Eating out in Sumatra

It was breakfast time and I was sticking to the principle of trying to experience the local culture as realistically as possible.

Padang is one of Sumatra’s largest cities and it is the jump-off point for most surfers who travel to that magical chain of islands nearby called the Mentawais. I was killing time in the port, waiting to board a ship.

Across the street was a little eatery filled with old Indonesian men. This was a no-frills establishment catering for the locals and there was no English on the menus. The recently opened McDonalds and KFC joints were popular with many visiting surfers, but I avoided them. Why even bother to leave home if you’re only going to eat American fast food, sleep in rooms decorated with Western posters and never mix with the locals? So I walked into the warung with my phrasebook handy and greeted the owner / waiter in Bahasa Indonesia. Although greeting people in their own language (or, in this case, a language that is at least local to Indonesia) is great for breaking the ice and creating goodwill, the trouble is, of course, that people then assume that you can actually speak the language. The owner returned my greeting enthusiastically and then carried on talking, no doubt enquiring about my stay in Padang, my health, my family and so forth. All I could do was to look back at him blankly and shrug my shoulders apologetically. I sat down at a plastic table, grabbed a menu and stared at it for a while. And then I stared at it some more. It was impossible to make any sense of it at all. At one stage I wondered whether I was holding the thing the right way up! There were some basic Indonesian phrases that I knew and I could ask for the prices of items in a shop, but deciphering a local menu not meant for tourists was not one of my strengths. How I wished for one of those Chinese menus with pictures of the dishes! All the patrons at the warung watched me with great interest, but it was clear that none of them spoke a word of English. The owner waited expectantly. To buy time, I tried another Indonesian phrase that by that time I knew well and used often – “I don’t speak Indonesian very well”. My audience found this most amusing and had a good laugh. With a sheepish grin, I hid behind my menu and tried to think of something to order.

I decided that a boiled egg would be a fairly safe and easy option to explain. I proceeded to act out putting a pot of water on a stove and boiling it, with an egg inside. My audience loved the part where I imitated the chicken laying an egg and they asked for an encore. After much waving of arms and many puzzled facial expressions from the warung owner and all the curious customers, we came to an understanding. I also ordered a cup of tea because that was something I can do with confidence. While I was waiting for my food, I kept myself busy by paging through my phrasebook. As is often the case, some of the other customers came to sit with me and started reading the phrases in the book. They found it hilarious! Soon everyone was taking a turn to read a sentence out loud, to uproarious laughter and applause. I still don’t know whether it was the novelty of reading a foreigner’s book or the actual meaning of the phrases that was so funny. It did make me wonder about what I was really saying to people when I used the book!

Quite soon, my food arrived. I waited to see what the kitchen had produced with some trepidation and the result was rather interesting. With a flourish my host put down a cup of tea with a raw egg floating inside it. I was a little taken aback, to say the least. But still, it could have been curry balls, or worse, and I didn’t want to disappoint my host. So I stirred my egg into the tea and had a taste. It wasn’t bad at all. Although I have never thought of making this kind of breakfast for myself since then, it is actually quite a practical, nutritious and time saving meal. Later on I noticed that it was quite common in Sumatra to have a raw egg in coffee instead of adding milk.

I finished my tea and left the warung, to the disappointment of the regulars. That evening they would have a story to tell the wife!


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