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Travel & Holiday

Melting pot Medan

Home to more than eight ethnic groups, Medan boasts an interesting mix of cuisines to tempt foodies
The Sunday Times - June 12, 2011
By: Huang Huifen
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Melting pot Medan Maimoon Palace is the residence of the descendants of the founder of Medan and its main room is open to the public. -- PHOTOS: NUR FADHLINA MISWAN, ASSOCIATED PRESS, COURTESY OF EVONNE SHU

Medan, the capital of North Sumatra and the fourth most-populous Indonesian city, is a melting pot of cultures with more than eight ethnic groups living there.

This makes the city a foodie's haven, especially for Singaporeans.

'Singaporeans will like the variety of local food and shopping for local delicacies such as our famous kueh lapis,' says housewife Evonne Shu, 43, who has been living in Medan for 14 years.

'I also enjoy the varied cuisine from the multi-ethnic groups, from spicy nasi padang dishes to the sweeter Javanese food to the savoury Chinese noodles,' she says.

She moved to Medan when her Indonesian husband, Mr Tandeanus Sukardi, 43, returned home from Singapore to help with his family's travel and hospitality business. Mr Sukardi came to Singapore to study when he was 13. The couple have five children aged two to 13.

Besides the food, Medan is also the gateway to Lake Toba, the deepest volcano crater lake in the world. There are many resorts there which offer respite from the chaotic roads and sweltering heat of the city.

'I love the convenience of the city and the fact that a scenic retreat is just a three-hour drive away,' says Madam Shu.

BEFORE YOU GO

Tell us one little-known fact about the city.

More than 10 per cent of Medan's population is Chinese, which is above the national percentage of 4 per cent. So you can hear a smattering of Hokkien mixed with Bahasa Indonesia. The Chinese culture is also reflected in the cuisine, with noodle dishes such as hokkien mee, duck noodles and tiongsim mie (wonton mee) readily available in the city.

The popular choices include Hock Seng Hokkien Mie in Jalan Kumango, where the noodles are served with stewed pork slices, prawns, fishballs, prawn cake and small oysters for 32,000 rupiah (S$4.60) a bowl.

Along the same road is the Bihun Bebek Kumango, set up in 1967. It sells duck vermicelli at 38,000 rupiah a bowl, the most expensive hawker-style breakfast in town and perhaps the whole of Indonesia. But there is always a queue and the shop opens only till noon.

Another famous noodle dish is tiongsim mie which can be found in Jalan Selat Panjang, the Chinese culinary centre of Medan. The springy noodles are served with char siew and chicken slices and two wontons for 20,000 rupiah a bowl.

The best time to visit is...

From November to March when it gets cooler. The temperature ranges from 28 to 32 deg C.

You should never visit on...

The eve of Lebaran, the national holiday to mark the end of Ramadan. There are traffic jams caused by the exodus of people going back to their hometowns to celebrate with their families. There are also celebrations such as mass prayers and street parades, and roads may be closed for hours without prior notice.

What is one item you must take along?

A light jacket for travel to the mountainous areas surrounding Lake Toba. There, the temperature can drop to below 18 deg C.

GETTING AROUND

The best way to explore the city is...

By hiring a car with a driver. This costs around 300,000 rupiah a day. You can hire a car from Medan Rent a Car (Polonia Airport Medan, tel: +62-821-6666-6812, www.medanrentcar.com ).

Which places in the city excite you?

The old colonial buildings such as the City Hall, now converted into the Grand Aston Hotel (www.aston-international.com ), and the four-storey Pt PP London Sumatra office, the headquarters of a major plantation company in Jalan Balai Kota. These buildings are remnants of what the city looked like when it was ruled by the Dutch colonial masters.

I also like historical buildings such as the Maimoon Palace (Jl Katamso Mesjid Raya Area, www.lonelyplanet.com/indonesia/sumatra/medan/sights/palace/maimoon-palace , opening hours: 8am to 5pm, admission by donation), a 30-room palace and residence for the Deli Sultanate, the descendants of the founder of Medan. Visitors can enter only the main room where the throne room is.

Do you need to know the language to get around?

