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Hungry in Palembang

Palembang Cuisine_1

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.

Palembang Cuisine_2

Three varieties of pempek on display at Beringin

Palembang Cuisine_3

Pempek kapal selam, literally “submarine”

Palembang Cuisine_4

Pouring cuko over the egg-filled kapal selam

Palembang Cuisine_5

Es kacang merah (red bean shaved ice)

Palembang Cuisine_6

Pindang ikan patin sungai (shark catfish soup)

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A side of fresh vegetables

Palembang Cuisine_8

Tiny, deep fried fish – a reader identified these as ‘seluang’

Palembang Cuisine_9

Pindang ikan gabus (snakehead murrel soup)

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A bowl of tekwan at Vico (with cuko in the background)

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Delicious mie celor

38 Comments Post a comment
  1. I shouldn’t have read this post before breakfast. Now I’m craving for pempek kapal selam and that spicy yet addictive cuko. You’ve added one more dish to the list of your favorite Indonesian dishes. More are coming! 🙂

    May 10, 2015
    • Yes Bama, I’m sure I will discover more favourites the next time I come! I wonder what other dishes we might have tried had we stayed another night in Palembang. 🙂

      May 10, 2015
  2. ade #

    mie celor is the best! i’m glad you enjoyed your stay in Palembang.

    by the way, that tiny deep fried fish you mentioned is called “seluang”


    May 10, 2015
    • Makasih for the extra information, Ade – I had no idea about the name of those fish. I’ve now added it to the caption. 🙂

      May 10, 2015
  3. It’s a very nice and “provocative” posting James. I am mouthwatering now.
    And, I am curious into Mie Celor, now. Never tried it before. Sluuurp …

    May 10, 2015
    • Thanks Bart, at least it’s almost lunchtime! Hopefully you’ll get to visit Palembang in the near future… I have a feeling you would really enjoy it (and not just because of the food). 😉

      May 10, 2015
      • Amiin. I think so James. After I read some of your last postings about Palembang, I am sure that I will enjoy this city very much. For me the food is a big bonus. Thanks for reviewing it sooo details 😉

        May 10, 2015
      • You’re very welcome, Bart. I’m glad you enjoyed these two posts! 🙂

        May 10, 2015
  4. Ha, ha, great honesty in your answer and it is amazing how intoxicating food can be from a different country/culture/region. It sure looks incredible from your photos 🙂

    May 10, 2015
    • Short as it was, I’d say my coworker was pretty satisfied with that answer. The process of making those fishcakes/fishballs would have been a great subject for a photo essay. 🙂

      May 10, 2015
      • Yes, I was thinking the same thing 🙂

        May 10, 2015
  5. I’m hungry, James..
    I shouldn’t have read this post, haha..

    May 10, 2015
    • Maaf Wien, haha… maybe I should have published it right after lunch instead.

      May 10, 2015
      • Haha. That’s okay James. You just need to treat me later. Lol 😀

        May 10, 2015
  6. Now I’m hungry in Vancouver 🙂

    May 10, 2015
    • I hope it didn’t leave you rummaging through the fridge for a late night snack! 🙂

      May 10, 2015
  7. aku selalu suka dengan kuliner palmebang apalagi kapal selamnya

    May 10, 2015
    • Iya, kuliner Palembang enak sekali. Untuk saya itu pertama kali mencoba mie celor dan pindang.

      May 10, 2015
  8. I read this post with Annie with a hope that she can make some of the dishes you mentioned in the post. Unfortunately, she is from Jawa Timur which is very far away from Palembang >.< The noodles mie celor looks super yum!!

    May 10, 2015
    • It’s a shame we can’t find these dishes anywhere in Hong Kong – I would love to eat another bowl of mie celor!

      May 10, 2015
      • I would love to try too! If Annie finds out how to cook it one day, I will let you know!

        May 10, 2015
  9. wow, iam hungry right now James, thanks for sharing ya

    May 10, 2015
    • Sama-sama Salman, makasih for the comment. 🙂

      May 10, 2015
  10. ¡Excelentes platos James! No hay como conocer las culturas a través de los sabores de su gastronomía. Muy interesante el artículo y tienen muy buena apariencia los platos.

    May 10, 2015
    • ¡Gracias Jorge! Estoy de acuerdo, para mí la gastronomía es una de las mejores partes de cualquier viaje y una ventana a la cultura.

      Pues he recibido el mensaje que enviaste unos meses antes, pero me olvidé completamente de responder. ¡Te pido perdón!

      May 10, 2015
      • Totalmente de acuerdo con tú comentario. Por lo del otro mensaje, no te preocupes, yo soy el primero que va de un lado a otro con mil cosas y me dejo algunas por hacer al no darme abasto. ¡Más que perdonado! ¡Un abrazo!

        May 10, 2015
  11. Sounds and looks like a good enough reason to visit the town to me

    May 11, 2015
    • I agree… the food in Palembang was something special!

      May 11, 2015
  12. I would want to try all that scrumptious looking food even if I weren’t hungry!!

    May 13, 2015
    • Scrumptious is right, Marilyn! I wouldn’t mind having those noodles on a regular basis.

      May 13, 2015
  13. Love your photos and descriptions…you are making me homesick! We are have been nomadic for almost two years, mostly in Asia. Here we are in Chicago for a few months to be near family. All well and good, but am missing authentic original Asian food. Can’t wait to be “on the road” again…thank you for this awesome read.

    May 14, 2015
    • It’s my pleasure, Peta. Thank you for those kind words and that message you sent me. You and Ben are an inspiring pair – someday I’d love to embark on that same kind of nomadic life!

      May 14, 2015
  14. Chuckling at your response to your co-worker 🙂 The Mie Celor looks like something I could live on!

    May 14, 2015
    • For someone who wasn’t that keen on history, it was actually a pretty good reason! I feel the same way about mie celor; in fact I even dreamt of it a few nights ago. 🙂

      May 14, 2015
  15. All i can said that it’s actually the popular iconic Palembang restaurant and most of them is not the prime in term of flavour and taste on it’s categories,
    you definitely need to taste Pindang Pegagan Mbak Mar (floating restaurant), Pempek Selendang Mayang and Sate Cucuk Manis Wak Din

    May 15, 2015
    • Thanks for the tips, Dedy. Your recommendations give me more reason to revisit Palembang in the future!

      May 15, 2015
  16. James, I think this is my most fave post of yours, hahaha! You know why 😉

    May 20, 2015
    • Well Badai, I hope you didn’t read it on an empty stomach! 😉

      May 21, 2015

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