Pempek is a very moist and doughy “fishcake,” which is made from ground fish, water, salt, and tapioca. The dough is boiled in hot water or steamed until hardened, then stored to be fried just before serving. As seen in the picture at the right, pempek can be made into a variety of shapes and sizes, similar to how pasta can be formed into a variety of shapes.
The consistency of pempek is similar to dumplings. It is usually dipped in a vinegar sauce when eaten. Most Americans don’t prefer strong fish flavored foods, which is common to pempek, but we have a friend that makes pempek with one of the better qualities of fish called ikan gabus (snakehead), and with that fish it actually tastes very good.
Depending on the region of Indonesia you come from, pempek may also be referred to as mpek-mpek or empek-empek. From legends, pempek is said to have originated in the Sumatran City of Palembang. Below is the story of how it originated.
The Legend of Pempek’s Origin
“Pempek is the best-known of Palembang’s dishes. Its origin is undoubtly Palembang, however the history behind the creation of this savoury dish is unclear. According to local tradition, around the 16th century there was an old Chinese immigrant who lived near the Musi river. He noticed an abundance of fish caught by the local fishermen. In the Sumatran tropical climate, before the invention of refrigeration technology, most of these unsold leftover fish decayed and were wasted. The indigenous people, however had limited knowledge and techniques for processing fish. During that period, most of the indigenous people simply grilled, fried or boiled their fish instead of adding other ingredients to make new dishes. The old Chinese man mixed in some tapioca and other spices, which he then sold around the village on his cart. The people referred to this old man as ‘pek-apek, where apek is a Chinese slang word to call an old man. The food is known today as empek-empek or pempek.”