Medan’s Chinese Heritage

70 comments
Asia, Indonesia
Tirtanadi Water Tower Viewed from Jalan Selat Panjang

Tirtanadi Water Tower Viewed from Jalan Selat Panjang

It was only half past eight at night but the streets were mostly deserted. Alexander and I walked around the small alleys of Medan to find a place where we could have some authentic Medanese dishes, off the more touristy Kesawan and Merdeka Square. We were looking for Selat Panjang, a street both of us barely knew until earlier that night, when a woman told us about a place for sampling some of the most delectable cuisine the city has to offer.

We kept walking to get to Selat Panjang which proved a little harder to find than we anticipated. As we walked down the streets, a green-lit water tower suddenly emerged out of the darkness. I investigated closer before realizing that it was no ordinary water tower. Tirtanadi Water Tower has been one of the most prominent landmarks of Medan even though its popularity is overshadowed by the more exquisite Grand Mosque and Maimoon Palace.

Right across the street from the water tower, an alley seemed devoid of any activities, giving both of us doubts. But as we continued walking, after a turn all of a sudden the sleepy alley turned into a lively place dotted with modest restaurants and food carts. The aroma of various dishes filled the night air, the showcases were such a visual feast, and the sound of condiments fried in hot oil on a skillet enlivened the whole area. We had found Selat Panjang, where Medan’s reputable Chinese-influenced dishes are in abundance.

We walked the length of the alley, which was rather short, before deciding which of the mouth-watering dishes we wanted to try. Apart from the ubiquitous noodle-based delicacies, some of the unique and tasty food that we tried were keladi – a savory steamed cake made from taro and shrimps with fried shallot, red chili, and dried shrimp for the topping; and Tau Kua Heci – chopped tofu, crab, and whole shrimp on crackers, served with boiled water spinach in thick sweet and sour soup. One can truly feel the strong oriental influence on those dishes – the former was said to be influenced by Cantonese cuisine.

However the Chinese culture could be felt not only through the food, but also the old houses. One of the most important examples of such structures is the beautiful Tjong A Fie Mansion, which was modeled after the more well-known Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Penang, Malaysia, whose owner happened to be Tjong A Fies’s own cousin. Tjong A Fie Mansion incorporated many elements of Chinese, Malay and European architectural styles, a stark contrast to its neighbouring houses with a Dutch architectural style.

Tjong A Fie – born Tjong Fung Nam – was a prominent figure in Medan. Hailing from a small town in Guangdong Province, China, he sailed for months to get to Sumatra to search for a better life. In the late 19th century, he had established himself as a respected businessman, owning tobacco, tea, palm oil, and sugar plantations to name some. Apart from managing his businesses, Tjong A Fie was known for his altruism – donating his wealth for the Chinese, Indian, Muslim, and Christian societies in North Sumatra.

But in 1921 when he was 60 years old, the people of Medan  were shocked when the generous businessman died of apoplexy.

The mansion is now owned and managed by one of Tjong A Fie’s grandsons, who did thorough research about his late grandfather to present an accurate history of his family to visitors, even if it meant conducting research as far away as the Netherlands.

One of Tjong A Fie’s legacies to the cultural diversity of Medan is the abundance of Tamil Hindu temples, which is where we headed right after our brief visit to the mansion. Unfortunately on that day the temple was closed, so we could only marvel at the indisputable beauty of a Tamil temple from the outside. But Medan will always be an open city, welcoming students, traders, businessmen, and others to find their fortunes in the North Sumatran capital.

Kue Keladi (Savory Taro Cake) Served with Dried Shrimps, Fried Garlic, and Red Chili

Kue Keladi (Savory Taro Cake) Served with Dried Shrimps, Fried Shallot, and Red Chili

Another Traditional Cake Made from Rice Flour

Another Traditional Cake Made from Rice Flour

Pancakes, à la Medan

Pancakes, à la Medan

Food Carts at Night

Food Carts at Night

Left: Tau Kua Heci and Tamarillo Juice; Right: Tiongsim Noodle

Left: Tau Kua Heci and Tamarillo Juice; Right: Tiongsim Noodle

Putu – Steamed Coconut Cake with Palm Sugar Filling

Putu – Steamed Coconut Cake with Palm Sugar Filling

Deserted Streets at Kesawan, Medan

Deserted Streets at Kesawan, Medan

Bihun (Rice Vermicelli) with Shredded Duck

Bihun (Rice Vermicelli) with Shredded Duck, Chopped Scallions, Fried Shallot and Sambal

Tjong A Fie Mansion

Tjong A Fie Mansion

Tjong A Fie Mansion, the Terrace

Tjong A Fie Mansion, the Terrace

Peeking to the Sky

Look Up to the Sky

Windows to Keep the Mansion Cool

Windows to Keep the Mansion Cool

An Ornate Wooden Panel

An Ornate Wooden Panel

Wooden Panel Details

Wooden Panel Details

One of the Main Rooms in the Mansion

One of the Main Rooms in the Mansion

A Tamil Hindu Temple

A Tamil Hindu Temple

A Reminiscent of South Asia

A Reminiscent of South Asia

All photographs were taken with my phone’s camera. Hence the unusual dimension.

