By: Fabián Marcel Vergara DeLeón, fabulous Taste Tour Guide
I have been in love with Malaysian and Indonesian cooking since I ate my first spoonful of nasi lemak. The richness of the rice, cooked in coconut milk and pandan, the crunch of teri kacang, a simple accompaniment of dried anchovies and peanuts, the spicy, sweet, salty currents running through the sambal sauce. The complete harmony between all the elements of the dish set in motion a love affair with food from some of our country’s closest neighbours. I feel conflicted in writing this article, because I know I am giving away one of Western Sydney’s hidden gems.
In my last visit to Indonesia, I became acquainted with Padang style cuisine. Padang food is typical of Western Sumatra in Indonesia. Restaurants serving Padang food are a dime a dozen in Jakarta. They’re easily recognisable, with a stack of plates, standing carefully, but precariously arranged in the restaurant window. You’re presented with a plate of rice and allowed to choose whatever dishes you want. The best part was the price. For $8-10 AUD, I’d get an absolute feast. I can’t ever remember spending more than that.
In Australia, there are a great many Malaysian and Indonesian restaurants serving up beautiful traditional fare. However, I was disappointed by the fact that there was no actual Padang restaurant. Until I discovered Warung Ita.
Warung Ita sits at the edge of Lakemba’s main Haldon street drag. A proverbial hole in the wall, this mecca of Indonesian food has become a place of pilgrimage for me. I’m in there so often that the restaurants owners know me as that “bulé (non-Indonesian) who speaks Indonesian a little”.
The operation is super low-key, which is one of the things I adore about this place. Upon walking in, you’ll be greeted by one of the lovely staff. No reservations, no nonsense, no menu, just walk in and proceed to the counter. They mightn’t have the plates all stacked up in the window, but I can easily overlook this because the food is sublime. Walk up to the counter, you’ll see an array of different dishes. A scoop of rice is placed on your plate and you’re asked what you want. The neat thing is you can choose whatever you like.
My personal plate changes from time to time, but there are three things that must be constantly present. The first is tempeh balado. Tempeh is a fermented soybean made in blocks. It is cut into slices then stir-fried with chilli and shrimp paste. The texture is slightly chewy and the flavour of the tempeh itself is gently savoury, amplified by the chilli and shrimp paste. The second must-have are perkedels. Perkedels are Indonesian potato fritters mixed with tofu and some spiced meat. The crunchy, golden warm outside is the perfect contrast to the soft delicious centre. The best part is how the perkedels seem to blend well with the sauce of any curry or meat dish you might have on your plate.
The final and most important thing that must be on your plate: Rendang. Words fail to express the esteem in which I hold rendang in. For me, eating rendang is a borderline religious experience. And I say this with no exaggeration. An unmistakably West Sumatran dish, rendang is best described as a slowly cooked, caramelised beef curry. Chunks of beef are cooked in coconut milk along with a markets worth of spices and herbs; lemongrass, shallots, garlic, turmeric leaf, galangal, ginger and chillies are imbued into the cooking liquid. It is then cooked at a low heat until the milk evaporates and everything is infused into the beef. Eating with your hands is the traditional way to eat at Warung Ita, but for the uninitiated, they have spoons and forks. $11 will get you a decent sized plate and $15 will feed you until you’re totally satisfied and ready to burst. They close at 5 so make sure to get there before then.
Warung Ita, 168 Haldon St, Lakemba, open 11 AM – 5 PM.