Medan: Unexpectedly Interesting

Asia, Indonesia

Green-Domed Dutch Colonial Building at Kesawan Square

Just a stopover city was my initial thought about Medan. With more than two million residents, Medan is Indonesia’s fourth largest city and the nation’s largest city outside Java. Had it not been due to my visit to Lake Toba, I wouldn’t have intended to make any trip to Medan. However, that thought evaporated quickly as I entered the city and headed to Kesawan Square where my hotel is located. Kesawan Square is actually Medan’s old quarter where both newly painted and dilapidated Dutch colonial buildings dominate the sight everywhere you look. If you have read my earlier post on Bandung, you might remember some old colonial buildings at Jalan Braga (Braga street) which I mentioned in the post. Well, Kesawan Square seems to have twice as many old buildings!

However, it’s not just Dutch buildings that you can find at this place. Due to its geographical location in the northern part of Sumatra, Medan has always been a melting pot for people from all over Asia. Traders from China and India have been interacting with Malay rulers and indigenous Batak people since long time ago. This has led to the mélange of cultures which is reflected in mixed architecture, lively daily traditions and scrumptious foods in the city.

From Kesawan Square, it is an easy fifteen-minute walk to Istana Maimun (Maimun Palace, occasionally also spelled Maimoon Palace) and The Grand Mosque, both are the most notable heritage of the once powerful Sultanate of Deli. But more on those on my next post.

Medan City Hall

Bank Indonesia (The Central Bank) Office in Medan

A Beautiful Old Building at The Corner of Kesawan Square

Crooked Windows of Tourist Information Office

Medan’s Post Office

Old Houses and Stores at Kesawan Square

Tjong A Fie Mansion, Combining Victorian and Chinese Architectural Features

Speaking of interesting things, there are some unique sights in Medan which I witnessed for the first time ever in my life. The first is betor (an acronym for becak motor, or motorized rickshaw), one of the most popular means of transportation in Medan, where the driver sits on his motorbike at one side and the passengers sit in the rickshaw at the other side. A brilliant idea I must say considering the benefits of this compared to other rickshaws in Java where the driver must pedal the rickshaw himself (though the latter is much more energy efficient, aka petrol efficient, but it surely is less time efficient).

The other fun thing that I encountered was a public fitness center at Merdeka Square, just north of Kesawan Square. When I walked through the square actually my intention was finding a shortcut to get from one side of that place to other side of it without having to go in circle on the pedestrian walk. However after walking inside the square for a while I began noticing some odd-looking yellow structures scattered around the place. Not long afterward, I saw someone who’s using one of those things for walking in a very similar way to a model of a body-trimming tool commercial which I saw on television. That was the moment when I realized what those really are. A little walk further I saw some other men doing exercise at other ‘machines’. It’s quite funny seeing people do things that I usually only see at gyms. Such a thoughtful idea from local government to provide free exercise tools for its people, isn’t it?

Motorized Rickshaw, A Common Sight in Medan

Public Fitness Center, Never Knew Such Thing Exists

In my previous company I had quite a lot of colleagues who come from Medan. They are very proud of the cuisines in the city and you cannot argue with them about it. Seriously, they are that proud! But my short visit to Medan did prove this. For my only dinner I went to a small alley just behind Kesawan Square where hawker-style foods are abound. I picked a place which is owned by Indian people (probably they are in fact a family). After some discussion, my friend and I ordered martabak mesir (literally Egyptian martabak, but I don’t think this one has anything to do with Egypt) which comes with authentic Indian curry and pickles, teh tarik (literally pulled tea, owing its name from the method used to prepare the tea by pouring a mixture of tea and condensed milk back and forth between two small containers in order to create a thick froth on top of it) and roti tisu (literally tissue bread, which is basically a very thin pancake or crêpe rolled over to create a monstrous towering look) generously sprinkled with grated cheddar cheese and chocolate granules which easily melt while the pancake is still hot. What a satisfying dinner indeed!

All in all, Medan is actually worth a visit when you’re around North Sumatra for visiting Lake Toba, Nias Island or other towns, rather than only staying in the airport to wait for your flight out of the city.

Teh Tarik (Look at The Froth!)

Martabak Mesir with Indian Curry and Pickles

Towering Roti Tisu

Related Post: Lake Toba: Nature’s Wrath Turned Into Eden, What an Exquisite Deli!

Posted by

Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

33 thoughts on “Medan: Unexpectedly Interesting”

  1. Pingback: Lake Toba: Nature’s Wrath Turned Into Eden « What an Amazing World!

  2. Oh my goodness Bama, how did the two of you finish that Roti Tisu?!? Teh Tarik sounds so delicious – hot tea with condensed milk, with the foam of a good latte or cappuccino!

    I really hope that Medan will keep its colonial architecture. To many of those beautiful old buildings are torn down these days to make way for soulless blocks of concrete and glass. The crooked windows are fantastic, my guess is that they were designed to let in more fresh air and natural light.


    • Finishing that unbelievably tall pancake was actually quite fun! But by the time we finished it, our hands were all sticky due to the melted chocolate! (water please!). Teh tarik in Medan is arguably one of the best that I’ve ever had. It’s served in a small cup, big enough to quench the thirst and flush all the foods down, but small enough to make me want to have another one (which I didn’t, out of fear of losing the enjoyment).

      I do hope that other places across Indonesia (and everywhere in the world) retains their old buildings. They are truly invaluable! Moreover, many Dutch colonial buildings are actually much better in design and durability than the newly-built ones.


