It’s no wonder Medan attracts so many foodies from Malaysia, Singapore, Java, other Indonesian provinces as well as distant countries. Medan’s wide mix of ethnicities, each with traditional foods and cooking styles, has resulted in rich fusion cuisines. Like Jakarta, it offers a true culinary adventure.
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ATTRACTING SO MANY ‘locals’ from around close-by regions signals that it indeed has something special to offer.
A long-established Chinese community makes up about 10% of Medan’s population. Other regional and international ethnic groups include Malays, Bataks, Acehnese, Minangkabau, Javanese, Tamils, Indians, and a mix of other Asians and Western expatriates. Plus, lingering echoes of the Dutch colonial era.
That represents one heck of a mix of food traditions.
The Buddhist and Christian Chinese and Christian Batak populations also mean that Medan is one of the places in Muslim-majority Indonesia where pork is more available. Pork dishes are high among Medan’s specialties.
Over generations the food vendors and restaurateurs of Medan also have added new twists to popular Indonesian dishes.
Try some food courts (pujasera) and local cafes to get started
You need to ‘go local’ to experience the best of it – to try the offerings from food carts, basic local cafes, and food courts. You will be delighted at the variety of tastes.
And at how little it costs.
A venue to check out (best in the evening) is Merdeka Walk (Independence Walk) – a tidy, centrally located open air food court (pujasera) with tiled floors, metal tables and chairs, and stalls, cafes and coffee shops serving a whole range of authentic Indonesian and international foods.
It’s popular and can get busy.
A section of the Mercdeka Walk pujasera by day – cafes and coffee shops to the right and you can just make out vendor stalls to the left – PicHusein Hsibuan, Tribu Medan.
Another popular food court is Kesawan Square, just across the way from the Tjong A Fie Mansion, where the emphasis is on Chinese-Indonesian fusion.
By day it’s Jalan Ahmad Yani, a major thoroughfare. After the sun sets the traffic gives way to al fresco dining with food from 30 or so stalls. Your guides will know the best places to go and the popular specialty dishes you should try.
Some of the specialties that you should sample in Medan
If you are traveling independently here are just a few inexpensive Medan dishes you might like to sample, and some recommended places where you can find them:
Kwetiau Goreng Medan – This Medan twist on a Singaporean favorite is now served widely throughout Indonesia and consists of str fried flat rice noodles with garlic, spring onions, fish balls, meatballs, pieces of Chinese sausage, chicken, shrimp, eggs, Chinese cabbage, sprouts, soy sauce, sweet Indonesian soy, and seasonings.
Variations can have added sliced beef (or pork from non-halal Chinese noodle houses).
Bihun Bebek – Thin (vermicelli style) rice noodles topped with delicious duck meat (boiled in a broth flavored with vinegar, ginger, spring onions, garlic, sesame oil and soy sauce) and garnished with leeks and coriander. A bowl of the broth is served on the side to be poured over the dish or consumed separately.
RIGHT – Bihun Bebek (duck meat with thin rice noodles). You can add the soup to the dish or have it separately, and (BELOW) a mouth-watering serve of Kwetiau Goreng Medan – it’s easy to see why it’s popular -Pic cookpad.com.
Christian and Buddhist communities mean pork is widely available in Medan. Babi Panggang Karo (barbecued pork) is a popular Batak dish – Pic sharontravelogue.com
Babi Panggang Karo is the barbecued pork dish of the Batak people of North Sumatra. Pork pieces are marinated, grilled, and served with rice, sambal, and sauces, including a traditional sauce made with pig blood.
You will see many local restaurants around Medan with signs carrying the letters ‘BPK’ – it signals the serving of Babi Panggang Karo and other pork dishes.
DURIAN – spiky, malodorous and sought after by Asian people for their soft and rich-tasting creamy fruit. LEFT above is a pack of Durian pancakes from Ucok Durian – the priceis equivalent to about. AUD$6
Durian Pancakes – Durian is that Asian fruit with an armour-plated spikey skin that’s also noted for its sweet and pungent fragrance (many would say stink). In fact, the smell isn’t so bad, and millions of Asians and a lot of Western people (including me) consider the soft, creamy flesh tastes delicious (it’s superb with ice cream).
Many Asians consider durian the ‘King of Fruits’. Quality durians are grown in North Sumatra and Medan is considered Indonesia’s durian capital. They tend to be expensive compared with other fruits in Indonesia meaning that for many they are something of a special ‘luxury’.
