Written by Raghu Gururaj, Consul General of India to Sumatra, Resident in Medan
MEDAN – Located in Sumatra Island and in touching distance of the major cultures of India, China and ASEAN countries, the pluralistic cultural fabric of Medan has imbibed and adopted a bewildering variety of food cultures in its fold.
Medan may be the 4th largest city in Indonesia, but when it comes to cuisine, it can give Singapore a real run for its money. Though Indonesian cuisine varies greatly by region and has many different influences, until few years ago, Sumatran cuisine had a predominant Middle Eastern, Indian and Chinese influence.
Today, luckily, from the Indian, Malay, Thai and Chinese cuisines to the Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese to the Middle Eastern, Italian, Continental, French and Dutch, Medan presents a downfounding melange of food traditions.
From roadside eateries, traditional food carts to fine dining, one would need to summon all five senses to savour them. Merdeka Walk, for instance, is one such place in heart of the city, a real hang out and a culinary cauldron.
MAIN DISHES OF MEDANESE CUISINE
Now, one is spoilt for choice whether it’s a Mie Pangsit (wanton noodle), Bakmi (noodle in pork broth), Soto (coconut milk broth) that can tame any acerbic tongue or other savoury dishes such as Rendang (dry chilli curry made with coconut broth and secret spices and flavours), Gulai (curry-like sauce), Mie (noodle), Sayur Lodeh (vegetables with coconut broth), Gudeg (with nut sauce), Opor Ayam (chicken cooked in coconut milk) etc.
Other classic examples are curry chicken (Indian influence), Nasi Kerabu (blue rice with fish), Laksa (spicy noodle), kwetiau goreng (char kwe tiaw), Nasi Lemak (fragrant rice dish cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf) etc.
Beware of red hot spice up Nasi Padang (a miniature banquet of meats/fish, vegetables, and spicy sambals eaten with plain white rice), not everyone can handle it. When you go to a Nasi Padang restaurant, don’t be surprised if the waiter brings out all the dishes on the menu on to your table, even before you place your order. Those who do not know, it works like this – thumbrule is you are supposed to choose those dishes you like to eat and pay only for those. Rest are taken back, to be served at another table!
Other local popular snacks like the Risol (spring roll with any filling), Bolu Gulung (roll cakes such as the infamous Bolu Meranti) or Bika Ambon (sweet sponge cakes) are also not-to-be-missed treats.
North Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia share the same forebears. The Malays used to be the predominant ethnic group in Sumatera island before the entry of other ethnics, such as Acehnese, Banjar, Bugis, Minangkabau people and the Javanese,
Today, Medan is a few minutes away from Penang by air and so several of its dishes share much with Malaysian food recipes and Malay cuisine. The widespread use of coconut milk, shredded coconut, beans, rice cakes, chilli coated potato or tapioca fries and chilli point to Malay influence.
Early Chinese settlers, mostly Hokkien, brought their legacy of Chinese cuisine and as they slowly integrated into Indonesian society, modified some of the dishes with the use of Indonesian ingredients, such as kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), palm sugar, peanut sauce, chili, santan (coconut milk) and local spices to concoct a hybrid Chinese-Indonesian cuisine.
They also introduced stir-frying technique, noodles and soybean processing technique to make tofu. Subsequently, soybean processing led to the possibly accidental discovery of Tempe (fermented soybean cake). Elements of Chinese cuisine can be seen in Medanese cuisine, such as the noodles, meat balls, and spring rolls.
Since some early Indian settlers came from Malabar, Tamilnadu and parts of Gujarat to Sumatra, the influence of Indian cuisine on local food culture has been largely restricted to a particular variety of South Indian cuisine. Spices such as black pepper, turmeric, lemongrass, shallot, cinnamon, candlenut, coriander and tamarind were introduced from India from ancient times, and today they have become integral ingredients in Indonesian cuisine.
Obvious manifestations of Indian cuisine in Sumatra are the local Pakora (Bakwan), Roti canai (like a Kerala Parata), Appam, Putu (Puttu), Ayam Tandoori (chicken tandoori), Martabak (parata variety), all of which are now an integral part of Sumatran Cuisine. Many local dishes incorporate Rempah, a spice paste or mix similar to Indian Masala.
Though Indian cuisine in some form or the other is common place in Sumatra as a whole, but unlike the Malay and Chinese culinary traditions, Indian cuisine has not mainstreamed itself into modern day Indonesian cuisine. Unlike in other major cities of Indonesian, Medan does not boast of an authentic “Indian “restaurant. However, ‘Cahaya Baru’ run by an Indian Indonesian, dishes out 12 varieties of dosas and makes a valiant attempt to serve authentic South Indian food.
MAIN FEATURES OF MEDANESE CUISINE
One of the features of Medanese cuisine (Indonesian as well) is the liberal use of peanuts in several of its dishes, such as satay, gado-gado, karedok, ketoprak, and pecel. This was introduced by the Portuguese and Spanish merchants from Mexico in the 16th century and since then bumbu kacang (peanut sauce) has assumed a central place in local cuisine.
Soy sauce is another important ingredient. Kecap asin (salty or common soy sauce) was adopted from Chinese cuisine, however Indonesians developed their own kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) with generous addition of palm sugar.
Since coconuts are abundant in tropical Indonesia, the broad use of coconut milk in Indonesian dishes is not surprising, though its use is not exclusive to this region.
It would be a sin not to taste Sumatran coffee. Omnipresent in every nook and corner are roadside coffee stalls. One will be befuddled with options – from the traditional Sumatran black, Kopi Susu Dingin (iced café latte) to Mandheling (local black) and Machete or durian ice coffee.
Don’t be surprised if Medanese people coax you into eating Durian. It’s a Southeast Asian fruit which you either simply love or hate. Its smell is so pungent and overpowering that it’s banned in many hotels or carrying on public transport including aeroplanes. You must however give it a try to know if you love it or hate it!
Author can be reach at twitter @Rgururaj7or email@example.com (views expressed are purely personal) Editor: Elsa Malona