  3. A very interesting post. I hope they take care of those small, old houses, they are very nice! I have never heard about an outdoor, public fitness-center, what a great idea, especially in warm countries..


    • Thanks Bente! I hope you haven’t got bored yet with this Lake Toba – Medan series 🙂 I still have one more post to come before going to Laos next week. Some of those buildings are actually in good condition, but some others desperately need major renovation. Otherwise they will crumble in a few years to come (I hope that doesn’t happen). That outdoor gym is indeed a great idea. But I will only go there early in the morning or in the afternoon.


  4. Pingback: What an Exquisite Deli! « What an Amazing World!

  5. Wow! The Towering Roti looks amazing! And as for the public fitness centers…I’ve seen several of such types in Spain, Italy, and Japan so far. The best one I saw was near the coast in the Southeastern part of Spain.


    • It looks both amazing and challenging! 🙂 But with all those melted chocolate and cheese, it tasted really good!
      I guess the mayor of Medan or whoever with the idea to build that fitness center had visited one of those countries and got the inspiration from them.


  6. The food looks amazing! Have never heard of ‘Roti Tisu’ before! The exercise machines are unique too 🙂 And what beautiful heritage architecture! Should try and get there before the wrecking balls do!


    • Before going to Medan I had never heard of Roti Tisu either. But when we went there we were astonished by its sheer size. Therefore we decided to give it a try, and it didn’t disappoint at all! Geographically speaking, it’s not that far actually from Chennai to Medan. However given the sizable population of Indian descendants living in Medan (mostly from southern India I believe), I wonder why there’s no direct flight between the two cities yet. And you’re right! you might want to visit before the wrecking balls do (I surely hope that won’t happen).


    • Have you tried any Indian food before? Btw if you noticed my last picture, that towering Roti Tisu is a real challenge!


      • I LOVE Indian food. It is my absolute favorite. We have quite an Indian population living in the US and even in Minneapolis. I love ethnic cuisine and I’ve heard that Indonesian is among the best. The roti looked insane!


      • Well, not many people know about Indonesian foods. Thai and Indians are more popular, thanks to their colorful appearance (apart from the great taste, of course). There are many Indonesian foods which don’t look that appealing due to their color (brown/dark/earthy because of the condiments). But once you’ve tasted them, chances are you’ll only want more!


  7. Wow, that looks like the size of a small child! Chocolate, cheddar & pancake together…interesting combo and I’m sure I can go for that! I have seen a similar public fitness center in Shanghai, and it’s quite interesting to see older people doing various sorts of exercises, or sometimes just resting there.


    • I know!!! When they served it on our table I was like “Whoa! how are we going to finish this?”. But we finished it anyway and it turned out so much fun! I always like seeing older people doing exercises – kind of reminds me to always stay healthy.


  8. Just saw your post. I just went there to eat last week! haha
    Well, we Medanese are very proud of our cuisine,indeed. Too bad you didn’t have the chance to try out the food at Selat Panjang. Next time when you are in town,then?


    • I’ve never heard of Selat Panjang before. I’ll make sure to check that out the next time I go to Medan. Thanks for the information!


  9. Yohanes says:

    hi, i live in medan, but i never know where to eat roti tissue. could u please tell me is it? thanks!


    • Hi Yohanes! I had that roti tissue near Jalan Kesawan, right across Kesawan Square. There’s a small street parallel to Jalan Kesawan where you can find a lot of food stalls.


      • jennifer2799 says:

        it is located in Jalan Perniagaan across Lapangan Merdeka.. many indian stalls are available there..


    • Cindy says:

      You could find roti tissue at Uncle K restaurant Sun Plaza. Yeah maybe the roti tissue you have there is a lil bit shorter than that picture. But, aku sih pernah nyoba dan gak suka ya, krn rasanya tawar dan bikin eneg. Hehe 🙂


      • Do I love roti tissue? Well, I wouldn’t say I love it. But do I want to have it again? Definitely! Karena ukurannya yang gak normal itu yang bikin seru pas makan. 🙂


  10. Aside from Martabak and Roti Tisu, Sate Padang Al Fresco at Jl. Perniagaan is very nice too. My favorite when I am in town.

    Near Jl. Perniagaan, you can also find reasonably popular Duck Noodle (Kumango).

    Give me a head up when you come to Medan again. Aside from great food, you might like to try Medan boutique family spa (Zengarden). 🙂 **shameless plug**


    • Thanks for all the recommendations! You really got me when you mentioned about the duck noodles because I’m a duck lover myself! 🙂


  11. Hello Bama! I just saw this post now and I honestly regret not researching about Medan before I started living here. All these times I always thought so negatively about the place due to its pollution and people around me. Although thanks to you, I’m able to open up to this place and give it a try to see its beauty from your perspective.

    Thank you for spreading the good word about Medan and Indonesia in general,
    Keep it up with the journeys and blogs! Would love to see you write more about Indonesia, not only the main cities like Bandung and Medan, hehe… 🙂

    P.s, Cheers to Medan cuisines!


    • Hi Hana. Medan is one of Indonesia’s largest cities, so it’s no surprise that you found the pollution overwhelming. However on my trips to the city twice I discovered some of the city’s treasures, apart from the food of course. 🙂
      Thank you for your kind words!


  12. I’ve tried roti tissue in Malaysia and India before, but none of them looked that impressive! It was simply served as a normal pancake, this one looks awesome!


    • Hi Emilia. I was, too, very shocked when the dish was served. In the end my friend and I managed to eat the whole roti, which was quite fun to eat!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.