The Top 10 Dishes to Try in Sumatra

Sate Padang being grilled

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The cuisine of Sumatra has decisively conquered the rest of Indonesia. Places like Jakarta, Bandung, and even Bali have nasi Padang joints, named after the city in Sumatra that pioneered the dish. A Padang restaurant has even made the top ranks of Singapore’s best places to eat!

The ubiquity of Sumatran cuisine is mainly due to the Minangkabau people’s good sense of taste and business. Migrant Minang families (a native ethnic group in Sumatra) have brought their delicious food all over Southeast Asia, building a strong culinary brand. The dishes are so popular in the region that Indonesia has been proud to claim Minang dishes like beef rendang as part of its national identity. Read on to learn about the best dishes to try when in Sumatra—many of which are Minang creations, but the other cultures of Sumatra have their own significant contributions to the island's extensive foodie scene.

01 of 10

Pempek

Served Pempek/Fried Fish Cakes On Table

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In Palembang, locals swear by pempek, a cheap and flavorful snack made from a surimi (fish paste) of mackerel meat combined with tapioca flour and spices. Pempek is boiled or fried, then served with a dark, spicy-sweet sauce called cuko, with an optional side of noodles, rice or diced cucumber.

This simple street dish comes in a surprising variety of forms like pempek kapal selam (with a boiled egg at its core—like an Indonesian-style scotch egg); pempek bulat (shaped into small balls), and pempek lenjer (long, sausage-shaped pempek that is often cut into morsels before serving).

Where to try it: Pempek Lince (Jl. Tugumulyo No.2398, Kota Palembang) or Pempek
Vico (D. I, Jalan Veteran No.8B, Palembang)

02 of 10

Lontong Sayur Medan

Lontong Sayur Padang with a hard boiled egg and pink fried crisps

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Lontong is a rice cake heavy with meaning. Every major city in Java and Sumatra has its own lontong-based dish, and its cultural association with Lebaran (the Eid'l Fitr season in Indonesia) has made it a favorite dish in Medan to break one’s fast, or to celebrate Eid’l Fitri.

When feasting with locals post-Lebaran, you’ll likely tuck into Medan’s version of lontong sayur served with slices of rice cake and vegetables in a soup made from coconut milk, fermented bean paste, and shrimp. Other garnishes include jackfruit, long beans, chayote, carrots, hardboiled eggs, and the crispy fritters called keropok.

Where to try it: Lontong Warintek (Jalan Dr. Mansur, Medan) or Lontong
Kak Lin (Jalan Teuku Cik di Tiro No. 76, in front of SMA 1 Medan)

03 of 10

Soto Padang

Soto Padang, the Beef Jerky Soup, in a bowl with limes and cilantro

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The Minang people of Padang insist that their soto (beef soup) is superior to Javanese or Madurese soto, despite the lack of coconut milk found in those other versions. Minang cooks elevate their soto with the use of traditional spices, which infuse the broth with a punch that you can detect even before you lift spoon to mouth.

A typical soto Padang contains beef, rice noodles, and potato fritters. The beef can take the form of the local beef jerky known as dendeng balado; some diners prefer to eat their soto Padang with ketupat (rice cakes) or with hardboiled eggs.

Where to try it: Soto Garuda (Parman Kelurahan No.110, Padang) or Soto Minang Roda Jaya (Jl. Tepi Pasang No. 67, Padang)

04 of 10

Ayam Tangkap

Traditional fried chicken in Aceh (ayam tangkap)

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A highly localized fried chicken dish native to Aceh, ayam tangkap combines a local spice marinade with the use of aromatic pandanus, lemongrass, and curry leaves. The dish calls for marinated free-range chicken, chopped into morsels and deep-fried to create a flavorful, crispy dish best paired with white rice and soy sauce. Ayam tangkap is usually served in large helpings good for groups of three to five people.

The “messy” look of the fried chicken has tickled the Acehnese’s somewhat dark sense of humor. Locals like to call it “ayam tsunami” (tsunami chicken), calling to mind the disastrous mess left behind by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Where to try it: Warung Makan Hasan 3 (Cabang Kreung Cut, Banda Aceh) or Ayam Pramugari (Jl. Blang Bintang Lama, Banda Aceh)

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05 of 10

Sate Padang

Sticks of sate Padang on a plate

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As if one take on the quintessential Indonesian barbecue wasn’t enough, Padang decided to launch two of its own into the culinary world. When dining in Padang, you have a choice of sate (satay) Padang Panjang or sate Padang Pariaman. The former uses a brownish-yellow sauce redolent of turmeric and a moderate level of spices. The latter sports a reddish-brown sauce with higher levels of heat.