The small, pillow-like durian pancakes consist of mashed durian flesh topped with a dab of whipped cream and wrapped in a thin pastry made with coconut milk. They are eaten as a dessert or with coffee as a snack.
Aficionados say that no trip to Medan is complete without visiting Ucok Durian, a famous market-cum-local café that sells durian and durian products 24 hours a day.
And now for something sweet – very sweet
Bika Ambon cake from Medan Pic- fooddetik.com
Bika Ambon – The name suggests this bouncy sweet cake originates from the spice island of Ambon far away to the east. But it very much owes its fame and popularity to Medan.
It’s made with coconut milk, tapioca flour, sugar, eggs, and yeast. Flavor is added with lime and pandan leaves and it is coloured with the yellow of turmeric. It is characterized by its moist and chewy crumpet-like texture.
It’s a popular street snack in Medan … and it’s delicious, especially when still warm.
These days you will find packets of Bika Ambon prominently displayed on supermarket shelves all over Indonesia.
Sumatra Coffee – That wonderful jazz vocal group of the 1970s and 80s, the Manhattan Transfer, underlined Indonesia’s relationship with coffee with their arrangement of ‘Java Jive’. Back in the day ‘Java’ was a synonym for coffee.
(Do yourself a nostalgic favor – take a couple of minutes to listen to to the Bluegrass Student Union acapella version of ‘Java Jive’ – see and hear it HERE.)
Freshly harvested coffee cherries from the Karo Highlands near Lake Toba – Pic Y T Haryono, Xinhua.
North Sumatra, and especially the highlands of Simalungun north-east of Lake Toba, is where famous Arabica coffees are grown and processed.
Coffees from Sumatra are known for their smooth, sweet, balanced, and intense body. Consequently, Medan and the surrounding region can well be considered a paradise for discerning coffee-lovers..
New Zealand couple Thomas and Sheena have posted YouTube videos about some of the foods and places mentioned in this article. They are a little long (more than 20 minutes) but are interesting. You can access one of them below and you can see more at their channel – Chasing a Plate.
Medan restaurants, cafes and food stalls to try
Sajian Bhinneka (Jalan Babura Lama No. 4) – This is a large and famous Medan restaurant in a very Indonesian semi-outdoor setting of gardens and fishponds serving Sumatran and Indonesian foods. A wide choice of dishes and great Indonesian atmosphere.
Section of the very Indonesian Sajian Bhinneka Restaurant Medan.- Pic menit.co.id.com
Nelayan Restaurants (Jalan Puri Merak Jingga No. 8C and other addresses) – A usually busy chain of Chinese-style restaurants praised for Dim Sum and seafood dishes. Soft shell crabs are a specialty.
You can’t get a much better endorsement then lines of customers waiting to enter your restaurant – that’s what’s happening here at the Nelayan Restaurant in Medan Fair Plaza – Pic steemit.com
Tip Top Restaurant (Jalan Jendral Ahmd Yani No. 92) – This large and venerable restaurant has been a Medan landmark since 1934 and is famed for its cakes and pastries cooked in wood-fired ovens, and for its delicious home-made ice creams.
It steadfastly maintain and old-world style and charm and has an extensive menu of traditional Indonesian, Chinese and inexpensive Western (especially Dutch) foods.
Dessert temptations from the bakery at Medan’s historic Tip Top Restaurant.
So where to find that Batak pork?
OnDo Batak Grill (Jalan Pabrik Tenun No.45, Sei Putih Tengah) – This popular restaurant is highly rated for its Babi Penggang Karo (barbecued pork) and other Batak pork dishes.
But it also offers a Korean menu (the proprietor is Korean, and his wife is Batak). This restaurant wins plaudits for its food, cleanliness, and service. The downside is that its hours are limited to 10am to 5pm.
Another restaurant with a strong reputation for Batak pork dishes is BPK Tesalonika (Jalan Jamin Ginting No. 10, Selayang) but you need to be prepared for a very basic setting. Good food but short on ambiance.
Succulent Babi Panggang (barbecued pork) from the OnDo Batak Grill in Medan – a nice place with excellent Indonesian and Korean dishes., Pic- tasteatlas.com
Delicious soups or Soto are a central part of many Indonesian cuisines, and you will find endless variations as you roam the archipelago. They are often a popular and satisfying breakfast or lunch choice and once you taste them you will understand why.
Medan has its own Soto variations, and you really should seize the opportunity to try some of them.
