Food for Thought: Conduct a Spicy Experiment With a North Sumatran Curry Recipe

Medan dishes draw influences from Indian, Arabic, Chinese and Malay cuisines. (Photo courtesy of Petty Elliott)

By : Jakarta Globe | on 11:41 AM October 13, 2013
Category : Life & Style, Food & Drink

Medan dishes draw influences from Indian, Arabic, Chinese and Malay cuisines. (Photo courtesy of Petty Elliott) Medan dishes draw influences from Indian, Arabic, Chinese and Malay cuisines. (Photo courtesy of Petty Elliott)

On my recent trip to Medan, I was blown away with the many exciting cuisines I encountered in the capital city of North Sumatra. Indian, Arabic, Chinese and Malay influences accentuate the foods of this area which add to the traditional cuisines of the Batak people in North Sumatra. The influence of Indian cuisine is particularly apparent in the region’s goat and fish head curry dishes.

The difference between Indian curry and Medan, or Indonesian curry in general, lies in the form and texture of spices. In Indian curry, most of the spices are dried and powdered but in Indonesian curry, fresh roots spices (ginger, turmeric, galangal) and fresh chillies are used. There are also fusion flavors with additions of lemon grass, lime leaves, curry leaves, basil, pandan leaves, shallots and candlenuts depending on the region. It is common to add coconut milk to curry dishes in Indonesia, which is the same as the southern region of India.

For this week’s recipe I have Medan beef curry with yoghurt instead of coconut milk. This is inspired from the classic Medan goat curry. The addition of yoghurt is inspired from classic North Indian cooking. It give as lighter flavor to the curry and adds a wonderful creamy texture to the aroma of the spices and herbs. You may replace the beef with lamb, fish, chicken, tofu, tempeh or vegetables, especially pumpkin with carrots and French beans or long beans.

Perhaps this recipe will give you inspiration. Enjoy!

Beef curry with natural yoghurt

This is very delicious and easy to make. For a big crowd, simply double or triple the ingredients. You can serve the dish with basmati rice or any rice you prefer. Add finely chopped lime leaves to garnish and a for bit of fragrance. Serves 6-8.


1kg beef stew, season with salt and black pepper.

2 lemon grass stalks; 4 lime leaves; 2-3 tablespoons of vegetable oil; 600 ml water; 500 gr natural yoghurt — use 350 gr in cooking and set aside the rest for serving; 5 fresh lime lives, sliced finely; some star anise to garnish; salt to season.

For the paste: 75 gr shallots, peeled; 5 cloves of garlic; 5 curly red chillies, 5 red bird’s eye chillies (optional); 5 cm fresh ginger and turmeric, peeled; 4 candlenuts.

For dry spices: 1 teaspoon each of coriander seeds, cumin, fennel seeds; 6 cloves; 4 cardamom; 2 star anise; 1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg; 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper.


1. Place all the dry spices (except the nutmeg) in a frying pan without oil. Heat the frying pan on medium heat for around 8-10 minutes or until fragrant. Grind all the spices except the star anise and cardamom. Roughly crush the cardamom and set aside.

2. To make the paste, simply cut roughly all the ingredients and grind into a fine paste with a pestle or mortar or use a food processor. When using a food processor, the texture of the paste will be rough, not fine. Transfer the paste into a small bowl and set aside.

3. Heat a large pan and add the cooking oil and then the paste. Cook the paste for 6-8 minutes. Stirring all the time.

4. Add the dry spices and then the beef. Mix well and let it cook for 5 minutes and mix well. Add the whole star anise and crushed cardamom. Add the water, bring to the boil and simmer for 3-4 hours. Season with salt and check the seasoning.

5. Just before serving, add the yoghurt, stir the mixture well and cook for 5 minutes on a low medium heat. Check the final seasoning and serve hot. Garnish with finely sliced lime leaves and star anise. Add a teaspoon of yoghurt on top of the curry for each plate or place a couple of tablespoons on a large serving plate. If you like, add some roasted crushed almonds to give a crunchy texture to the dish.

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