The shiok plate of nasi padang at Rumah Makan Minang | Photo: Celine Asril
We can’t get enough of this Indonesian (from Padang, West Sumatra, to be exact) cuisine and style of eating: steamed white rice served with an array – sometimes as many as 12, or more – of pre-cooked dishes, the mini banquet usually laid out ('hidang' style) in small plates. The dishes are generally robust with spices (rendang, sambals), curries made rich with coconut milk, and sometimes tongue-numbingly-hot – qualities that have made nasi padang addicts out of us.
Nasi padang also delivers in the pesan form – the "orders" piled on a plate, mainly for individual diners. Like the original Padang stalls, nasi padang in Singapore is presented behind a glass display, though mostly in long, deep clear dishes over two or three shelves; they’re rarely stacked up in small porcelain plates like they do in Indonesia.
In Indonesia, unless specified, the server will lay out all the dishes on the table – those that are not touched are not charged to the diner. It’s more complicated in Singapore – you have to pick your own, and we know that isn’t always easy with the big selection. We’re here to help – we’ve narrowed down five of our favourite nasi padang restaurants, and the dishes we like at each establishment:
Bukit Merah / Redhill / Alexandra: Istimewa Nasi Padang
Kampong Glam: Rumah Makan Minang
Kampong Glam: Nasi Padang Sabar Menanti Ii
Killiney / Somerset: Warung M Nasir
Kampong Glam: Warong Nasi Pariaman
Best for ayam goreng
We have a soft spot for this stall as it’s in the neighbourhood of our old office. We make it a point to get to this Hoy Fatt Road kopitiam by at least 11.15am on weekdays – we won’t usually be beating the crowds by much, but this means we’ll get what we want: a juicy leg of crisp-skinned ayam goreng (fried chicken), chicken curry, bergedel (potato patty), the spicy sotong (squid) and, our favourite, the soft, well-spiced, fork-tender rendang. The nasi padang here is the pesan-only kind, so it comes piled, messily – but always gorgeously, we think – on a plate. It’s a fast-moving queue, so you also have to make your decisions fast. Istimewa is also the most affordable of this lot – a plate going up to $8 on (the diner’s) greedy days. Even better: if you’re looking for a dish for $2.50 or under, the makciks (Bahasa Melayu for "aunties") will kindly oblige, just let them know.
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Nasi padang in its spicy glory
This one’s for the diner looking for close-to-unadulterated Minangkabau (the people of West Sumatra) fare: the fragrant sauces of Rumah Minang will hit you in the nose, the textures are fibrous on the edges, and the spices (chilli) not stingy. Though the meats are a little tough, the gorgeously-coloured ayam belado (Minangkabau-style chicken) is perfectly salty and spicy for the rice; and the rendang gravy is well-rounded and blended until it retains just enough texture from the ground lemongrass and ginger, with an aroma that reminds us – nostalgically – of ikan bilis (fried anchovies). The star dish of this corner shophouse by Sultan Mosque is the tender squid in black sauce. The more popular and right-out-of-the-kitchen dishes are kept right behind the servers (for easy replenishing, we suppose) – so make sure you order those. The bandung (rose syrup and condensed milk drink) and ais limau (iced lime juice) are also worth ordering – both made in-house, we like how the bandung was not overly sweet, and a true thirst-quencher. Don’t say we didn’t warn you: we arrived around 12.30pm during our visit, and narrowly missed the office lunch crowd that filed in after us.
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What we had at Sabar Menanti II | Photo: Celine Asril
Nasi padang for old-timers
Directly across from Warong Nasi Pariaman (below) is this tucked-under nasi padang restaurant. An offshoot of Sabar Menanti on Palmer Road (formerly at 48 Kandahar Street) opened by the sister of the original’s owner, it isn’t less good than the original. We like the sleepy, laid-back vibe of this restaurant, contributed by the older gentlemen customers, and similarly, their rendang is a mellowed version (compared to the rest of the list) but still teeming with spices. It's a creamy gravy, slightly fibrous (we noticed the lemongrass), that tastes like it might have been aged (in a good way). The famed sayur lodeh (vegetables in coconut milk broth/gravy) is better than what we had from the other nasi padang restaurants: an umami-laden gravy that would have been good with lontong (compressed rice cake) too. While we didn’t think much of the signature charcoal-grilled fish with fresh red onions, cut green chillies, fresh lime and sweet sauce (the fish needed to be freshly-fried and the sauce less piercingly sweet; pictured, top left), the sambal belacan really brings the plates’ elements together.
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Best for late nasi padang cravings
The display that faces the five-foot-walkway is filled with kueh-kueh (Indonesian cakes), but keep that in the back of your mind and look past for the reliable array of nasi padang dishes. Say what you want about the cleaned-up façade and café-like atmosphere (the nasi padang dishes are served in little black plastic plates), this is a safe and quick choice for sedap (Bahasa Melayu for ‘tastes good’) beef rendang in the town, among the other dishes. We also like the tender ayam gulai (chicken in yellow curry), ayam goreng and sayur lodeh, and that it stays open the latest (9.30pm every day) of the five listed here. The selection after 8pm isn’t great, but not too shabby for those who crave heavy rempah (spices) and chillies late in the day. Named for (and opened by) Singapore-born Malaysian singer M Nasir, this one – you should expect – is a crowd-pleaser. Watch a short video of our visit to Warong M Nasir here.
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Kid-friendly nasi padang
The dishes at this corner coffeeshop nasi padang restaurant (it’s been in this location since 1948) come hidang-style and, unlike the other restaurants on our list, the dishes are served at room temperature, and significantly less spicy.
Not that ‘cool’ is a bad thing in Singapore’s hot weather.
This family-run restaurant (started with the grandmother who was originally from Sumatra) is a good one to introduce young ’buds to nasi padang – one of our users, robo sushi, first ate here 40 years ago, and his son is now as much of a fan as he is. We can see why: slightly gamey mutton rendang comes in smooth, sweet, creamy gravy that kids can drench their rice with. We are in love with the homely ayam bakar (grilled chicken), marinated then served in the same light but lemak coconut milk-based yellow gravy. While it doesn’t look impressive, the chicken is tender, with a smoky flavour. The fish belado is also a non-spicy version, more reminiscent of a sundried tomato sauce with just a hint of spice. Arrive before noon if you want the option of choosing from the full menu.
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