Goreng belut (crispy, chile-scattered deep-fried freshwater eel)
Yah, that's what we'll call it - research. You see, we've got this trip to Sumatra coming up, and there's this petite Sumatran nasi shop in Sentul that a friend told us about last September. As food bloggers, we're compelled - nay, obliged - to bone up on what's yummy well before we arrive at our destination. OK, OK, so we were travelling on our stomachs long before Eating Asia was even a twinkle in our eyes. But still, our first gut-busting lunch at Minang Salero (and it's follow-up visit) can surely be justified as research. Can't it?
This restaurant occupies a sweet old, metal-roofed wooden house - fan-cooled tables in, a few tables out by the street. Warm yellow-gold walls and Sumatran handicrafts lend it a homey feel.
Families and lone males (most of them Indonesian, many of them taxi drivers) come here for nasi Padang - a term which literally means Padang-style rice (Padang is a large city on the coast of western Sumatra) but more generally refers to the cuisine of the Minangkabau (aka Minang), who regard the highlands north and east of Padang as their cultural home. In addition to their fiery food, Minang are best known for their distinctive architecture (roofs jut upward at either end, mimicking buffalo horns) and culture (matrilineal, egalitarian).
Minang Salero's owner hail from Bukittingi, a large highlands city estimated to be home to about four million Minang. He opened his restaurant almost 30 years ago, when jungle still covered much of present-day Sentul's concrete, and still imports key ingredients from Sumatra. Nowadays his son mans the cash box and makes sure the shop's L-shaped, two-story groaning board (above) is constantly stocked with around thirty-five rotating dishes, several sambals, and plentiful ulam (raw vegetables). Dad can often be found hanging out or enjoying his own cooking at a table in the back.
Sambals of fresh red and cooked green chilies, dishes, and ulam (leaf lettuce, cucumber, pennywort)
In Indonesian Padang restaurants a meal often consists of countless small saucers of curries, sambals, and assorted other goodies placed in the middle of the table as soon as customers are seated. Diners pick and choose, paying only for the saucers they've eaten from (some Padang restaurants don't charge for a spoonful of sauce, as long as solids aren't touched). Minang Salero's staff is amenable to serving food in this fashion; just indicate which foods you'd like to try and they'll dish them up. For most customers it's a self-serve affair, as they pile steamed rice on a plate (or a banana leaf, if it's to be a takeaway meal) and cruise the groaning board, stopping here and there to add a morsel or two and splash some gravy on their rice.
Bitter greens 'salad' with shredded coconut and chile-spiced steamed eggplant (right)
We sampled so many dishes on our two visits that it's difficult to recall details and, from the look of my notes, I was much too busy chowing to write legibly. But the standouts we remember: fishy (and boneless) freshwater eels sliced lengthwise, fried to a crisp, and scattered with red chilies (opening photo); not unpleasantly chewy rendang that - for now - will serve as my standard for what this dish of beef long-simmered with coconut milk, candlenuts, lemongrass, lime leaves, ginger, galangal, chilies, and assorted spices should be; eggplant steamed (or roasted? or slow-grilled?) to a custardy creaminess and anointed with crushed red chilies; and a refreshing 'salad' of unidentified bitter green leaves, blanched and mixed with turmeric-tinted shredded coconut.
I can't neglect to mention the tembusu, an unusual and truly sublime 'sausage' of cow intestine stuffed with cooked egg and herbs, served in a pool of mild, coconut milk-based sauce. Or the teeniest new potatoes in a yellow curry spiced with mysterious dried sour pods.
Dry-fried tempeh and potato curry
Or the delectably spicy dry-fried tempeh and potato curry, rich with thick rings of caramelized onions and deep-fried ikan bilis. Or the homemade sambals - especially a sweet and shrimp-pasty concoction of simmered red chilies and caramelized onions, spicy and mellow at the same time, much like an aggressively seasoned American-style southern barbecue sauce.
The perfect capper to a meal at Minang Salero is thick, strong Sumatran coffee.
Those not afraid to push the edge of the glutton's envelope will prefer a dessert of es pokat, a sinfully creamy avocado shake with chocolate syrup and sweetened condensed milk that tastes much, much better than it sounds. Avocado is a fruit, after all.
Minang Salero, No. 10 Jalan Sentul Sehaluan, Sentul, Kuala Lumpur. Tel. 03-4043-7814. 730am-930pm. Closed third Friday every month.
Note: For a wittier take on the glories of Minang Salero's kampung-style food (and descriptions of more dishes) see this detailed review from last year.