Last week, I made an overnight trip to Jakarta. It had been thirteen years since my last visit there and much had changed on both ends - mine and the city's. Jakarta was not recognizable to me. There were tall, modern buildings and gleaming malls lined with the best of European brands. I, on the other end, came with a husband and was no longer addressed by chauffeurs as 'Nonya' ('Miss') but 'Ibu' ('Madame'). Yes, I must have seemed middle-aged and matronly and all I needed was the back-combed pouf hairdo.
As we landed, I described to my travel companions my Nasi Padang experience in 1990. Back then, my sister's friends and I were taken to an old coffee shop where we sat down at a long table. A pile of small dishes was set at the table, featuring meat, fish, vegetable, eggs....an assortment. Some were deep-fried or grilled, others in gravy which was called gulai. We were expected to partake of whatever we fancied and not to worry about waste. The leftover food was returned and poured back into the relevant serving pots. The store only charged us for what we ate.
I gathered that after two decades that had witnessed the bird flu and SARS, those practices were no longer accepted. I soon yearned for my Nasi Padang once again and found my way to nearby Plaza Indonesia, one of those glitzy malls. The food basement beckoned and there stood Sari Ratu Restaurant, which the hotel concierge gave a thumbs up approval for. Definitely more modern and sanitary, I sat down to a table for one - me. A bit concerned that I was too lonely to consume a wide repertoire of dishes, I was nonetheless assured that I could order whatever interested me. Yes, the same concept continues. I could not tell if the leftovers were thrown back in, I did not try to look. Three gigantic grilled shrimp came on a platter and the waiter mentioned that I would only be charged for what I ate. At a cost of one king prawn for $6.50, I couldn't control myself and ate two. How smart of the restaurant to tempt me when I only asked for one. I was a buffet table all unto my own and I felt like I had sent my appetite to a pampering Indonesian spa, spoilt for choice and indulged with a wide selection. The waiter charged me for the dishes I tried and never questioned why I rejected the rest.
The lunch was the most relaxing and enjoyable part of my day, and reminded me of why I loved my Nasi Padang since all those years back.