From Fish Balls to Submarines

92 comments
Asia, Indonesia
Pempek in Different Types and Shapes

Pempek in Different Types and Shapes

Ask any Indonesians about what comes first in their minds when they think of Palembang, quite possibly most of them would answer “pempek”. Also known as empek-empek, the dish comes in a wide array of variety; from fish balls (adaan), to cylindrical fishcake (lenjer), tightly packed fish noodles (keriting), fishcakes with slightly crispy crust (kulit), and grilled fishcake (panggang) as some of the most popular and widely available types of pempek.

The main ingredient to make pempek is, obviously, fish, along with tapioca which gives the dish its slightly springy texture. Typically tenggiri (a group of fish from the Scombridae Family in which Spanish mackerels belong) is used to make the dough, although the more expensive and rare belida (giant featherback) is more preferred – widely praised for its rich and intense flavor.

But one variety of pempek stands out among others for its biggest-than-fist size and bright yellow egg filling. Curiously called pempek kapal selam, literally ‘submarine’ pempek, the dough is made in a similar fashion with other pempek, but before it is cooked a chicken egg is added into the center of the dough. For serving, some people prefer to have the cooked submarines briefly fried to give the dish a golden brown look.

Pempek without cuko is comparable to sushi without the Japanese soy sauce. Made from palm sugar, vinegar, garlic, dried shrimp, and bird’s eye chili peppers, the viscous black sauce is essential in pempek serving. Its strong and refreshing flavor brings the mildly savory taste of pempek to another level – addictive level in my case.

Pempek Adaan, A Local Favorite

Pempek Adaan and A Few Pempek Kulit

Pempek Keriting, 'Curly Pempek'

Pempek Keriting, ‘Curly Pempek’

The Glorious Pempek Kapal Selam (Submarine)

The Glorious Pempek Kapal Selam (‘Submarine’ Pempek) and Cuko

However Palembang culinary scene, which revolves very much around fish and shrimp, varies greatly beyond the already plentiful number of pempek variations. Tekwan and model are different variants of fishcake notable for the way they are served: chopped fishcakes in shrimp broth with rice noodles, chopped coriander, and fried shallot.

While pindang is a method of cooking where snakehead murrel or shark catfish – two of the most common freshwater fish used in the dish – is cooked in a broth of tomato, shallot, chili, lemon basil, pineapple, and belimbing wuluh (Averrhoa bilimbi, believed to be native to Maluku, Indonesia), the latter gives the dish a refreshingly sour kick.

There is one dish, however, which is often overlooked by many, especially those from outside Palembang, as they often opt for the highly popular pempek. A serving of mie celor, a dish made from large yellow noodles blanched in hot water (a technique locally known as celor, hence the name) and served in dried-shrimp-flavored coconut milk with boiled egg and other ingredients, is a hearty meal perfect for any time throughout the day.

From the bountiful Musi River and its tributaries to the abundance of the open seas, one can’t help but notice how dependent the locals are on the waters to feed them. But Palembang’s food culture also speaks of strong Chinese influence which, over generations, had evolved to suit local taste buds better. An example of the many cultural exchanges that have shaped not only the culture, but also the city itself into what Palembang appears today.

Tekwan, Fishcake in Soup with Rice Noodles

Tekwan, Fishcake in Shrimp Broth with Rice Noodles

Pindang Gabus, A Bowl of Freshness

Pindang Gabus, A Bowl of Spicy Freshness

Pindang Patin, A Similar Dish with Different Fish

Pindang Patin, A Similar Dish Made from Different Fish

Tiny Seluang Fish, Deep Fried

Tiny, Deep Fried Seluang Fish

The Underrated Mie Celor

The Underrated Mie Celor

Es Kacang Merah, A Dessert of Choice

Es Kacang Merah, A Popular Dessert among Locals

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

92 thoughts on “From Fish Balls to Submarines”

  1. Gara says:

    I once read in Omnduut’s blog post that there are about 15 types of pempek :haha. Well, Palembang’s culinary itself is very rich, I think. The pindangs look like sayur asem to me (in which vegetables were substituted by fish, of course), and from its description, the taste is similar, kind of sour.
    Can’t wait to visit the city and try all of these delicious food, I wish I could do it now. Are you in Palembang now, Bama?

