Thursday, April 12, 2007

Singapore Food: The Decline Of Nasi Padang

Of all the cuisines in the world that I have experienced, my favorite is the cuisine of the Indonesian islands. Indonesia is a vast archipelago of 17000 islands stretching 2000 miles and more from New Guinea to Sumatra, from Sulawesi to Kalimantan. The great diversity in people, language, culture brings forth great diversity in cuisine. Nasi Padang is steamed white rice accompanied by a variety of meat, fish and vegetable dishes. 'Nasi' means 'rice' in Indonesian and 'Padang' is a town on the island of Sumatra where this dish is said to have originated. The people of Sumatra, being part of a culturally distinct Riau archipelago are more akin to the Malays of Singapore and Malaysia than to the Javanese and Balinese next door . So Nasi Padang is also a common dish in Singapore and Malaysia. Unfortunately, the standard of Nasi Padang in Singapore has deteriorated so much, that I find most of the stalls serving almost inedible Nasi Padang. No more only sold by small hawker stalls who take the time to lovingly prepare the Nasi Padang dishes, and take care to use the best ingredients, the modern Nasi Padang in Singapore is a dud that I would advise all tourists to give a miss unless they can find some of the original stalls.

The top picture shows Nasi Padang as it is sold in the shops in Padang, Sumatra. The bottom shows Nasi Padang as packaged by a Food Court in Singapore. Even through the photographs, you can see the difference in quality between true Nasi Padang and what Nasi Padang has evolved into in modern Singapore. Look at that over-deepfried big chicken thigh. Compare with the small range-free chickens they use in Sumatra. [second row from the front, third dish from the left]

Look at the color of the curry gravy in the bottom picture-too red in color, too much chili, and maybe they even added Ketchup , with too little of the subtle spices like Tumeric, Cloves, Nutmeg, Galianga root [Blue Ginger], that you can see in the curry gravy of the top picture . The true Nasi Padang curries may be fiery hot, but the spiciness is smooth and not harsh. The pathetic-looking salad of cucumber, pineapple and onion in the bottom picture is another sign of apathy towards freshness of ingredients. And right at the north-east corner of the Singapore dish is what is supposed to be Beef Rendang- beef that has been simmered slowly for hours in a spice mixture, until it is tender, and the gravy it has been simmered in has almost disappeared, leaving an almost dry piece of beef, that has absorbed all the fragrance of the spices. The Beef Rendang here looks like it had been very quickly prepared and a blob of gravy poured over it. Compare that with the Beef Rendang in the top picture [second row from the front, second dish from the right] . One last complaint: Compare the Squid dish in the bottom picture with the Squid dish in the top picture [second row from the front, first dish from the right]. The Singapore squid looks thoroughly unappetising compared to the Indonesian squid.

Enough said: If you want to eat good Nasi Padang in Singapore the only places I know of are :
[things may have changed in the two years I have not been back, but I doubt it would have changed for the better]

1. Nasi Pariaman, in Kandar Street, off North Bridge Road.

2. The coffee shop in River Valley Road /Zion Road that I forgot the name of.

# I am not sure of the consistency of quality for Sabah Menanti which is now more like a franchise or has copy cats with the same name, and the gentrified Nasi Padang at the Rendevous Hotel in Dhoby Ghaut.

* Even the stalls in the Malay market in Geylang Serai are nothing much to talk about.

** As for the branch of Saribundo the famous Jakarta Nasi Padang that did make an appearance in Singapore in Marina Shopping Mall, it just was not the same food as in Jakarta when I tried it. Most probably it would have closed down, charging shopping mall prices for worse than hawker stall food.

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