Oyos Saroso HN, The Jakarta Post, Bandarlampung
A visit to Bandarlampung, the capital of Lampung on the southern tip of Sumatra, would not be complete without savoring pempek, a regional specialty.
Like Palembang, the South Sumatra capital, Bandarlampung is identified as a ""pempek city"", with the food sold almost everywhere, even hawked as cheap snacks.
For the standard taste and varieties, it is necessary to go to a pempek restaurant to get the kind of quality pempek found in Palembang. Anyone who has tasted Lampung's pempek fishcakes with a sauce of vinegar and condiments will surely ask for more.
You can find pempek restaurants on nearly every main street in Bandarlampung, like Jl. Kartini, Jl. Raden Intan, Jl. Diponegoro and Jl. Ahmad Yani. The most popular pempek center in the city is on Jl. Mayor Salim Batubara, Telukbetung, where dozens of eateries offer this typical dish.
Some of the favorite pempek places include 99, 70, 75 and 68. The figures indicate the house numbers of the restaurants. This means that ""75"", for instance, is located on Jl. Mayor Salim Batubara 75.
Various types of pempek are available at these eateries, including pempek lenjer (long cuts), kapal selam (with boiled eggs), pempek tahu (with soybean cakes), pempek adaan (fish balls) and pempek papaya (with grated papaya). All come in both large and small portions.
Pempek is made from boneless tenggiri (Spanish mackerel), sago flour, salt and seasonings, which are mixed in some water and stirred thoroughly, before being shaped as desired or filled with boiled eggs and finally steamed. As Spanish mackerel is becoming scarce and expensive, pempek restaurants in Bandarlampung generally use belida (knife fish) instead, yet the dish remains delicious.
At restaurants, pempek is served along with a small plate of sauce, which is a blend of vinegar, garlic, palm sugar, tamarind and soybean sauce. The pempek is then dunked in the sauce before eating.
If you are taking the pempek home, don't worry about it turning stale because it has a shelf life of at least a week, especially if refrigerated. Sellers usually also coat it with flour to extend its life and pack it in sealed cardboard containers with concentrated vinegar solution.
At home, however, do not forget to fry the pempek before serving and dilute the vinegar with water.
In addition, pempek sellers also prepare other variations in soup form such as tekwan, model, laksam and celimpungan. In sour-flavored soup, tekwan contains fish balls with shrimp broth, transparent noodles, mushrooms and bengkuang (juicy tuber).
Model, in a soup similar to tekwan, combines pempek with soybean cakes. Laksam takes the form of long pempek with coconut milk soup. Celimpungan consists of fish balls and yellowish soup. All the pempek variations are normally served for immediate consumption.
Most of the pempek businesses are family-run. Those with the capital can set up fashionable restaurants, while others open their eateries in the yards of their houses, like on Jl. Major Salim Batubara.
Lampung's largest pempek restaurant is Pak Raden on Jl. Pangeran Diponegoro, about 200 meters from Jl. Major Salim Batubara.
Pak Raden has 19 branches in Jakarta, Palembang, Bandung, Bekasi, Jambi and Lampung. Its management registered itself as the maker of the world's longest pempek at the inauguration of Palembang's Jakabaring sports stadium several months ago.
Its pempek lenjer, over 500 meters long, was included in the Indonesian Museum of Records as the longest in the world.
Fadil Hakim, the owner of Pak Raden in Bandarlampung, said the daily turnover at his restaurant was about Rp 3 million to Rp 4 million. He said he was simply promoting the business of his father, Adil Hakim, a fisherman from Ulu, Palembang.
""I used to hawk pempek with my brothers from one village to another,"" recalled Fadil, whose restaurant now occupies a multistoried building on Jl. Diponegoro. The 19 branches of Pak Raden, more stylish than rival eateries in the city, each have 15 to 20 employees.
The Adil Hakim family gives priority to good service and cleanliness. ""It's simple. Our guests will feel at home if the place is clean. Pempek has the same taste just about everywhere, but we want to create the impression of hygienic food,"" he said.
Renata Ariningtyas, an activist based in Jakarta, said Lampung's pempek was very appetizing and delicious.
""It is reasonably priced and it is really suitable for families eating at home,"" said Renata, who always goes to such restaurants when visiting Lampung.
Pempek is very practical as a souvenir. For only Rp 50,000 you can get a box of dozens of different pieces to be enjoyed by the whole family. One piece of pempek costs about Rp 1,000 to Rp 1,500.
Ibu Aten was among the first to sell this specialty on Jl. Major Salim Batubara in the 1970s. She began her business selling pempek door-to-door and only in the early 1990s did she convert her house into a restaurant, now employing seven workers and operating with a daily turnover of Rp 2 million to Rp 3 million.
With students, employees, housewives and tourists as her customers, Ibu Aten is the owner of Pempek 75.
""Though belida is now commonly used, I have continued to use tenggiri as our basic ingredient because it's far more delicious,"" she said.