The younger generation can speak English. But it is good to know a few Bahasa Indonesia phrases. 'Apa kabar' means how are you. 'Berapa harganya' means how much is it and 'di mana jalan' means where is this street located at.

FOOD AND WINE

Your favourite breakfast is...

Pork porridge served with youtiao (fried fritters) in Jalan Selat Panjang in the Chinatown area. It is a well-known stall that has been there since my husband was a young boy. A meal for two with teh or kopi costs around 70,000 rupiah.

One should not leave Medan without trying...

Nasi padang from Restoran Simpang Tiga (Jl Robert Wolter Monginsidi, tel: +62-61-4142-453), a nasi padang chain which serves seafood dishes. A meal for six people, with six dishes including the ayam goreng (fried chicken), gurame bakar (grilled fish) and kangkong belacan (vegetable fried with shrimp paste), costs around 350,000 rupiah.

The coolest place to chill out is...

Tip Top Restaurant (Jl Ahmad Yani, www.tiptop-medan.com ), one of the oldest restaurants in Medan which opened in 1934. It serves Indonesian, Western and Chinese cuisines and a variety of freshly baked cakes and home-made ice creams. The restaurant is adorned with old pictures of Medan during the Dutch occupation, giving it an old-world charm. A meal for a family of eight costs about 300,000 rupiah.

For those who prefer a more urban vibe, head to Singapore-franchised Bakerzin (9, Jl Tengku Daud, tel: +62-61-4519-021). Unlike most outlets that are situated in a mall, this outlet is in a conservation bungalow. It has a wide variety of pastas, pastries and cakes. Be prepared to spend about 75,000 to 100,000 rupiah a person.

CULTURE FIX

What is a big no-no in your city?

Eating in public during the fasting month of Ramadan. Restaurants draw the curtains as a mark of respect to the Muslims.

Also, do not use your left hand to greet anyone or receive things as that hand is reserved for use in the toilet.

What is the one thing you must do in your city?

Go for a spa session because it is so much cheaper than in Singapore. A typical two-hour spa session costs around 150,000 to 300,000 rupiah. The locals frequent Ras Spa in Kompleks Graha Niaga (Jl Putri Hijau) and Balle Spa in Jalan Melaka.

Also, try foot reflexology. A 90-minute session at Nano Nano in Kompleks Multatuli costs 60,000 rupiah.

SHOPPING

What is worth buying in your city and where is the best place to get it?

The local food products. Pastry and cake lovers can visit Jalan Mojopahit which is lined with cake shops selling bika ambon (40,000 rupiah), a yeast cake that has a sponge-like texture resembling a honeycomb, and kueh lapis (90,000 rupiah), a layered cake with or without prunes.

You can also get bolu gulung (Swiss rolls) which come with flavours and fillings such as vanilla, cheese, strawberry, blueberry, chocolate and coffee. The two well-known brands for Swiss rolls are Meranti (Jl Kruing No. 2-K, tel: +62-61-453-8217,www.bolugulungmeranti.com ) and C&F (Jl Mangkubumi No.14D, tel: +62-61-451-5157). Each roll costs about 50,000 rupiah.

FESTIVALS

Are there any festivals that travellers should look out for?

The first-ever jazz festival in Medan, the North Sumatra Jazz Festival, will be held on July 1 and 2. It will feature well- known Indonesian bands such as Ligro, a three-man jazz rock band which has performed all over Indonesia.

For more information, go to www.jazzuality.com/jazz-events/north-sumatra-jazz-festival-2011-first-announcement/ .

FURTHER OUT

Are there things to see or do outside of the city?

I love to take my friends who are visiting from Singapore to Taman Simalem Resort (Km 9, Jl Raya Merek, Sidikalang 22, Medan head office tel: +62-61-457-7616, www.tamansimalem.com ), a resort situated on the north-western side of Lake Toba. It is a 21/2-hour drive from Medan. The resort offers a magnificent view of the lake.

Erni Tour (www.ernitour.com ) offers a three-day tour to Berastagi (another resort town an hour's drive from Taman Simalem) and Taman Simalem Resort for around 2,000,000 rupiah a person for a group of four to six people.

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