Both types of satay use buffalo meat, as distinct from the chicken or beef satay more in line with the rest of Indonesia. Beef, beef tongue, and offal are first boiled with spices like cumin, turmeric, galangal, and coriander; then skewered and grilled till done; it’s served on the side with rice or ketupat rice cake, and spicy cassava chips.

Where to try it: Sate Mak Syukur (Jalan Mohammad Syafei No.63, Pasar Baru, Padang Panjang)

06 of 10

Mie Celor

noodles in a milk broth served in a bowl with garnishes and a hardboiled egg

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“Mie” means noodle, and “celor” means “blanched”: the noodles are briefly scalded in hot water, before being added to a simmering, savory broth made from shrimp paste and coconut milk, then garnished with celery, scallion, shallot, shredded chicken, and a hard-boiled egg.

Mie celor uses thick egg noodles, the type used in Chinese lor mee. Many mie celor noodle vendors make their own noodles from scratch

Where to try it: Warung Mie Celor 26 Ilir H. M Syafei (Jalan KH. Ahmad Dahlan No. 2, 26 Ilir, Palembang) 

07 of 10

Rendang Sapi Padang

The popular Indonesian spicy beef stew in a bowl with bamboo shoots and garnishes

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You’ll find rendang all over Indonesia, but it’s best enjoyed in its place of origin, Padang. Another classic creation by the Minangkabau people of Sumatra, rendang is made from cubes of beef, cooked over a slow fire in a stew made from coconut milk and a spice mix.

After some four hours or more of slow cooking, you’ll be left with dark-colored pieces of meat and a remnant of oil. Some cooks prefer to stop mid-way, creating a tender beef dish in a creamy, spicy sauce that’s sometimes referred to as kalio rendang. Rendang does not need to be refrigerated—in fact, its flavor vastly improves 24 hours after cooking.

Where to try it: Rumah Makan Simpang Raya (Jl. Bundo Kanduang, Padang)

08 of 10

Kopi Sanger

A glass of Traditional Indonesian Coffee with milk on a rock in a forest with roasted coffee beans

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The Dutch first started growing Arabica coffee in the Gayo highlands near Banda Aceh in 1924. Even today, Gayo coffee is a byword for high-quality Arabica. The unique “wet hulling” processing creates a lighter-bodied brew with a heady aroma and close to zero acidity.

Gayo coffee blends well with milk, particularly in the kopi sanger commonly imbibed around Banda Aceh. To make kopi sanger, local baristas filter grounds through a sock, “pulling” (pouring high) to aerate the brew, finally combining it with condensed milk. The result is a frothy, sweetly hot drink and even better, it's reasonably priced so you can drink as many cups as you please.

Where to try it: Solong (Jalan T Iskandar No 13-14, Ulee Kareng, Banda Aceh)

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09 of 10

Bingka Ambon

Bika Ambon. Indonesian honeycomb cake. Popular cake from Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia.

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Bingka (or bika) Ambon is as Ambonese as French fries are French. Instead of hailing from the capital of Maluku, bingka Ambon is a proudly Medanese dish that derives its name from Ambon Street, where this cake was first sold and popularized locally.

This spongy, yellow-colored cake is shot through with holes, thanks to the palm wine that substitutes for yeast when cooking (and gives it its distinctive flavor). Other ingredients include eggs, flour, coconut milk, and pandan leaves.

The way it’s cooked allows for a variety of textures, from chewy at the top to crusty at the bottom, where the cake meets pan. Beyond its plain original flavor, bingka Ambon now comes in different varieties, from cheese to chocolate to even durian.

Where to try it: Bika Ambon Rika (Jl. Sekip No.32BC, Medan)

10 of 10

Lamang Tapai

Lamang tapai dish in a white plate with floral accents

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The process of making this traditional Minangkabau dessert is long and complex, but the end result is worth it. Glutinous rice is mixed with coconut milk, then cooked over coals in banana-leaf-lined bamboo cylinders. The smoke, bamboo, banana-leaf, and coconut milk all imbue an earthy but sweet flavor in the sticky cake (lamang) that results.

The topping of spiced, fermented red sticky rice (tapai) completes the dish and gives it the signature contrast of color and flavor (the sourness of tapai clashes pleasantly with the sweetness of the lamang).

Unlike other dishes, lamang tapai cannot be duplicated using modern cooking implements, as the bamboo, banana leaf, firewood and fermentation impart the dish’s unique flavor.

Where to try it: Street vendors at Pasar Batusangkar, Tanah Datar Regency, West Sumatra

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