Posted by

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

70 thoughts on “Medan’s Chinese Heritage”

  1. alexander sriewijono says:

    Masih kebayang wajahmu pas makan bihun bebek itu. 🙂 Bahkan milih ke Medan lagi kalau pas ada event hanya demi bihun bebek. Tapi memang enak sih.
    I also enjoyed the night walk along that deserted street. 🙂
    Thank you Mas Bama.

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      • I have also read an interesting book about medan by john mateer – semar’s cave an Indonesian journal…really enjoyed : )

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      • I had to google that book and it sounds really interesting! I might need to read that before exploring Indonesia further. Thanks for the suggestion! 🙂

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  2. huaaaa….nyobain bihun bebek Medan itu udah jadi impianku sejak jaman dahulu kala *lebay*. Tapi sampe sekarang blum sempat ke Medan nih. Padahal udah ngiler kuliner disana yang konon lezat banget 😀

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    • Kalo emang suka banget sama bebek dijamin ketagihan deh setelah nyobain bihun bebeknya. Yang recommended Bihun Bebek Asie, tempatnya persis di belakang kantor ‘Harian Analisa’ di daerah Kesawan.

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  3. Very nice pictures, the food as well as the houses. But I have a suggestion. For people like me in distant Europe it would be nice to see at once where this city is situated.

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    • Thanks for your kind word and also for the input. For now you can go to maps.google.com and type Medan. It’s a city on the northern part of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

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  4. Great photos and commentary, amazing to see such rich Chinese tradition in Medan…and also a good look at the night markets & food stalls. Enjoyed this post very much.

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    • Thanks Randall! Due to its proximity to mainland Asia I guess Medan is a natural gateway from people all over the region, including China, to come to Indonesia. Hence the rich and diverse cultural scene of the city.

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  5. Bama, I’m so glad I read this after dinner – what a wonderful photo essay on the culinary treats of Medan. You can definitely see the Cantonese influence in the kue keladi and tau kua heci, I wonder if the vendors still speak a bit of the language. As for the bihun bebek, it reminds me of that dish we had in Taipei… although I suspect this one probably tasted better!

    It must be a joy to wander around Tjong A Fie Mansion, I’ve never been to its famous counterpart in Penang but there are clear parallels with the Mandarin’s House in Macau. 🙂

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    • Lol! Thanks James. Actually despite the Cantonese influence, most Chinese Indonesians in Medan are Hokkien people. So they don’t really speak Cantonese. And yes, that bihun bebek that I had in Medan was even better than the one we had in Taipei. You should go there when you visit Medan one day. 🙂
      I’m glad that I managed to visit Tjong A Fie Mansion on my second trip to the city as it was closed during my trip last year. I’m glad the family decided to keep the mansion, otherwise it could have been abandoned.

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    • Setiap ke Medan pas musim duren? Saya pas ke sana malah belum pernah nyobain durennya. Tapi udah lama juga gak makan duren sih.

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  6. Waduh, apalagi buat yg makan piggy mas,
    Medan itu surganya….hahaha
    btw, actually this is not only chinese infused but also the malay cultures, this blended into a peranakan cuisine, which is rich duck broth rice vermicelly and also the taro cake…
    while kue putu or puttu cake in english is actually originally an indian (tamil) dish
    Kinda salute for your deep reserach within this post mas Bama!

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    • Hehe iya sih. Thank you so much for the additional information on those dishes. I never thought that putu is actually from India. I guess a lot of Indonesian dishes are actually of Chinese and Indian origin after all.

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  7. From the looks of all the food, you must have had an extremely difficult time deciding! I hope you were able to return another night to sample more. The putu looks especially intriguing. I always like your food blogs because the food is so unusual for me.

    I viewed the past post about the Grand Mosque, and I have to say that I can’t think of any adjectives to describe the spectacular beauty of the style and the decorative details. Your excellent photos show both very well, and we can truly appreciate the creativity and ability of the creators.

