For the best Nasi Padang, one would, of course, go to Indonesia - or more specifically, Sumatera, where Padang food originates from. Outside Indonesia, Nasi Padang takes on somewhat localised Malay flavours in Singapore and Malaysia - the use of the heavily-aromatic “daun kesom” (known in the West as Vietnamese mint or “rau răm”), much loved by Indonesians, is cut down as Singaporean or Malaysian-Malays are not as enamoured of its dull scent.
Penang, Malaysia’s food paradise is much known for its Chinese, mainly Teochew and Hokkien-influenced street/hawker fare. In terms of Muslim cuisine, Penang is dominated by Tamil-Muslims from South India, and the best-known Penang-Muslim food is, of course, the Nasi Kandar. Much like Nasi Padang, Nasi Kandar consisted of steamed white rice taken with a variety of curried dishes. However, in the case of Nasi Kandar, its curries are mainly South Indian ones, and with very distinct tastes and aromas which set them apart from other regional Indian, Malay, Indonesian or Thai curries widely available in Penang. Traditionally, Penang’s Nasi Kandar vendors (e.g. Syed Ibrahim of Hameediyah, Kirudu Mohd Kuppaikani of Pelita and Sirajuddin Mohd Mydin of Kayu ) hail from the Ramnad district of Tamil Nadu in India, whilst the spice-women who traditionally provide the spice blends and mixes which characterise Nasi Kandar curries came mainly from Tenkasi and Kadayanallur in Tamil Nadu.
So what makes Nasi Padang Minang in Transfer Road so different from the Nasi Kandar spots which dominate the Muslim food trade in Penang? For one, its late founder, a very entrepreneurial Padang-born Madam Ardaini Sabar who started the restaurant in 1987 was a stickler for “proper” spicing and cooking methods. Ardaini had moved to Penang in 1971 after marrying her Kedah-born Malaysian husband, Alias Abdul Rahman. Both were talented cooks, but Ardaini then put her skills in Minang (a distinct ethnic group in Sumatera) recipes learnt from her grandmother, Mdm Siti Hajar to good use, combining them with her husband’s Kedah (Northern Malaysian) culinary heritage, and tweaked to suit local Penang tastes: less turmeric, less sweet, more red chillis. The result was rather interesting: Minang-style beef-steak “dendeng”, spicy “ayam kalio” chicken and “urab”, a piquant Minang-style salad, side-by-side with Kedahan spicy-sweet fish stew (“ikan masak manis pedas”) and sour-spicy taro (“assam pedas keladi”).
Sadly, Mdm Ardaini, I just found out recently, had passed on in 2012, and her husband & eldest son now run the ever-popular eatery on the ground floor of Hotel International (despite its name, it’s actually a traditional Chinese-style coffeeshop) on Transfer Road. The food are just as good as I remembered from my first trip here in 2000 - more than 15 years ago now. I thought the spread of curried dishes had taken on a mostly reddish hue these days - a sign of Chef Alias’ Kedah roots - whereas during Mdm Ardaini’s watch, it leaned more towards Minang/Padang-style with its light turmeric-yellow gravies. Either way, the complex blend of spices are still there, and every dish I tried on this last visit were flavoursome: the “ayam kalio”, the beef “rendang”, the curried fish roe from the giant snapper, the grilled eggplants, halved and smothered with ground red chillies. The spread of curries to choose from was awesome - over 25 different dishes. Definitely worth a few visits. It opens at 11am - be sure to get there early for lunch, else be prepared for the long queue.
Nasi Padang Minang
92, Jalan Transfer
10050 George Town, Penang
Open daily 11am-8pm, but may close on certain Wednesdays.