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Pempek: Palembang Fish Cakes with Vinegar Sauce

In the bustling city of Palembang, South Sumatra, a unique culinary delight has been winning over taste buds for centuries. Pempek, or Palembang fish cakes, is an iconic Indonesian dish that is as rich in flavor as it is in history. These savory fish and tapioca cakes, served with a tangy vinegar sauce known as ‘cuko’, present a delightful play of textures and flavors. The crispy exterior, the soft, chewy interior, and the spicy, sweet, and sour sauce create a gastronomic experience that is truly unforgettable. This is not merely a dish; it’s a culinary tale of Palembang, told through a mosaic of flavors and aromas.

Pempek: Palembang Fish Cakes with Vinegar Sauce


  • 500g of mackerel fillet
  • 300g of tapioca starch
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 2 eggs
  • For the vinegar sauce (cuko):
    • 500g of palm sugar
    • 1 litre of water
    • 5 bird’s eye chillies
    • 5 cloves of garlic
    • 2 tablespoons of tamarind paste
    • 1 teaspoon of salt

Cooking Steps

  • Blend the mackerel fillet, garlic, salt, and eggs into a smooth paste.
  • Mix the fish paste with tapioca starch until it forms a dough.
  • Shape the dough into oval cakes and boil them in hot water until they float to the surface. Drain and set aside.
  • To prepare the vinegar sauce, boil the palm sugar, water, bird’s eye chillies, garlic, tamarind paste, and salt. Stir until the sugar dissolves.
  • Fry the fish cakes until they’re golden brown.
  • Serve the fried fish cakes with the vinegar sauce and a side of cucumber slices and rice noodles, if desired.

In closing, Pempek is a fascinating dish that beautifully encapsulates the spirit of Palembang’s vibrant food culture. Preparing Pempek at home can be a fun culinary adventure, offering a unique opportunity to experience a piece of Indonesia’s rich food heritage. When selecting the ingredients, prioritize freshness. Fresh fish delivers a cleaner, more pronounced flavor that makes all the difference in the final dish. Similarly, fresh garlic and chillies contribute to a more flavorful vinegar sauce. Also, choosing good quality palm sugar ensures a delightful sweetness that perfectly balances the tanginess of the tamarind. So, venture into the kitchen, get your hands a little dirty, and embark on a flavorful journey to the heart of Palembang. Happy cooking!

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