Updated: Jun 15, 2021
If you’ve spent any time in Indonesia, you’ve eaten Masakan Padang. As pervasive as the Irish pub or the Chinese restaurant in other parts of the world, the Padang or Minang restaurant / food stall can be found everywhere in Indonesia. But why? The story behind this excellent and ubiquitous cuisine is as fascinating as the food is delicious.
The Minang Kabau who are from the highlands of West Sumatra (capital Padang) are particularly close to our hearts since they are the largest matrilineal society in the world. This means that property, family name and land is passed down from mother to daughter. Men are considered guest in their wives’ homes. Indeed, though the original adat (traditional law) has now been somewhat watered down by the influence of Islam, with most religious and political affairs now being run by men, Minang women still enjoy an important place in their community as most property and economic assets pass through female lines. Women are the heroes of the most important founding tales and, importantly, girl babies are treasured and nearly all important decisions require a consensus between men and women.
* The roof represents the horns of the calf in the founding tale of the Minangkabau people. The people had a land dispute with a neighbouring prince. To settle the dispute, they proposed a bull fight. The prince brought a strong bull whilst the people brought a very hungry calf with especially sharpened horns. When the calf saw the bull he ran to it, the bull did not fear the calf but as the calf hungrily looked for the teat, he pierced the bull's stomach with sharp horns thus defeating the prince.
The Minang were prominent figures in the fight for independence. Partly due to their strong Muslim beliefs (against the protestant Dutch) but also due to their strong tradition of egalitarianism reflected in their language: a dialect of Malay closely related to the newly created Indonesian, which has much fewer hierarchical connotations than Javanese (or certainly Balinese). Their cultural Sumatran pride is also expressed in their egalitarian belief that one should ‘stand high, sit low’ so as to always be on the same level as others.
Representing 3 percent of the Indonesian population, these inspiring people are very much present in the influential intellectual, cultural and political spheres ruling Indonesia.
Another enlightened tradition of the Minang is that of ‘merantau', which loosely translates as ‘leaving home to seek one’s fortune’. It is expected for most Minang men to leave home to travel, study, learn and get rich away from home to then return and bring new ideas and knowledge back to enrich the community. Many of the wanderers open restaurants since the Minang cuisine is renowned all over Indonesia for its exquisite dishes, such the world-famous beef rendang. Through a combination of financial need (men do not inherit so they must seek their fortune), tradition (merantau) and opportunity (the cuisine is delicious), Masakan Padang has become ubiquitous in Nusantara - the ‘land in between’( land and sea) - the Indonesian archipelago, much to our great delight.
So next time you pop in to get a nasi padang, remember the great culture and history that lie behind it and it will taste all the more scrumptious.