An Adventure of Flavor in Padang Sidimpuan

Story By
Ibnu Avena Matondang

Exploring the magical taste offered by the land above the sky.

Photo by  Bahtera Jana Laurens Nainggolan

It was fifteen minutes past two in the afternoon when we left Sibolga, that city-by-the-sea, blessed with seemingly endless sunlight. Our destination? The city-behind-the-hill. The winding road of Parsalakan provided us great sights of nature and, while occasionally having to reduce our speed because of sudden rain, at half past six in the early evening, with the blue hills layered in the dim twilight sky, we finally arrived at Padang Sidimpuan, the westernmost city in North Sumatra.

Batu Nadua Indah Restaurant was our first stop, famous for its Mandailing culinary menu. Located on Raja Inal Siregar road, across from the Padang Sidimpuan BPJS office, its typical menu is holat fish, deep fried goldfish with holat sauce and a lot of small pieces of pakkat, or grilled young rattan. This dish was already great to look at but once it was tasted,  Good Lord! The goldfish was savoury and crunchy and blended with a richness that made our sense of taste want to continue the exploration, especially as it was combined with the phenomenal tuktuk chilli sauce. If at that moment someone had invited me to have a conversation, the only words that would have come from my mouth would have been “nabahatan keccetmu!” (you talk too much).

Holat comes from the balakka tree, a native plant of the Sipirok and Padang Sidimpuan regions, which thrives in arid land and whose roots store water. The way to process the balakka tree is by scrapping its bark which can be made into a drink or spices. The rich taste of holat is both colorful and flavorful in its spicy mixture.

It would have felt incomplete if we had visited Batu Nadua Indah without tasting Gulai Ikan Sale Baung. In the dish, kerek fish is put on fiery coals along with vegetables designed to bring out its flavor. After taking a moment to relax, accompanying the night’s breeze of the highland area while lowering our digestive tension with coconut milk, we continued our adventure to the legendary Lontong Malam Kartini.

The distance between the two restaurants isn’t far, just head straight and turn at the Alaman Bolak intersection, exactly behind the Sangkumpal Bonang market, where there’s a road which is illuminated with dim street lights. It may seem a simple tavern but the long queue in front of it says different. Lontong Malam Kartini is its name, and it is only open when the night comes to the city.

With a full plate of lontong set before me, I move the dish with a spoon. There are big pieces of rice cake with silky coconut milk and gori (jackfruit), and also dried tofu cooked tauco along with potato perkedel. The tauco sauce, made from from soy beans, feels like a blink from Ling-Ling at the Kwan Tek Bio intersection; a smooth, spicy, savoury taste with curry seasoning that unites in my mouth, exploding like a firework of joy.

With the sunny morning, our adventure resumed. Our first mission was to find Toge Panyabungan, the beverage having already entered the national culture heritage in 2017 for Mandailing’s unique drinks category. The search for our destination led us to the Sangkumpal Bonang market which offered a wide variety of merchandise and culinary options. It can be said that the market is Padang Sidimpuan’s storefront, located on the main road, with varied merchants offering goods and services. If you are lucky, you can watch a musician playing Saleot, an instrument made from buffalo horn, bamboo and coconut shell, which is almost extinct.

In the hands of the stall owner, Toge Panyabungan is made by mixing green cendol, candil, tape pulut, pulut (sticky rice), pulut hitam (black sticky rice), and a plump lupis triangle in a medium sized bowl. Covered in savoury coconut milk and concentrated melting of sweet palm sugar. Its taste can only be described as all excitement put together and then cracked in your mouth. It’s tragic for those who have never felt the freshness of the sweet-savory mix that dwells in a bowl of Toge Panyabungan. There is a sense of serenity that fills the mouth before it enters, slowly, to the throat and it is with this that we part ways with Padang Sidimpuan, for now.