. Except this waiter never seems to drop a plate, despite as many as ten or 12 dishes balanced precariously, lining his arm from his wrist to his chin.
All the dishes are deposited along the length of the table. Diners simply pick through the dishes, eating what they like. When done, the waiter returns with a pad and pencil and using some seemingly magical formula he determines precisely how much was eaten, and at what cost.
The dishes are mostly things rarely found on a U.S. menu. A squishy dish of cow brains sits right in front of me, next to one containing dark brown slices of fried cow lung. Balanced across a dish of squid and another of cow feet sits a satay containing skewers filled with cow hearts.
There was also a shrimp dish cooked in chilies, some fried chicken, a tiny fish that is eaten whole, a plate containing jackfruit, some papaya leaves and a green chili paste.
All this is eaten using the fingers of your right hand only. Rolling a small ball of rice, you use the rice to scoop up the rest of the food. When you’re done, a small metal bowl of water sitting to the back of your plate is used to rinse your fingers.
The older I get, the less I enjoy eating meat. It’s been a struggle to get our cook here to cut back on meat dishes. So while I’m perhaps as adventurous as the next guy, the idea of eating cow brain and lungs simply did not appeal to me. While the rest in our group plowed their way through the various dishes, I contented myself by eating rice, shrimp, and the oddly dry and tasteless papaya leaves.
Americans laugh when they hear of such dishes. We would no sooner eat cow brains then we would shoe leather. But every culture has dishes that others might find offensive. The Muslims of Indonesia look at our consumption of pork the same way we view the eating of rabbits or horses. I love the cultural understanding we’re gaining while here, and at least some of that comes from eating the different foods. Except this time, I got all the understanding I needed by just watching.
Toward the end of the meal Dandi disappeared for a few minutes, and when he returned he had paid for the bill. I asked how much I owed him and he laughed. “You hardly ate anything,” he said. Here I thought no one was watching.