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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Medan City: A Culinary Cauldron

Odour of the major cultures of India, China and ASEAN countries

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Raghu Gururaj
Raghu Gururaj
Ambassador of India to the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe

INDONESIA: 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 is 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 by region and has many influences, until a few years ago, Sumatran cuisine had a predominant Middle Eastern, Indian and Chinese influence.

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But today, 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 down founding melange of food traditions.

Read also: The Royal Taste Of Mughlai Cuisine

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From roadside eateries, traditional food carts to fine dining, one would need to summon all five senses to savour them. Merdeka Walk is one such place in the heart of the city, a real hangout and a culinary cauldron.

Merdeka Walk is also a good place for expatriates to hang out. Photo credit: Raghu Gururaj

One is spoilt for choice whether it’s a Mie Pangsit (Wanton Noodle), the classic Tiong Sim, 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 (chicke cooked in coconut milk), etc.

Mie Pangsit (Wanton Noodle)
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Other classic examples are curry chicken (Indian influence), Nasi Kerabu (blue rice with fish), Laksa (spicy noodle), Char kway teow, Nasi Lemak (fragrant rice dish cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf) etc.

Soto (Soup in coconut broth)

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. Other local popular snacks like the Risol (spring roll with any filling), Bolu Meranti (roll cakes) or Bika Ambon (sweet sponge cakes) are other popular dishes.

Read also: Indian Adaptation Of Chinese Cuisine

When you go to a 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 – thumb rule 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!

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, changed some 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, meatballs, 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, 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.

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.

Roti Canai

Though Indian cuisine in some form or the other is commonplace in Sumatra as a whole, but unlike the Malay and Chinese culinary traditions, Indian cuisine has not mainstreamed itself into modern day Indonesian cuisine.

One feature 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 the 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.

Read also: Cultural Sutra: A Bollywood Connect Between India And Indonesia

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 Asia 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. 

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