Sinar Pagi (Jalan Sei Deli No. 2D) – This modest and very local restaurant is popular for breakfasts and lunch (it opens from 7am and closes around 2pm.
Sinar Pagi serves Soto Medan – a famous soup of coconut milk with herbs and aromatics over your choice of beef (daging) or chicken (ayam), or maybe a combination of both (campur).
The soup is served with rice or sticky rice cakes (lontong) on the side. The restaurant will likely be crowded at peak times. There is no air-conditioning, but there are fans.
The challenge is to ponder this picture of a plate of richly herbed coconut milk broth with shrimp for more than 10 seconds without salivating. It’s Soto Kesawan Udang – Pic Travelingyuk.com
Soto Kesawan (Jalan Ahmad Yani, No 116) – This small restaurant has been around for 60 years and is now operated by the grandson of the founder who says he still uses his grandad’s recipes.
Soto Keswawan opens from 8am until 4pm. It specializes in coconut milk Soto Medan. It is most famous for the chunky shrimp (udang) version it offers along with the usual chicken or beef.
It is located near the Tjong A Fie Mansion.
Bihun Kari Tabona (Jalan Mangkubumi No 17) – This basic local restaurant is famous for its chicken or beef in a rich curry broth with potato and bihun noodles (rice vermicelli). It opened in one small premises in 1972 but has since grown into three adjoining shops.
It is still packed at mealtimes, so they must be doing something right. Opening hours 7am to 3pm. Fans – no air conditioning.
Anyone for noodles?
Noodles from Mie-Tiong-Sim-di-Selat-Panja – Pic travellingyuk.com
Mie Tiong Sim (Jalan Selat Panjang No. 7) – This highly rated food stall (warung makan) is in a food street of warungs and stalls. You can order from any vendor. Mie Tiong Sim is famed for its noodle dishes.
As it’s Chinese, you can have them cooked in pork fat and with pieces of BBQ or roast pork or pork wontons, or with chicken or seafood. (If you like pork try the mie pangsit.)
The stall also offers other roast pork, duck, and chicken dishes. There is another branch in the Palladium Mall with a more extensive menu in a more conventional setting.
Or Maybe seafood is your thing?
Yes – Medan’s Wajir Seafood Restaurant is hugely popular. Perhaps you should check to find out why? Expect basic ambiance but a wide choice of excellent food – Pic irfan-room.com
Wajir Seafood (Jalan Sugiono No. 31) – This is a large, streetside, open-air venue with collapsible tables, plastic chairs and just about every kind of Indonesian and Chinese-style seafood choice you can think of (fancy some fried eel with green chili?).
The service is fast, prices are cheap, and it is popular. Hugely popular.
The setting is basic, but the food is good and comes with an opportunity to soak up the local atmosphere.
Perhaps a different kind of tea to finish?
TST Pak Haji (Jalan Puri No.58) – This is a place to visit if you fancy a different kind of cuppa laced with a dash of extra nutrient. The ‘TST’ stands for Teh Susu Telur which translates as tea with milk and egg … raw egg.
It’s made in the style of the popular Malaysian Teh Tarik with its condensed milk and frothy top, but with a chicken or duck egg as an extra. Local people consider it an enervating energy drink giving strength and stamina.
Regardless of benefits or otherwise, it does taste surprisingly good. This warung has been operating for 60 years and the present proprietor is third generation.
It’s open from around 2pm until 2am and is always busy. Indonesian food and snacks are also served.
THE BIG PICTURE
Medan has its drawbacks – it’s an interesting place with many attractions worht seeing, but is by no means rated as a beautiful city, and it can be messy and hot.
But when it comes to food it’s a different story. Medan is justifiably rated as a great city for foodies with a wide range of cuisines plus famous restaurants and cafes and local vendor warungs that have built their reputations over generations.
The lingering Dutch colonial influence, the presence of large Batak and Chinese Christian and Buddhist communities, and sizeable communities of Tamils and Sikhs have all enriched Medan’s culinary scene.
The city also benefits from having one of Indonesia’s most abundant produce-growing areas in its backyard in the form of the Karo Highlands.
If you enjoy food and care to experiment a little, then you will enjoy Medan.
While a few well-known food courts and popular restaurants are listed in these pages, there is much more to explore in the way of cafes, restaurants, coffee shops, and street foods. If you can make the time, it is well worth the effort to seek them out.
Good luck and Bon Appetite.
For more about Medan and the North Sumatra region check out: