Palembang: A culinary port
of call

The wide Musi River in the southern part of Sumatra has for centuries been the thoroughfare of important trade missions sailing toward Palembang in Chinese and Middle Eastern trading ships, passing through the calm waters to the center of some great and mighty emporium like Sriwijaya, existing from the third to the 15th centuries.

The harbor town of Palembang was situated on the crossway to other towns. It was therefore known from a long way back for its cosmopolitan attitude through trading with the western world. In 1617 the Portuguese were trading with the local people.

Although many changes have taken place in the area throughout the years, one thing remains: the locals of Palembang are lovers of good food and overtones of foreign foods are no obstacles to recreating them into their own specific Palembang way. That is one of the reasons why discerning food lovers consider Palembang a gourmet's port of call.

Palembang inhabitants are proud of their ability to cook and serve dishes that are palatable even for those tasting it for the first time.

One of the best-known of Palembang's dishes, with that famous sweet and sour flavor, is pempek Palembang, which resembles a more chewy otak-otak with a north Chinese overtone and is enjoyed with cuko (vinegar), Palembang's version of vinegar sauce.

Have on hand 150 grams of gula merah (palm sugar), finely cut; 150 ml water; two or three cloves of garlic, finely chopped; four or to taste cabai rawit (chili), finely chopped; one-fourth of teaspoon of salt or to taste, two teaspoons of vinegar or to taste. Mix the palm sugar with water, garlic, chili, salt and vinegar. Bring to the boil on medium heat and sieve before serving.

There are many different types of pempek, but for ardent cooks here is a popular one. Ingredients: 250 grams of ikan tengiri (Spanish mackerel) clean, debone, take out fish meat and chop finely. If you want to be special, take the fish of the Musi River, the ikan belida. Add 250 grams of corn or tapioca meal, 75 milliliters of thick coconut milk and 50 milliliters water for a lighter structure, 1 teaspoon salt or to taste and a pinch of ground pepper (optional). Mix all ingredients well and wrap each one-and-a-half tablespoon in a piece of banana leaf and close with toothpick. Steam until done. Next step, fry wrapped contents or grill over charcoal (in this case do not discard the wrapping) for a pleasant herbal aroma.

For more plump pempek balls, proceed with the cleaning process as above. Then mix 125 grams of fish meat, 125 grams of corn or tapioca meal, one-fourth teaspoon of baking soda, one teaspoon salt or to taste and 100 ml tepid water. Form into two-centimeter diameter balls. Bring two liters of water to the boil and drop the pempek balls into the boiling water. They are done when floating.

If you want a pempek soup, just add some peeled fresh shrimp to 800 grams of boiling stock and season with two mashed shallots, one mashed garlic, one teaspoon salt or to taste and a bruised or pounded slice of ginger. For a Palembang style, add some chopped leek, boiled shredded sedap malam (edible lily flowers, supermarket), boiled, shredded jamur kuping (cloud-ear mushrooms) and chopped spring onions. Voila, forget misty clouds over Palembang and have a hot pempek kuah instead!

-- Suryatini N. Ganie


1. Pempek sengkuang
Pempek and vegetables

100 grams of French beans, cut in four-centimeter pieces
100 grams of cabbage, coarsely cut
100 grams of small green round eggplants, left as is
100 grams small aubergine colored eggplants, left as is
6 shallots
3 cloves of garlic
4 red chilies
4 roasted kemiri (candle nuts)
A slice of fresh turmeric
A slice of fresh galangal
2 Tbs frying oil, for stir frying
2 salam leaves
800 ml coconut milk
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
2 tablespoons of tamarind juice
8 pempek lenggang (eclipse-formed pempek, plain), super market
200 ml frying oil, for frying

1. Make a paste of shallots, garlic, red chilies, candlenuts, turmeric and galangal.
2. Stir fry until aromatic. Add salam leaves and pour in coconut milk. Bring slowly to the boil on medium heat while stirring to avoid curdling.
3. Add French beans, cabbage, eggplants and season with salt and tamarind juice. Continue cooking but not mushy.
4. Fry the pempek until light brown and cut into slices.
5. How to serve: Arrange some pempek on a plate and pour some vegetable sauce over it.

Makes: 4 servings.

2. Gegodo
A simple fried pempek, eaten with pickled shrimp

200 grams of wheat flour, sifted
200 milliliters of water
1 hen's egg
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
A leek stalk, white only, finely cut
2 tablespoon chopped daun selederi (local celery leaves)
200 ml frying oil, for stir frying

1. Mix wheat flour, water, egg, salt, leek and local celery leaves.
2. Heat oil and fry each time one tablespoon batter until golden and done.
3. Serve with acar udang (shrimp pickle).

Makes: 4 servings.

3. Acar udang
Sweet sour shrimp pickle

500 grams of large shrimp, discard head, make a cut on dorsal side, deveine
1 teaspoon of salt or to taste
2 tablespoon of lime juice
5 shallots
3 cloves garlic
4 red chilies, seeds discarded
2 tablespoon of frying oil, for stir frying
200 milliliters of water
1/2 teaspoon of salt or to taste (when still needed)
1 tablespoon of palm sugar, chopped
1 tablespoon of vinegar

1. Coat shrimp with salt and lime juice.
2. Make a paste of shallots, garlic and red chilies. Stir fry until aromatic.
3. Add shrimp and continue until shrimp changes color.
4. Add water and bring to a boil.
5. Season with salt, palm sugar and vinegar. Continue until shrimp is done.

Makes: 4 servings.

4. Opor daging palembang
A rich meat curry with some Javanese overtones

500 grams of beef, cut into large cubes
200 grams of pineapple, cleaned and coarsely cut
2 large potatoes, quartered, fried until half done, drained
100 ml frying oil, for frying
6 shallots
4 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon trassi (optional)
A slice fresh galangal, pounded
300 ml medium thick coconut milk
3 red chilies, slantingly cut
6 green chili paddy
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
1 tablespoon tamarind juice

1. Make a paste of shallots, garlic, coriander, trassi. Stir fry until aromatic.
2. Add galangal, meat and continue cooking until meat changes color.
3. Pour in coconut milk and bring to the boil whilst stirring to avoid curdling.
4. Add potatoes, pineapple, red chilies, chili paddy and season with salt and tamarind. Continue cooking until meat is tender and done.

Makes: 4 servings.

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