This may come as a shock, but I’ve never had nasi padang before Warong Java. Yes, as a proud, home-grown Singaporean and perhaps an even prouder foodie, it is not a truth I’m particularly eager to reveal about myself.
There’s no explanation for it, other than me having patronised the same routine few stalls around my neighbourhood since young, and that a nasi padang stall simply wasn’t included in the roster. Yet, given that I reside in the cultural enclave that is Bedok, where these stalls are a dime a dozen, there is no excuse. Now empowered with a writer’s role in a food publication, the crossing of our paths was only inevitable.
Indeed, that is where Warong Java comes into the picture. It sits in the heart of Bedok, in a nondescript coffeeshop stuffed almost too tightly amidst tall rows of flats. A quick Google search reveals an army of its loyal followers, shouting nothing but praise for what seems like a thoroughly established institution.
Admittedly, my visit is plagued with a lack of experience. Is there a lingo for ordering? How do I know the names of the dishes I want? These are questions which may linger in the minds of the uninitiated, who like me, desperately cling on to the same few dishes we’re more familiar with. Yes, beef rendang and sambal sotong, I’m looking at you. Fortunately, I am accompanied by my editors, who graciously took me through this long overdue virgin meal.
What I tried
Truth be told, the nasi padang experience I had envisioned was one centred mainly on choice. Behind the glass display lies an intimidating array of dishes in all their fried, saucy glory. It looks undeniably delicious, don’t get me wrong, but it’s hard not to feel like a fish out of water when I know the names of less than half of the dishes there. Perhaps in a situation like this, choice is a privilege accorded only to the learned few.
I spring for the options I know least about, precisely because I hope to make this culinary affair a thoroughly educational one.
There’s the Nasi Rawon (S$5.80), an amalgamation of rice ladled with rawon gravy. Painstakingly simmered in beef tendon and buah keluak (pangium edule fruit), the rawon here is pleasantly bittersweet. There is a smokiness which it imparts to the rice, and believe me, it is much, much better for it.
Despite the name, perhaps the real show of skill here lies in its accompanying ingredients. Fried paru (beef lung) is a first for me, dressed in an ominous black that screams all things Halloween. Springy in texture with a beautifully clean offal flavour, this dish is addictive on all fronts. As my editor astutely notes, “It’s like chips. I can munch on them all day.”.
Vital to any deserving plate of nasi padang is a mean sambal goreng. Warong Java’s rendition impresses with an enticing flavour mix of sweet and spicy that I’m certain would bring all the boys to the yard. Or warong, if you may. It cuts cleanly through the richness of the rawon, yet not too separate, a testament to the carefully thought out flavours amidst a glorious mess of a plate.
Here is where things get a little tricky. Nasi Jenganan (S$5.60) features some ingredients from the nasi rawon before, though with a few key differences. It’s an aesthetic that demands attention because one simply cannot miss a behemoth of thick satay gravy which sloppily coats not just the rice, but all of the plate. Chunky and chock-full of peanuts, this dish enjoys a deep nuttiness that paralyses the tongue with flavour. It’s heroically spicy too—a fact I learned the hard way, many packets of tissue and cups of water later.
The fixings are mostly the same from before, save for a bed of spinach and bean sprouts stealthily blanketed by the brown satay gravy. By now, my mind slants not toward what is good on each plate, but rather scrambling to find what isn’t. Warong Java demonstrates finesse to the last detail—a feat made only more impressive when you consider the sheer number of dishes in a single serving.
Providing a hearty conclusion to this trifecta of culinary masterpieces is the Nasi Ambeng (S$7). Unlike the previous two, this one’s a little more elegant with a hint of royalty. Not all servings of rice come doused in gravy, precisely because some don’t need it.
Here, I’m incredibly seduced by a serving of urap, maybe more so because it’s shrouded in mystery. The magic behind these vegetables? Serunding. It’s a dressing of grated coconut that’s laboriously fried till lightly crisp, golden, and exceedingly fragrant. Sure, it might not achieve world peace, but I’ll be darned if it doesn’t come close.
The ubiquitous beef rendang makes an appearance here. And of course, it’s fork-tender and beautifully spiced, yet I hardly found myself missing it throughout the entire meal. It’s a sentiment I’m happy about. Perhaps my time at Warong Java has lured me away from the nasi padang starter kit if you will.
It’s challenging to put Warong Java’s food into words because there are only that many ways in which I can compliment a dish. Of course, I can’t speak to how it fares against other nasi padang stalls, though I can’t imagine anything much better.
What I can speak to, however, is unpretentious food that is jaw-droppingly scrumptious. If you’re unconvinced, make a trip down yourself, and take it from the folks in line. Good food is undoubtedly universal, a language understood by all. That is what gives the offerings at Warong Java and hopefully many more of such stalls a resounding yes for me.
Expected Damage: S$5 – S$10 per pax
Our Rating: 4 / 5
539 Bedok North Street 3, #01-619 , Singapore 460539
539 Bedok North Street 3, #01-619 , Singapore 460539