The expression “guilty pleasure” is apt for a culinary adventure in West Sumatra. But while Minang cuisine (Minang is the local ethnicity of West Sumatra) poses a challenge to anyone on a diet, the dishes available are arguably among the tastiest Indonesia has to offer.
Minang cuisine’s alarming calorie count is largely down to its exuberant use of coconut milk. The people of West Sumatra love coconut milk – a dish without it is quite uncommon in the region – despite several health and dietary institutions, including the WHO, recommending against its consumption because of its high levels of saturated fat.
It seems to us only too easy to overconsume Minang cuisine’s heavenly tastes. But then again, maybe two servings of rendang (beef simmered in coconut milk) would be fine.
However, while rendang remains the uncontested star of Minang cuisine, the culinary heritage of West Sumatra is so rich that it would be a crime to ignore its other offerings.
So forget the weighing scales and the waistline measurements; check out our recommendations of places and dishes for an unforgettable West Sumatran culinary adventure.
Nasi Kapau Uni Cah
Minang cuisine eateries are commonly referred to as “Padang restaurants” across Indonesia. However, there are in reality more than one kind of eatery that serve Minang dishes. While other Padang restaurants serve their food in the most common way – stacks of small plates of dishes – the style of the people of Nagari Kapau village in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, is to use large plates and dishes to serve their food.
A Kapau menu, however, does not vary hugely from other Padang restaurants. Nasi Kapau, the name of the local serving style, features a range of side dishes, such as gulai nangka (jackfruit curry), gulai tunjang (cow’s rind) and gulai tambusu (beef intestines filled with egg), all of which are gloriously engulfed in spiced coconut milk.
One notable feature of the Nasi Kapau style is that you order your meal at the storefront before taking your plate to your table, instead of the waiter serving all the side dishes on the table as is common in a Padang restaurant.
As you choose your meal in a Kapau restaurant, the waiter will serve your chosen side dishes using a long ladle, a utensil rarely seen in Padang restaurants.
If you want to try a Kapau restaurant, visit Uni Cah restaurant in Bukittinggi on Jl. Raya Padang Luar. This place is a well-known Kapau restaurant, as evident from the pictures on the wall of former Indonesian presidents who have visited.
Ayam Pop at Family restaurant
The seemingly raw chicken dish called ayam pop is an option for those wishing to limit their intake of coconut milk. The dish is available in most Padang restaurants.
Ayam pop is popular for its unique taste. Its transparent, juicy appearance suggests the chicken has only been stewed, whereas actually it is also fried. Recipes instruct the cook to stew the chicken with spices before frying it briefly.
The dish cannot lay claim to generations of tradition; a restaurant in Bukittinggi named Family claims to be its inventor. Regardless of the validity of their claim, the tastiness of their ayam pop cannot be doubted.
Family restaurants can be found in Bukittinggi at Jl. Sudirman no. 79 and Jl. Benteng no. 4.
Gulai Kepala Ikan at Ni Yas restaurant
Fish-head curry, locally known as gulai kepala ikan, is one of the most celebrated dishes in Minang cuisine; a special treat for special occasions. Such status follows suit in Padang restaurants, with the dish considered a luxury item on the menu.
We put this dish in the “exotic” category; despite its popularity, gulai kepala ikan is an acquired taste.
A curried fish’s head, on a plate in front of you – or, more normally, half a head. The enjoyment comes from foraging for meat and other consumable tidbits, ending the session with a plateful of stripped-clean bones; a similar delight to eating crab or ribs.
The best spot to hunt for the dish is Bungus bay in Padang. The Ni Yas restaurant on Jl. Raya Padang-Painan serves one of the best gulai kepala ikan thanks to their close proximity to the fish auction market, enabling them to be first in line for the freshest of fish.
Soto Padang at Soto Garuda
Soto Padang (a clear soup consisting of meat, usually liver or other offal, onions, crispy beef, fried potatoes and white noodles) is another entry on the coconut milk-free list.
The difference between soto Padang and similar dishes from other parts of Indonesia is the practice of frying the beef until crisp before adding it to the broth.
There is a notable soto Padang restaurant called Soto Garuda close to Minangkabau International Airport. A meal of soto Padang and rice will cost you Rp 28,000 (US$2.29).
Bika on the Padang Panjang route
The hilly Padang Panjang route connects the cities of Padang and Bukittinggi. Its rather chilly weather makes it perfect to enjoy some warm snacks, and bika (a type of pancake) fits the bill.
There are some interesting facts regarding this snack. If you are familiar with Indonesian traditional snacks, you might be aware of bika as a snack originating from Kalimantan – and made from potato. However, in eastern Indonesia, wheat flour is used, making a variant known as bika Ambon after the city in eastern Indonesia. However, one of the most popular bika Ambon, loved for its softness, is actually made in Medan, North Sumatra.
The bika made in Padang Panjang is similar to the one made in Medan. The difference is that bika Padang Panjang is round and small, while Medan’s bika Ambon often comes in a large size.
One example of a great bika stall in Padang Panjang is Bika Talago. The stall operates next to a tranquil lake, and the bika is priced at Rp 3,000 per piece.
Minang snacks also encompass Sanjai crackers, which are a popular souvenir. Shops selling this snack can be found in cities across West Sumatra.
The name Sanjai comes from a village in Bukittinggi where the spicy fried cassava chip originated. These shops offer a variety of snacks, but Sanjai crackers remain the customers’ favorite. Other flavors are available, including cheese and durian.
In most of the big shops, a convenient boxing service is available, packing your crackers into handy carry-on bags for the plane.
Local coffee shops
Aside from food, the Minang region also boasts an array of local beverages and a pleasant coffee shop community. Teh talua (hot tea mixed with egg) is one example, and can be found at any number of restaurants and food stalls.
As for coffee, the region is buzzing with pride after the local coffee grown in the Solok area won third place in the Syphon category at the Roaster’s Choice Awards 2014 in Thailand. You can find this variant at Rumah Kopi Nunos in Padang and Rimbun Coffee in Bukittinggi.
Another delightful coffee shop, Nanyo, can be found on Jl. Pondok Panjang; it is said to be one of the oldest coffee shops in the city.