Hungry in Palembang
Shortly before my trip to Palembang, a curious coworker asked me why I wanted to go there. At first I struggled to come up with a decent answer. I could have mentioned the city’s long history, and how it was once the capital of a powerful maritime empire. Or I might have told her about the traditional textiles known as songket, woven with delicate strands of shimmering gold thread. Instead I latched onto something she could relate to as a Hong Konger: “The fishballs [fishcakes] there are very famous,” I replied.
According to local lore, the fishcakes of Palembang were invented sometime around 1617 by an enterprising elder in the Chinese immigrant community. At this time the fish from the Musi River was only fried or salted, and with much of the leftover catch going to waste, he decided to try something new. The old man moulded minced fish and tapioca – starch extracted from the cassava root – into balls of dough, cooking them in a pot of boiling water. When he wheeled these new creations around the city, Palembang residents called him “Pek-apek” after the term for an older Chinese man (apek). The name caught on and the fishcakes he sold became known as empek-empek or pempek.
For many Indonesians, the dish is emblematic of Palembang in the same way that sushi is associated with Japan. Pempek today has at least 15 different varieties: one contains minced young papaya (pistel); another is stuffed with tofu (model); while yet another kind resembles a ball of tightly packed noodles (keriting). Pempek can range from bite-sized fishballs (adaan) to dumplings larger than a fist (kapal selam, literally “submarine”).
After the early morning flight from Jakarta, Bama and I settle for breakfast at Beringin, where the pempek is piled high on rattan platters lined with banana leaf. Bama orders a hearty egg-filled kapal selam for each of us and a plate of smaller kinds to share.
Each table comes equipped with a pitcher of a rich, dark sauce called cuko. I carefully pour out some cuko onto my spoon to taste. It is simultaneously sweet, sour and spicy; tickling my taste buds with a lingering heat that starts off innocuous but gradually builds on the palate. Cuko is essential for imparting the mildness of pempek with an addictive blend of strong flavours. Among its chief ingredients, you’ll find palm sugar, chilli peppers, vinegar and garlic.
Palembang’s dishes speak of cultural exchange, but also its historic reliance on the river and the nearby sea. At Vico, another restaurant known for its pempek, dinner is a bowl of tekwan: chopped fishcakes in shrimp broth with rice vermicelli, mushroom and sliced jicama. Elsewhere we try pindang, freshwater fish in a broth flavoured with tomato, shallot, chilli and lemon basil, not to mention the sweet notes of pineapple and the tartness of belimbing wuluh. We also discover mie celor, thick noodles in a creamy soup made from shrimp and coconut milk. In my view it is even better than Singapore’s Katong Laksa, and just as Palembang captured my heart, I now count mie celor as one of my favourite Indonesian dishes. ◊