Friday, July 1, 2011

Slap Jack

Have you ever played slapjack? It's a bit like the card game war, but with more hitting. You sit facing your opponent(s), cards in hand, as cards are laid down by players one at a time, you may slap the pile every time you see a jack. If you're the first person to slap the pile, you win the jack and all the cards beneath it. The game ends when one player has all the cards. A player who is "out" because he or she is out of cards can "slap back in" by winning a slap when a jack turns up. It can turn into a bit of a violent game (if you play it right).

Now imagine slapjack with food, and some manners. A lot of the food here is Padang food, it is both a style of serving food, as well as the cuisine that hails from Padang, Indonesia. Each person at the table starts with a heaping bowl of white rice. No, you can't have something else. No they don't have brown rice. Next is when the food is dealt, all hands off the table now, no cheating and jumping your turn. Everyone at the table watches as the waiter brings small bowl after small bowl of food. They are all placed on the table, then as more bowls come a second layer is carefully balanced on top of the first, making a small pyramid of bowls.

Everyone at the table watches as the food is delivered, secretly having their eye on one particular dish or another, as the food is different in each bowl. This dish has fried shrimp, that dish has beef with spicy red sauce, this dish has boiled greens, that dish has fried chicken, this dish has big pieces of fish in yellow sauce, that one has shrimp and potatoes in chili, this one omelette with onion, that one many tiny fish mixed in sauce, this one fried tempeh, that one something you can't quite identify. You only pay for the dishes you eat, each ranging from about 50 cents to 2 dollars USD.

Once all the food has been laid out, everyone dips their right hand into a small bowl of water sitting next to their bowl of rice, washing it by dipping it in and out of the water and rubbing the fingers against the palm. Then people start reaching for bowls. They're small bowls so there may only be enough in a particular bowl to serve one, maybe two people. You see someone lifting that bowl of curried oysters off the top layer, your heart skips a beat, but then they set it down, going for the shark beneath. You politely reach over, bringing the oysters to rest beside you, content that you've slapped your jack.

Then you either pour the contents of your bowl over your rice, or spoon it in, making sure to "wet your rice" with lots of delicious sauce that invariably contains lots of chili, and a little coconut milk too if you're lucky. You ask to a share the mixed veggies that someone else has only taken some of, you add a few shrimp to even out the meal. Then you dig in. Using your right hand (right hand only! I tend to keep my left hand in my lap to make sure I don't use it, just like you have to keep your left hand behind your back in slapjack), reach into your bowl. Mush your rice around a bit to make sure it's wet with sauce. Scoop up a shrimp, still in its shell, and some rice you've squished together, then use the four fingers of your left hand like a little shovel. Raise the shovel to your mouth and slide your lunch in. Crunchy (here shrimp shells are viewed as a good source of calcium), spicy!, chewy, delicious. Have another bite. Yikes a chili! Have a bit of cucumber, desperately sip your hot water (it's hot so you know they've just boiled it). No milk here. No bread here. Just you against the chili oil burning your lips.

But it's addictive. You want more. You keep spooning and mushing. When you finish you rinse your right hand in the bowl of water again. Luckily for you, you eat Padang food at least once every day or two, sometimes twice a day. Plus, if you ask nicely, they'll always bring your table a second dish of whichever is your favorite, but it's not nearly as much fun that way.

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