West Sumatra is home to the best crackers (or chips/crisps, if you like) in Southeast Asia. Kerepek are made all over Indonesia (and in Malaysia as well), but by our estimation Sumatra's Minangkabau take the craft of cracker making to giddy heights.
Some varieties, such as peyek ikan (square or round rice flour crackers studded bits of green onions and whole dried fish), are real works of art.
Most every west Sumatran market - big or small, daily or weekly, in town or villages - has numerous stalls dedicated to all foods crunchy and snack-able.
Crisps are displayed hanging in plastic bags
and heaped in gargantuan baskets.
They're sold ready to eat, like these kerepek made with buffalo skin (much tastier than you might imagine),
and dried, awaiting a bath in hot oil to bring out their crunch.
We love peyek ikan, both for its beauty and bracing, fish-forward saltiness that performs a lovely duet with ice-cold beer. But we're especially fond of kerepek sanjai, cassava crisps with a sweet and spicy coating.
In an open room at the end of one row, two local lads are making kerepek. To start, a basket of wafer-thin, 2-inch wide semi sun-dried cassava strips are dumped into bubbling oil.
To insure the chips crisp evenly the kerepek cook repeatedly dips his strainer into the oil,
raises it from the frothing mass, and tosses the kerepek again and again,
creating lots of steam in the process.
After ten minutes the kerepek are removed from the oil and transferred to a smaller wok filled with a sticky sugar-chile sauce. The chip mixer uses his (plastic-protected) hands and a couple of shallow plastic saucers to toss the cassava about in the brick-red goo, working quickly to make sure it coats every nook and cranny of the kerepek while they're still hot.
Once the kerepek have cooled, he transfers them to buckets to await packaging.
Though every shop on the strip is selling kerepek sanjai, not all use this method to prepare their specialty. In one shop, we found a woman seated in front of a heap of cooked cassava chips, using a paint brush to painstakingly stripe both sides of each kerepek with a coating of spicy sweetness (8 photos up, background).
The proprietress of Natal Jaya (where peyek ikan are called payet mako, after the dried fish that decorate them, and kerepek sanjai are named kripik balado, after a Minang sambal), one of the busier businesses on the street, tells us they sell about three hundred 500-gram bags of kripik balado a day (during Ramadan the number rises to 2000).
Natal Jaya makes its own kripik balado (some of the other shops source theirs elsewhere), in the back of the shop. Here, as at the shops outside Bukittingi, the cassava strips are given a dunk in chile goo after deep-frying, but at Natal Jaya they're not tossed, just lifted out of the stickiness
and allowed to drain. The result is a thickly-coated chip that dictates consumption be accompanied by a wetnap.
'Sticky' and 'saucy' may be words more often associated with buffalo wings than with crisps, but Natal Jaya's kerepek balado evince just the right balance of saltiness, sweetness, and lip tingling-spiciness and - in spite of their gooey-ness, have a hearty crunch that somehow stands the test of time, plastic bag packaging, and humidity.
Happily, Natal Jaya will pack a carry-on luggage sized box of bags to go. Sadly, our stash ran out several months back.