EMPEK – EMPEK PALEMBANG
Pempek, mpek-mpek or empek-empek is a savoury fishcake delicacy from Palembang, Indonesia, made of fish and tapioca. Pempek is served with yellow noodles and a dark, rich sweet and sour sauce called kuah cuka or kuah cuko (lit. vinegar sauce).
Pempek is the best-known of Palembang’s dishes. Its origin is undoubtly Palembang, however the history behind the creation of this savoury dish is unclear. According to local tradition, around the 16th century there was an old Chinese immigrant who lived near the Musi river. He noticed an abundance of fish caught by the local fishermen. In the Sumatran tropical climate, before the invention of refrigeration technology, most of these unsold leftover fish decayed and were wasted. The indigenous people, however had limited knowledge and techniques for processing fish. During that period, most of the indigenous people simply grilled, fried or boiled their fish instead of adding other ingredients to make new dishes. The old Chinese man mixed in some tapioca and other spices, which he then sold around the village on his cart. The people referred to this old man as ‘pek-apek, where apek is a Chinese slang word to call an old man. The food is known today as empek-empek or pempek.
Another theory suggests that pempek was a Palembang adaptation of Southern Chinese ngo hiang or kekkian (fish slice) as a surimi (魚漿, yújiāng) based food. But instead of being served in soup or plainly fried, pempek is notable for its spicy palm sugar-vinegar based sauce.
Pempek dough is made from a mixture of boneless ground fish meat, most commonly tenggiri (wahoo), with water, salt and tapioca. Ikan gabus (snakehead) is also commonly made as pempek. Numerous pempek sellers and producers in Palembang use a cheap combination of fish, which has a strong scent. According to tradition, the best tasting pempek are made of belida or belido (Chitala lopis), but due to its rarity and superior taste, pempek made from this fish are usually more expensive. Pempek in Bangka Island are made from mackerel (ikan kembung) and its sauce is red chilli based, while in Jakarta or other cities they could be made from gourami fish. The latest variant is pempek udang, pempek made of minced shrimp originated from Sungsang area in Banyuasin near the Musi river estuary, it is noticeable with its pinkish color.
The dough is boiled in hot water or steamed until hardened as partly cooked dumplings, and stored to be fried later just before serving.
Kuah cuko is produced by adding palm sugar, chili pepper, garlic, vinegar, and salt to boiling water. The color of this sauce is dark brown. This sweet, sour and spicy sauce is essential for flavouring the pempek, since the pempek dough is very mildly savoury. The sauce of Bangka pempek is chili based, made from the mixture of ground red chili and vinegar and its color is bright red. Traditionally all pempek sauces are served hot and spicy, the ground chilies are mixed in the sauce. However since some people desire unspicy sauce, or cannot eat hot and spicy sauce, the ground chillis were often separated as sambals. In some pempek restaurants, the bottled kuah cuko sauce is left on customers’ tables and they are welcome to pour on the amount of sauce they desire. There are two kind of sauces available, spicy hot and plain.
The boiled or steamed pempek dumplings are deep-fried in cooking oil until light pale brown right before serving. They are cut in bite-size, served with yellow noodles or rice vermicelli, showered in kuah cuko, and sprinkled with chopped cucumber and ebi (ground dried shrimp) powder. The additional fish krupuk crackers might be offered.