Riau Archipelago Foods: Riau Islands, North Sumatra


This oil-rich province of Indonesia was, over the course of history, the gateway to South-East Asia and was a major leader in trading throughout the Indonesian archipelago.

Its people are of Malay origin and interestingly this group of islands could be called the birthplace of the Indonesian language, Bahasa Indonesia. But, if you travel to these beautiful and idyllic islands then it is the food I suggest you indulge in and in big quantities!.

Gastronome and epicurean el supremo, Suryatini N. Ganie, wrote an excellent article on the delicious foods this small archipelago has to offer:

Riau: Foods of admirals Hang Tuah and Hang Lekir

When in South Jakarta, have you ever driven along the streets named Hang Tuah and Hang Lekir in Kebayoran? Coming from farther south, then of course you will pass the streets named after the two famous admirals of the Riau Archipelago and its neighboring Lingga Archipelago.

The two were hailed for their bravery in defending the archipelagoes from foreign invaders in the past.

Known as passionate seafarers, the Riau people are also very open to outside influences and intermingle their own lifestyles with those of other people, while still maintaining their own values.

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Hang Tuah and Hang Lekir’s people have in a way been thinking globally for a long time. Lying on important east-west trade routes, the neighboring Riau and Lingga archipelagoes have for centuries also been important cultural centers for the Malays. In fact, the Riau Malay language formed the basis of the Bahasa Indonesia we know today.

Due to intense commercial intercourse, many people migrated to Riau. Pekanbaru on the mainland of Riau has big populations of people of Chinese and Middle Eastern descent. The food is therefore influenced by Chinese and Middle Eastern cuisine.

On the archipelago (Riau Kepulauan), however, Indian immigrants dominate, resulting in an Indian-influenced culinary scene.

Chinese culinary influences are also obvious here and many a dish originates from the kitchens of various Chinese ethnic groups, such as the Hokkien and Cantonese communities.

Following the arrival of many Westerners to work the oil fields of Riau, people now also use many Western ingredients, such as large red onions and beef sausages. One dish, called kacang rendang is made of white beans and may be compared to red beans in tomato sauce, Pekanbaru style! The dish is not eaten with the normal staple rice, but with toasted bread prepared over a low charcoal flame. Apropos bread, in Riau many people make bread not out of wheat flour but out of rice flour. Roti beras is cooked and eaten daily, like a staple, with all kinds of dishes. The roti beras is an interesting bread and I have included the recipe my hostess gave me in the recipes below.

By contrast, should you crave a traditional snack, most snacks in Riau are made from wheat flour.

My suggestion: when very hungry, ask for martabak Mesir. I warn you, you must be very hungry because martabak Mesir is not just a martabak, but the giant of the species. A bit oily, it has a crispy pancake-like wheat flour base, richly topped with chopped local selederi and minced meat. It is spiced not only with curry, but it would seem with all the bounty of the Spice Islands. I was only able to eat about one-tenth of the vast portion I was presented, so my generous hostess was kind enough to wrap it up in a doggy bag for me. Martabak Mesir actually means Egyptian martabak. Why? Because martabak is believed to have Middle Eastern overtones. My hostess shrugged her shoulders and said: “Must have been a hungry seafarer from an Egyptian galley who created it!”

Last but not least, the Riau Archipelago has abundant supplies of fish, and many Riau fish dishes are favorite gourmet fare. Most popular are small saltwater fishes like kembung or sardines, and Spanish mackerel, or tengiri. Many Chinese restaurants display live fish and the diner just picks what he wants. After specifying which dish he prefers, the cook straightaway sets to work.

So, if you get the chance, please visit the Riau and Lingga Archipelagoes, the home bases of Admirals Hang Tuah and Hang Lekir — islands where people are hospitable in the extreme and the food is good enough to satisfy the most demanding gourmet!

Suryatini N. Ganie