What is the main pleasure of traveling? Eat. Plenty of eating around. My last vacation was exactly like that. Being back in West Sumatra after nearly 8 years away was fantastic, especially the food. But I’m not going to talk about the abundances of West Sumatran curries, I’m going to talk about those delightful munchies.
I am originally from Koto Kaciak village in Lima Puluah Koto County. To get there from Padang one musts pass Sicincin, then Padang Panjang, Bukittinggi, Payakumbuh, Dangung-Dangung, then finally good old village. Along the way, which usually takes around 3 hours, there are loads of eateries one can stop and enjoy. I’m giving you few highlights of my favourite places where I can surrender to gluttony.
Once you get to Padang Panjang, there is a restaurant called Pak Datuk that serves traditional Minangkabau food which are rendang, curry, curry, curry, pop chicken, and other goodies. Once you get to the entrance a musician would be sitting on the floor playing an instrument. Eight years a go it was a saluang (traditional Minangkabau bamboo flute) player, last month it was a violin player. Well, technically he was playing a violin. But he put it on the floor and played it as if it was a Batavian rebab or a Chinese erhu.
Of course the food is always good in Pak Datuk, but the specialty of the place is one of the beverage: jus pinang or areca nut juice. Areca nuts come from areca trees which are one of the species of palm trees. The nuts are orange when they’re ripe and on the size of a small fist. When the nuts are still green, they are picked and sold to be used as one of the main ingredients in betelnuts. A betelnut is a mix of betel leaf (sirih), areca nut, a bit of limestone, and a bit of cloves. It is called paan in India and binláng (檳榔) in Chinese. Betelnuts’ function is a bit similar to caffein, which make the chewers stay awake and alert. When I was very small I remembered there were some old people still chewing betelnuts, mouths red as if they just coughed blood. Nowadays there are barely any Indonesians chewing betelnuts, mostly in rural areas and very very old. Interestingly there are still lots of people, old and young, chewing betelnuts everywhere in Taiwan.
Now, the areca nuts used for the juice are the green ones. They have bitter taste that really sticks at the back of your tongue with a sharp, tangy after taste. To make the juice one musts cut open 2 areca nuts and remove the pit insides, scrape the flesh of the nuts into a blender, add water, plenty of sweet and condensed milk, then blend it into a thick almost smoothie-like consistency. Then happily gulp it down. It’s very very creamy, with a bit of bitter after taste. Some restaurants add egg into the mixture, but in my opinion the simplest form is the best.
Traveling northwest to Bukittinggi from Padang Panjang, one musts have bikas. Bikas I dare say, are traditional coconut milk-based cakes from Sumatra. There are many varieties of bikas with different shapes, textures, colours, and tastes. Bika Ambon for instance, although it is named after the capital city of Maluku Province, was invented in Medan, North Sumatra and named after Ambon Street where the shop was located. It is made of coconut milk, flour, sugar, and lots of eggs. Resulting in a yellow, spongy, buttery sweet cake that’ll spike your cholesterol instantly. A sign of delicious food.
West Sumatran bikas on the other hand are simpler; made of coconut milk, sugar (white or palm), and flour. My grandmother was a loyal customer to a shop called ‘Bika Pondok Bambu’. She only got her freshly made bikas from that particular shop. Now she has passed, but my family is still relatively loyal to the shop. Bika Pondok Bambu, a simple establishment next to the street only serves white bika (made of regular sugar) and brown bika (made of palm sugar). The mixture is poured into a palm (as in human’s palm) size banana leaf and put into a clay pot. A second clay pot is put on top of the first one, inside are firewood. After few minutes the bikas are ready to be munched.
When I arrived in the village and stayed for 4 days, it was almost curry, curry, and curry almost every day. One could never have too much curry in West Sumatra; from the delicate fish curry, the rich chicken opor (white curry), the asam padeh beef (literally means ‘sour and flaming’), sweet and spicy snail curry with cassava leaves, the robust mutton and bamboo shoots curry, the trademark beef rendang, and many many more. Usually these types of food are only eaten on special occasions such as weddings, Eid Mubarak, and Eid’l Adha. The regular diet only consists of rice, vegetables, eggs, fish, and an occasional chicken. Locals rarely eat red meat such as beef or mutton, they just prefer to pack lots of carbohydrate from rice and cassavas, therefore local people are muscular but also very lithe due to low intake of proteins. Since we were vacationers and it was also Eid’l Adha, the food was just insane. Four days in the village and weeks of spin classes would follow after.
The village itself is quite famous for its snacks. As a matter of fact, my childhood friend’s mother has her hown business of making and selling kue sangko or sangko cakes. Sangko cakes are made of sago fluor and palm sugar, simple as that. The ingredients are mixed and hot-pressed into the mold, neither coconot milk nor butter and eggs are used on making the cakes. Sangko cakes have rough texture and distinctive taste that might not suitable for everybody, but that is the main reason why one musts try sangko cakes while visiting Lima Puluah Koto County, especially Guguk Municipality.
If sangko cakes are too weird, but you still one something sweet, then you should try kipang. Kipang is basically the traditional Asian version of caramel pop corn. There are severel kinds of kipang; corn and rice. But both are prepared by toasting dry corn or dry rice until they pop, mix them with palm sugar caramel and shape them into bite-size cubes. Kipangs are practically available almost all over Indonesia under different names, I even found similar snack in Taiwan, although the Taiwanese version uses white sugar and peanuts instead of palm sugar.
Tired of eating sweet snacks means it’s time to switch to savory ones. Rubik ganefo do have a strange name. They were named after Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO), Indonesia’s socialist answer to the Olympic Games. Back in 1962 when Indonesia was still an economic leader in Asia and had a tendency to lean toward socialism, we created an assembly that would rival the one held by liberal countries. Countries such as Soviet, Mexico, Brasil, Bolivia, Afghanistan, Iraq, France, Finland, Poland, etc (no US, UK, Australia, West Germany, and the rest of Scandinavia for sure). Rubik ganefo themselves are made of deep fried dried cassava that had been cut to small cubes, marinated with tumeric, garlic, cellery, and other seasonings. The best rubik are actually made at a nearby village called Padang Kandis. They are soft, yet crunchy, which is the devil’s trap because you never realise that you already at your umptieth helping.
On the day we had to leave the village, we took a long drive to the airport. We stopped at so many eating places. Gluttony was a hard sin to repent. We passed an area called Pelabaian. Lo and behold! There was another bika shop. These bikas were a bit different than the Pondok Bambu ones. Although they were made of coconut milk and shredded coconuts, they were using different fluor. The batter itself was poured into leaves that I didn’t know the names. Nevertheless, they were fantastic.
The journey ended when I finally had my craving satistied. It was the magic of paniarams, sometimes also spelled as pinyarams. The name might be borrowed from a South Indian snack, but this West Sumatran version is a nightmare for diabetics. Paniarams are made of sticky rice fluor, either black or white, mixed with palm sugar, and deep fried. They are sweet, greasy, gooey in the middle, and pure guilty pleasure. One paniaram equals half centimetre of your waist line. The sweetness of paniarams marked the end of my holiday and the beginning of my regiment, but as I mentioned before, there is always time for munching around.