Medan


flavours-090 It’s hard to imagine visiting a place during Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, to try its cuisine. But there I was in Medan on a culinary pilgrimage to sample the specialities of the archipelago at the iconic Masjid Raya Medan, the Great Mosque of Medan. I was told that this is the place to see serious gastronomic action under one roof, and serious is certainly the operative word.

Built in 1909, the octagonal-shaped Masjid Raya Medan is a mix of Arab and Indian design – Moghul chic comes to mind – and is resplendent with the obligatory wall-to-wall marble, stained-glass windows and floral motifs. It’s one of Indonesia’s largest mosques and a well-known must-see tourist destination.
During Ramadan, the grounds of the mosque become the grand dining hall for everyone in town. We arrived at sundown amidst the crowds, and I mean crowds, who were breaking their fast. I stood at the entrance of the stadium-sized food bazaar mesmerised by the numbers and, oh yes, the amount of food. Thousands of food stalls as far as the eye could see, buzzing, blazing in fact, under fluorescent lights shimmering with the high-speed action of cooking for the masses. And if that wasn’t enough, food sellers were weaving their way between the tightly crammed tables selling every type of skewered snack, from tofu to tempeh and prawns, as well as trays of durian pancakes and assorted cakes. Outside this culinary meeting place were rows of food carts selling sliced fruit and drinks to ease the locals out of the day’s abstinence, stage one. There were so many dishes I had never seen. I felt like a kid in a candy shop staring at the variety of food on sale. This is where you come to see the world of Indonesian cooking, from martabak of every kind, to satays, curries, soups, sweet dishes, cakes and iced drinks, while inhaling a dizzying dose of street-food ambiance.

flavours-091-1Traditionally, dates are eaten to buka puasa, as according to legend the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) broke his fast in this manner. But from what I could see, people started the evening celebrations with fruit, cendol or simply a glass of hot tea, and then a dinner of champions followed, perhaps lasting until the wee hours. And it is not only the food that flows after sundown. Restaurants enjoy a healthy cash flow during Ramadan, and while they might be closed during the day they are usually overflowing until late.

Masjid Raya was not the only place teeming with Ramadan activity. Just about every restaurant in Medan was busy with the fasting month. I dropped into Garuda restaurant, a well-known restaurant chain in Indonesia famous for its Minang cuisine, and grabbed a snack of fish-head soup, cassava leaves and my favourite green chilli sambal before the onslaught of eating action. Tables had been reserved for large groups and copious amounts of rendang of beef and chicken, various gulai, cassava leaves, sambal and more were awaiting the rush. For those who prefer to eat at home during Ramadan, a healthy take-away trade also prevails with catering available. An ocean of boxes were being filled with nasi padang at Garuda for dine-at-home buka puasa gatherings.

flavours-091-2“I was in Medan on a culinary pilgrimage to sample the specialities of the archipelago at the iconic Masjid Raya Medan”

It was the same at Mie Aceh Titi Bobrok. I arrived just before sunset and the place was already overflowing with those waiting patiently to break their fast. Carts of dazzling fat yellow noodles had been cooked in advance and when the clock ticked sundown it was all systems go. Lights, cameras, action in a theatrical cooking act of Medan’s famous Aceh-style noodles, tossed in enormous woks, whipped up in a frenzy of feasting activity. I ordered mie aceh with prawns; a plate of moist noodles tossed with a handful of prawns, shredded cabbage, bean sprouts, sliced tomato, curry leaves and fried shallots, swimming in an intriguing Indian-style gravy. (The diversity of Indonesian cuisine never ceases to amaze me.) Savoury martabak, crisp-fried filled pancakes, and roti canai, Indian-style folded flatbread with curry sauce, is also famous here and prepared at the entrance of the restaurant adding to the noise, action and jostling of this culinary night show. Plate upon plate was being prepared. I imagined it was going to be a long night!

flavours-092“During Ramadhan a nation celebrates devotion, humanity and kinship through the unifying force of food; the fasting and feasting happens in every Muslim community on every island”

 

 

flavours-092-1 Followers of Islam believe that fasting is a time of introspection to be grateful for what you have and to reflect on your relationship with the Almighty through learning patience, discipline and modesty.

 

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Always a good thing in my book. But like most religious celebrations, it is also ultimately about the fundamental importance of family and community: strengthening the ties that bind. During Ramadan a nation celebrates devotion, humanity and kinship through the unifying force of food; the same fasting and feasting happens in every Muslim community on every island.

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The gathering around the table, sharing a meal and enjoying the bounty of this glorious archipelago with friends, neighbours and loved ones must surely be one of the greatest investments in emotional well-being and goodwill. Noor Huda Ismail, friend and journalist, sums it up by saying, “The best thing about Ramadan is eating together with family, friends and less fortunate people; the spirit of sharing.” And the monetary benefits add to the overall abundance and joy. After all, what goes around comes around.

 

flavours-094The gathering around the table, sharing a meal and enjoying the bounty of this glorious archipelago with friends, neighbours and loved ones must surely be one of the greatest investments in emotional well-being and goodwill. Noor Huda Ismail, friend and journalist, sums it up by saying, “The best thing about Ramadan is eating together with family, friends and less fortunate people; the spirit of sharing.” And the monetary benefits add to the overall abundance and joy. After all, what goes around comes around.

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