My far-flung cousin, Novi, always has an unusual sesquipedalian to-do list everytime she returns to Medan after having much time spent studying in Hong Kong: she has an unbearable craving for food, or much to say, culinary scenes in this metropolis. Once I asked her why she missed the chow here exceeding that in Hong Kong, given that the semi-state has more to offer in all terms of dishes, she would simply reply, “Missing the culinary affluence makes me miss every single piece of memory of this city.”
As a matter of fact, she was actually born here, and raised here until the day she turned 14, when she decided to pursue further studies in Hong Kong in 2003. She occassionally returned home, in average one month for every sojourn. Hunting for eateries prevails her cardinal, essential priority aside from gathering with her old friends. But it’s not only my cousin who always does it. Honestly speaking, it’s been the onus of almost everyone having migrated overseas for a seemingly infinite epoch to pursue higher education, or better dreams.
There are not as many people in the world who recognize Medan as they do to other major global cities, particularly Hong Kong, Singapore, Jakarta, etc. I even dare to bet that, say the least, half of the world’s population do not realize that a metropolis inhabited by almost 3 million souls in the northern part of Sumatera does really exist. Statistical figure may bolster the evidence: no more than 50,000 foreigners visited this mecca in 2010. The situation of this city was terribly unimaginable that it even sparkled complaints by many tourists paying a visit here. Some of the roads are filled with potholes and badly tarnished. The drainage system is overwhelmed with trashings. There are few bus stations, so public transport buses park themselves anywhere they like. Traffic is painstakingly time-wasting, as people prefer either driving sedan cars or riding motorcycles to taking public transport system. Worse, there is even no urban railway system available here. Blackouts still take place in certain places. Criminals threaten the night, fully equipped with weapons and a full dose of audacity. But, all things change when it all comes to food. Street-side cafes, Chinese-style so-called kopitiams, or those splurge dining venues emerge into a form of alternative escapism, of all sorts of commotion coming ahead of us.
Of all the dining places, kopitiams and street-side cafes seem to possess an enigmatic force no other places could have. I myself do not know what sort of sinew it precisely is, but I do feel it everytime I see how these guys, young or old, quinquagenarian or quasigenarian, stew the dishes with gusto. An old septuagenarian, despite slender body and dim vision, still tirelessly swings both his hands, stir-frying a boiling wok of rice noodle. A middle-aged lady is seeping a lump of noodle from a boiling steel pot, while her husband pours sauces, pepper, little pieces of chopped pork and shallot into the bowls. A moustached Minangkabau cook is stirring a gigantic wok of amounting spicy fried rice. Another old lady is pulling a lengthy piece of sweet roasted pork from a hanger (or as we know it in Hokkien, cha sio), and chops it into smaller pieces, before she places them over the top of cooked rice, and squirts some sweet sauces onto it. If you happen to stop eyeing your beloved gadget for a while to spot the slightest piece of hustle and bustle they are experiencing everyday, you begin to realize what makes these localities so vibrant is all what they are doing to serve the throng, who have been sitting and waiting patiently for these dishes to come.
Back to my cousin’s story. When she and her mother came back home in June, I recalled one event in which we brought them into a Batak restaurant named On Do. We ordered saksang – marinated pork with spices and sauces made from pig’s blood, roasted salted pork (the main favorite menu in this eatery), and ikan tinombur (grilled pomfret fish with local, unknown spices from Toba). Truly speaking, all the combined spiciness of these menus could make your stomach broiling, like you are going to defecate in no time. But, still, she told me as I remembered it, “Whenever I’m returning to Medan, I will not forget this restaurant! The menus are excellent and satisfactory!”
Indeed, there are too many steadfast eateries in Medan I would like to recommend. To paraphrase, let me just make it direct to the main point: it is strictly recommended that you pay much more attention to all those kopitiams (they are abundantly available in Selat Panjang, Kampung Keling, Jalan Sumatera, Jalan Palangkaraya, Jalan Asia, Jalan Jose Rizal, Jalan Semarang, Jalan Surabaya, Jalan S. Parman, and so much more) than the eateries available in shopping malls. It’s an option you can take whenever you insist your budget remains on the shoestring.
Medan would not have been that alive were there not such omnipresence.