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    • I actually did, Marilyn. I remember walking back and forth before deciding what to eat. Unfortunately I only spent a night in the city so I have to wait for another trip to sample some of those dishes again. When I was little I always loved it when I saw a putu vendor preparing the cake because when it’s almost done, the steam always created a noisy sound. I must say I enjoyed watching that than eating the cake itself. 🙂

      The Grand Mosque of Medan is truly beautiful. Hopefully more efforts are done to preserve its beauty. Thanks a lot Marilyn!

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  8. pasu768 says:

    I want the chance to travel there, to try all that food rarely jajajajjaja, regards!!!

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  9. Enjoyed your report as always. The photographs of those foods are mouthwatering and the way you tell of the trip feels like I was with you in it.

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    • Makasih Eki! Sharing what I felt or experienced during my trip is part of the fun. I’m glad you enjoyed this post as much as I enjoyed that bihun bebek. 🙂

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    • Have you tried one? The one that I had in Medan was actually a bit pricey, but it was really worth it.

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  10. Hi Bama, another interesting read. Keladi seriously sounds so mouth-watering. I love all the ingredients that are in it. The story of Tjong A Fie is fascinating. His generosity is admirable and to donate his wealth to different communities is very noble and reflects the openness of the city.

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    • Oh I love keladi so much! It’s soft, rich, and addictive. 🙂 When I learned about Tjong A Fie, I could only wish that there were more people like him in the world. It could have been a better world we lived in.

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  11. Wow! It was an amazing and informative post. OMG! The food looks so delicious. I want to l learns Indonesian cuisine:-)
    Did you take any photography class since these pic are really nice .

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    • Thanks a lot! I must say that Indonesian cuisine is very much underrated compared to its Southeast Asian neighbors. Actually when I was in college I learned about the basics of photography. Then in my previous company I joined a photography club where I learned about some interesting tips. Thanks again!

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  12. Wah . . lihat foto dan baca komentar-komentar mengenai bihun bebeknya bikin penasaran pengen coba *langsung dicatat untuk dikunjungi kalau ke Medan* 😀

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    • Yes! Wajib coba (asal suka bebek :)). Penasaran apakah yang lain se-excited saya buat nyobain bihun bebek itu. 🙂

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  13. I was also in Indonesia this year, but I couldn’t get to Sumatera. I was just traveling in Java region. It’s so nice to see more of the country here on your blog.

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    • Hopefully this inspires you to go back and explore more what the country has to offer, beyond Java. 🙂

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  14. That mansion is beautiful. But it is the food I keep getting back to! I know i would love Bihun. Did you know Puttu is a kerala dish? I won’t be surprised if there is a thriving Kerala community in the heart of Indonesia! 🙂

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    • And Medan is known as a culinary adventure destination among Indonesians. Weeks after I went to Medan, I still had the picture of that bihun bebek in my mind. 🙂 I actually heard of putu (or puttu) as a dish of Indian origin. But I didn’t know it’s from Kerala, or God’s Own Land if you will. 🙂 I would love to go to Kerala one day along with Tamil Nadu.

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  15. Pingback: Menara Air Tirtanadi | TIRTANADI

  16. I’m in Medan right now, and my friend has brought me wander around to taste some of the cuisines, including the one in Selat Panjang! The Tiongsim noodle and hey … did u try the putu? I think I bought 3 putu from him a couple of days ago! Haha. The taste of the brown sugar is different and nicer! 😉

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    • Oh that’s great! I almost got lost when I was trying to get to Selat Panjang as the driver didn’t know where it was. Unfortunately I didn’t try those putu because I’m not a great fan of it. But hey, looks like I’m missing out a lot! Would definitely try it the next time I come to Medan.

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  17. Niko Ep says:

    Baca ini jadi kangen rumah lagi. Hahaha.
    The way you tell the story about Medan is really good! 🙂

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    • Thanks Niko. Selama ini saya kalo ke Medan cuma sebentar-sebentar aja. Next time harus lebih lama biar semakin dapet feel dari kotanya. 🙂

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      • Niko Ep says:

        Harus banget tuh! Haha. Udah ke Brastagi sm Danau Toba? Kalau belum lain kali harus tuh. 🙂

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      • Danau Toba udah, ada beberapa tulisan saya juga di blog ini. 🙂 Kalo Brastagi memang belum sempat.

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      • Niko Ep says:

        Belum sempat baca semua tulisan Bang Bima nih! Pelan-pelan akan terbaca semua dah. Besok udah mulai kuliah nih.. Haha.. Semester baru! Harus semangat baru lagi nih aku! 😀

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