Man, this place has been on my list the longest, longest time. Long ago, at a work-related function, I first saw the logo of Rumah Makan Minang – imitating the distinctive, buffalo-horn eaves of the rumah gadang, the traditional communal houses of the Minangkabau people. The crew, working noisily and efficiently, soon had a long table decked with catering trays. A taste of their chicken, and of squid cooked in an ink-black sauce, and I have been looking to come to Minang ever since.
The Minangkabau, one of Asia’s few matrilineal societies, hail from West Sumatra but have spread out over maritime Southeast Asia. They have had an outsize impact on the region. Our first president, Yusof Ishak, was of Minangkabau descent, as was Indonesia’s first vice-president and Malaysia’s first Yang di-Pertuan Agong. Others work their influence more humbly and subtly, one serving of rendang or nasi Padang at a time.
A narrow corner unit facing Masjid Sultan, the restaurant is exposed to the full glare of tourists and, thankfully, does not tart itself up just for their edification. The space is ‘alfresco’, in that there’s tables on the five foot way. Obscured from semi-curious visitors, though, is the long glass-fronted counter where the real opulence is.
Beef rendang has been thoroughly integrated into other cuisines and given other twists, but its origin is with the Minangkabau. There’s practically no gravy, just a thin layer of red oil wrung out from the rempah (spice mixture). Patient stewing has driven the flavour of coconut milk and the rempah fully into the meat, while thoroughly taming the meat itself. Even the gristle is rendered into sticky collagenesque goodness to complement the tender (but not limp) flesh.
Ayam belado hijau (chicken in green chili paste) is, in contrast, a dish of sharpness and firmness. I’ve seen it said that the best time to have this is in the morning, when the chicken is freshly fried and then tossed in the cooked sauce of green chili and other spices. But even in the afternoon, when the batter has hardened, the meat inside is still moist.
As for the belado hijau, the best chili sauces are the ones that remember chili is not just heat but also a fruit. This sauce remembers it – the green chili is enthusiastically spicy, but also retains the tones of fresh, crisp fruit, a slight grassiness even.
Ikan asam pedas looks like a blaze, but its flavour is toned down in comparison – or at least I thought so at first. The delicate, milk-white fish (mackerel, I think) needs to be drenched in the sauce, which is quiet at first, then escalates into a buzzy acidity. It’s not all that pedas (spicy), but it makes one reach for rice, even more than the other dishes.
We eat a lot more than this, from slices of a thick, pliant omelette to sayur lodeh whose watery looks belie its bright taste, underlaid by coconut milk. But then is dish-by-dish really the best way to measure a cuisine which is inextricably based on the communal meal?
After all, as with tapas or dim sum, each dish is not meant to be self contained. They are not paintings of their own but swathes of colour, each vivid but only making sense together. Or at least I think so.
Perhaps it is better to say this – that, sitting with two friends I have not seen for nearly a year, we hid out from the sun and had a simple but very good meal. And as the world slowly drifted by between Minang and the great mosque, occasionally glancing our way, we felt something approaching bliss.
Rumah Makan Minang
18 and 18A Kandahar Street
Contact no.: 6294 4805
Mon – Fri: 7am – 8pm
Sat – Sun: 7am – 5pm