Situated in the cool and pleasant Batak highlands, is a charming little town called Kabanjahe that is home to the loud and expressive Batak Karo people with an age-old culture.
The town, about two hours drive south of Medan, is also the epicenter of a traditional culinary scene that will astound even the most adventurous eaters.
Batak people are majority Christian and so are not restricted to halal food. Many of the area’s best meals are made with pork, but there are also halal dishes, as well as meals made from unusual ingredients.
For pork lovers there are fried cutlets, sauteed pork in thick spicy sauces and babi panggang (roast pig) karo — often shortened to BPK — which is adored by locals and has become nationally famous.
BPK consists of roasted pork slices with three accompaniments: a bowl of broth made from the essence of boiled pig’s bones, a platter of porcine blood cooked with pepper and chili, and a saucer of extra-hot chili sauce. Grab a plate, scoop in the rice and eat with your hands the way the locals do — you may well find yourself asking for seconds.
Rumah Makan Mariras on Jalan Jamin Ginting that connects Kabanjahe to the town of Berastagi and Medan, serves these fabulous pork dishes. It is usually visited by droves of hungry guests during lunch hours, but closes in the early afternoon.
Another interesting pork dish called kidu-kidu is served here and in other typical Karo restaurants. Kidu-kidu is the local version of a sausage with pig intestines, innards and pork.
Chopped cassava leaves are also added to the sausage to add a slight bitterness to the delicious creation.
Restoran Asima on Jalan Rata Perangin-angin is known for serving the best pinadar in town, which is a meal of chicken thighs, wings or breasts, roasted and mixed with chicken blood, then cooked and with a generous amount of spices.
If you enjoy spicy foods, this one is a must-try.
There’s no scarcity of eateries serving halal foods, some which advertise “Rumah Makan Muslim” in their windows. A traditional Karo rendition of halal chicken is known as tasak telu , the best of which can be found in a place with the name, “Tasak Telu Ayam,” advertised on a banner found along Jalan Jamin Ginting.
Tasak telu literally means “cooking three times,” and consists of three dishes: The first part is boiled chicken. The second part is a sauce made of finely-ground mature corn kernels, spices and the remaining stock from the boiled chicken.
The third part is an assortment of chopped vegetables and spiced coconut. Tasak telu is a rich, hearty meal.
While menus with BPK or tasak telu are as popular as ever, other traditional Karo dishes, such as the exotic kidu, are disappearing from the Karo tables.
Kidu is the Karo word for white, plump grubs or insect larvae found in sugar palm trees. The kidu-kidu sausages mentioned above are named as such because they look similar to the short, fat grubs. The grubs are lightly fried to make the outer skin crispy while keeping the inner part juicy, and then briefly cooked in a boiling sauce called arsik — a Batak sauce made from andaliman (Szechuan peppers), turmeric, garlic and candlenut. The juice pops out of the kidu as you bite into it, providing a texture similar to an oily cake that tastes salty and provides a lot more protein.
Nowadays, people are less inclined to eat such creatures, so if you want to try kidu you may have to acquire the grubs yourself. People in the market may know where to look for some and you can ask a restaurant to cook them up for you.
Finally, the truly adventurous might be tempted to try a notoriously pungent dish called pagit-pagit . The ingredients include a brew of cassava leaves, santan (coconut milk), rimbang (a bitter but non-toxic variety of the nightshade family), flowers of some locally-available plants and some arsik sauce. Pork or beef meat may be used.
This combination alone might sound reasonable, but it is the additional substance — juice from a cow’s cud, food that has been digested and regurgitated — that may make pagit-pagit harder to swallow. If you can stand the smell, you may be able to enjoy its yummy taste. The unique concoction can be found in Rumah Makan Purbasari, an eatery with deep crimson walls, on Jalan Bangsi Sembiring, very close to the town center.
Most decent eateries in Kabanjahe are located along major streets, so finding the ones described here should not be difficult. You may even wish to walk around the town, soaking in the local lifestyle and enjoying the cool breeze.
Alternately, you can take public transportation. Note that minibuses in Kabanjahe are not identified by the direction in which they go or by numbers. Instead, routes are indicated by names of destinations on the route, written on the colorful sides of the buses: Merga Silima, Sigantang Sira, Kama, Bintang Karo, Rio, and Persada Nusantara are among them.
If you ask for directions locals may for example, tell you to “take a Sigantang Sira and stop at the second intersection.”
These journeys may take a bit of getting used to, but are well worth the epicurean reward.