    Like

    • Wow, 15! The locals do know how to be creative with their fish, don’t they? I actually prefer pindang to sayur asem, although I also enjoy the latter. You can say that I love so many dishes. 🙂

      Actually right now I’m on the island of Samosir. This post is from my latest trip to Palembang a few months ago. Hope you can visit the city soon, Gara.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pempek Keriting? Never seen it before. How does it taste? Similar like other pempek?
    I thought that pempek has so many variants because of the form instead of the taste and filling -except the kapal selam one-.

    Btw, you’re good in writing of culinary article Bam. Your descriptions and photos make me want to eat my monitor haha. Great post buddy!

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    • To me it tasted very similar to adaan, but I prefer the latter for its smooth texture. Some pempek are quite different from the rest, and as Gara said there are actually 15 types of pempek out there!

      Oh you’re too kind, Bart. But thanks! I guess this post came from both my heart and stomach. 🙂

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  3. Hi Bama – for me, an European, this cruisine is unknown whatsoever. I have no idea how any of these dishes might actually taste and I hate that, because the food looks beautiful in your pictures. Very welcoming to a gourmet’s investigation.

    Happy travels,
    – Ruta

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    • The thing is Indonesian dishes are less known than those from Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Maybe because there are so many, too many, traditional dishes here it’s hard to introduce them to the world. But you can always come to Indonesia to sample pempek and beyond. 🙂

      Have a great day, Ruta!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Yayy. Banyak macam pempek dan Mie Celor Palembang yang menggoda. Beneran bikin ngiler, Bama. Dear perut sabar menunggu bulan depan yah 🙂

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    • Hahahaha, buat yang suka ikan dan seafood Palembang memang surganya kuliner berbahan dasar keduanya. Nanti kalo aku udah dapet sinyal internet yang lebih stabil aku kasih rekomendasi tempat makan mie celor yang enak di sana. Tempatnya gak jauh dari PIM (Palembang Indah Mall).

      Liked by 1 person

  5. i prefer to consume pempek without the cuko cause i already love the dough itself. and usually, the cuko is spicy – and i just can’t handle anything spicy ;p
    interesting article on pempek, thx for sharing!

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    • Actually pempek just by itself is already quite good. Those who can’t take too much of spiciness can do what do. Thanks for reading.

      Like

    • Nasi goreng, mie goreng, rendang, and sate ayam are some of the most popular Indonesian dishes abroad. But the sheer diversity of the country is also reflected on its traditional cuisines. When you do come to Indonesia one day make sure you prepare your stomach for culinary adventure across the nation! 🙂

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    • Thanks Sue. I’m currently on an island called Samosir, in the middle of Lake Toba which is actually a crater of an ancient supervolcano. The weather is tricky though in this part of the world — it’s sunny one day but rainy the other day.

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    • Wow, thanks Marilyn! Indonesian food is one of the most underrated Asian cuisines. But things are starting to change, I think. A few days ago I watched a video of some Westerners trying Indonesian dishes for the first time. All comments are positive. If you like your food a bit spicy, sour, and savory, then you’ll surely enjoy Pindang Gabus.

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    • Hi Lee. I think there are direct flights from Singapore and KL to Palembang. So whenever you want to go it’s just a short flight away. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • I wish I were in Palembang now, having lots of adaan. 🙂 But currently we’re in Samosir and we just tried Arsik for lunch. Such an interesting dish with all those spices! Thank you, have a great day! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks to the Chinese people now we have so many dishes we’re so familiar with at home and beyond, including pempek and fish balls.

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    • Thank you so much for your kind comment, Sherly! It’s cold where I am now and I wish I could have some pempek with spicy cuko to warm me up. 🙂

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      • Sherly says:

        Well, you can always have pop mie ( penghangat di saat emergency) hahaha.. Have fun in Samosir Bama.. Eagerly waiting for your next post ! 😉

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      • Ah of course. Nothing beats instant noodles for comfort food. 🙂 Thanks Sherly.

