Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sinar Pagi Nasi Padang

At half past eight in the evening, Geylang Serai Food Centre wore a deserted look. It is a huge place, mainly a wet market around whose periphery lie enough food stalls to comprise a largish hawker centre in their own right. By evening the wet market activities grind to a halt, as do most of the food stalls. The action shifts further southwest along Geylang Road - action as in food stalls as well as other uh, pleasures of the flesh.

This shifted action was partly the reason I was at the Food Centre. I have come to the conclusion I share a strange affinity with Malaysia and Malay culture. Something about the very place sets my pulse racing. Right before reaching Geylang, I was at the KTM station at Keppel Road, enquiring about trains to Kota Bharu. The station is in almost all respects a Malaysian outpost - the people; their clothes; the language spoken; the bustling, slightly chaotic food stalls whose tables spill over onto the platform, even the the toilets are marked "Tandas".

All this evoked such a powerful nostalgia in me that going over to Geylang Serai, the other Malay stronghold in town, was almost natural. (I wanted to travel a bit that day, which is why I didn't stick around at the station itself.) Likewise, once at Geylang, I decided to avoid the "action areas", where Chinese culture and cuisine dominate, and proceeded to the less glamorous predominantly Malay hinterland.

Sure enough, I couldn't spot a single Chinese stall at the Food Centre. Indian stalls there were aplenty, likewise Malay stalls advertising exotic-sounding preparations I hadn't heard of before - Kacang Pool, Kebab Tornado, and Briyani Tomato. Of the few stalls still open, only Sinar Pagi Nasi Padang at #209 seemed interesting. Nasi Padang is not Malay, strictly speaking. Padang, from which this culinary genre originates, is in Indonesia, south of Singapore.

Unlike most hawker-centre stalls, this place had a certain personality. A white placard proudly proclaimed: "Theirs is the Kapau Indonesia style . . . rich, spicy and not adulterated for 'softies' (ie those who can't take spicy stuff) with very little use of sugar." It also listed some of the outlet's specialities, and stated that the authentic Kapau style uses for Rendang a harder, textured beef. Lined up just above the placard were an impressive range of reviews and certificates, including one from Makansutra.

The person running the place, a most amiable gent called Mohammed Effendi, asked me to wait a little while as he had run out of rice. I said I was very hungry, and could he just give me some meat. So he waved me towards the glass-fronted cabinet and asked me to make my selection, as per usual Nasi-Padang-meets-hawker-centre custom. I didn't pay much attention to the several interesting fish and veggie preparations on display - I was in an aggressively carnivorous mood that day.

There were two kinds of Rendang on offer - chicken and beef - as well as something called Dengdeng Belado, or marinated sliced chilli beef. I was hard-pressed for choice. Initially I thought I'd settle for Belado and Chicken Rendang. Then as he was ladling the Belado, I suddenly thought why not? and asked for Beef Rendang instead of chicken. Lots of red meat, but so be it. I also asked for a helping of Acar (pickle). Effendi then remembered he had just a little rice left, enough for a half-portion, which he served to me without charge.

I'd describe the Belado as "interesting". It was hard and chewy, as the placard promised. While this made eating slightly laborious, it was not as irritating as, for example, the badly cooked cheap cuts at CLE African Restaurant. The rich meatiness was complemented by judicious if strong use of spices.

Funnily enough, I didn't think the Rendang meat was all that hard, though maybe it benefited from an inadvertent comparison with the Belado. It was firm, yes, but easily chewable. And the gravy had been reduced to a thick, glutinous consistency over low flame, so that it formed a viscous, richly flavoured layer around the meat chunks like rapidly-melting chocolate coating on a biscuit. It made for a pleasant change from some recently encountered Rendang, more soup than stew even. I wouldn't call it the best Rendang I've had, but it came very close.

The meal was a brief one, mainly due to the miniscule amount of rice I was given. Nevertheless it was quite enjoyable, thanks to the cooking as well as the relaxed surroundings. Oh yes, I also immensely enjoyed surreptitiously gawking at the strange-looking (and even more strangely dressed) people hanging aound all over!


Anjali said...

Abhik would you consider getting recipes from generous chefs as and when you can, and posting them here? it may actually allow some of us to occassionally make and try out at least a remote version of whatever you're drooling over!

Durba Basu said...

I second that. How long shall we vicariously enjoy your enthusiasm for everything Malay?

Abhik Majumdar said...

@ Anjali, Durba

The problem with asking people for recipes is that they'll likely as not ask me why I want them. Which means I'll have to let on I'm running a blog, and that I intend to write about them.

This might change their attitude to me in one of many ways. It might set people's back up. The hostility I faced at CLE African Restaurant might have exploded into actual violence had they known the real reason I was taking those pictures. Then again, the more obsequious shopowners might go out of their way to be nice, in the hopes of getting a good review. Ever since the lady from Java Kitchen wrote back, I've wondered if the nice service we got wasn't because they had guessed I planned to write about them.

In any case, there are several excellent Rendang recipes available on the net, take a look!

Anonymous said...

the "lady from java kitchen"
is actually a gentleman, the manager.


Abhik Majumdar said...

Oops, my bad!