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  6. That bowl of mie celor looks really good to me. Is pempek widely available in all cities of Indonesia? I can’t wait to have a taste of it.

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    • Mie celor really is comfort food. Its thick sauce and rich shrimp flavor are perfect for any time of the day.

      Pempek is quite easy to find all across Indonesia, although most of them taste mediocre. The ones from Palembang are still the best.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It might be difficult, if not impossible, to find pempek in where you live now because despite the fact that it is relatively widely available throughout Indonesia it’s less known abroad, unlike rendang or sate. You might need to come to Indonesia. 🙂

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    • At least salad is healthy. 🙂 Trying local dishes is arguably one of the best travel experiences you’ll get wherever you go.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, Jogja, one of my favorite cities in Java. I have been there several times now, and my latest visit was just over a month ago. As for the food, there’s always place in my heart (and palate) for gudeg and bakpia. 🙂

      Like

  7. Vanessa Almeida says:

    Oh mine, I’d love to go to Indonesia… and the food looks greaaaaat 😀

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    • The food itself is enough reason to book that flight to go to Indonesia. 🙂 While many people around the world are now quite familiar with Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese and Singaporean dishes, it’s still relatively hard to find Indonesian restaurants outside the country.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This looks fantastic Bama, and I am now committing myself to take a trip to Indonesia just to try the pempek and some of the other great dishes you have photographed and discussed…nothing quite like being in the perfect environment as well to enjoy such food. Cheers to a great summer!

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    • As tasty as Indonesian nasi goreng might be, there are so many traditional dishes from the country which are barely known abroad. Even I am constantly surprised by the diversity of Indonesian cuisines. This morning I tried a new dish from Ternate, one of the fabled Spice Islands, made from tuna, nutmeg, cloves, and other spices and it was superb! Please do come to Indonesia, Randall! Even if it’s just for the food. 😀

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      • That is what I always find a bit fascinating, often I find the dishes I had never heard about being incredible. Nasi Goreng is the one Indonesian dish I know (delicious), but know if I spent time in Indonesia I’d have many different favorites… and the dish you describe above sounds incredible (when there is a historical context added with a dish, such as ingredients from the fabled Spice Islands…then it makes a delicious dish even more magical). 🙂 Happy trails and happy sails ~

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      • Speaking of the Spice Islands, I’m in Ternate now in the northern part of the Moluccas, the island where cloves are originally from. It was once controlled by the Portuguese, then the Spanish, and eventually the Dutch who controlled it until Indonesia’s independence in 1945. On the island I saw a lot of clove and nutmeg trees, but interestingly the locals don’t use many spices in their dishes. It is in places like Sumatra (for example Aceh), once an important trading port along the Spice Route, where spices are widely used in local cuisines. Happy travels to you too, Randall!

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      • This is so cool ~ you are on an adventure of my dreams with the Spice Islands. Interesting that the locals do not use many spices in their dishes. Cheers and continued happy travels.

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    • Yes, setuju banget! For those who love spicy food cuko really is key to deciding whether a pempek is good or not.

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  9. yummmmmmmmm!!! I love your pictures! Just started my blog today and want to get connect to more travelers out here.

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  10. Hi Bama, I’ve always been very interested in Asian dishes and this article on Indonesian dishes is very interesting, can you share a little bit more about what’s in the Es Kacang Merah it looks like red beans right?

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  11. Your culinary posts keep getting better and better Bama! As does your food photography. Look forward to learning some tricks when we meet 🙂 Mie Celor sounds fantastic. Just the kind of ‘meal in a pot’ kind of dish I love.

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    • Madhu! We have been staying in the Banda Islands for almost two weeks, but within a few days we’ll be flying out of Southeast Asia. We can’t wait to see you in Chennai! I’m sure we’ll exchange not only food photography techniques, but also lots of stories. 🙂 Actually ‘meal in a pot’ sounds like typical comfort food.

      Liked by 1 person

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