What Is Pempek?

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  • Written By: Eugene P.
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 05 October 2019
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Pempek is a type of small fishcake that originated in Indonesia. It is made by combining ground fish with tapioca flour and forming the dough into a specific shape. Fillings such as eggs, papaya, fish skin, tofu or shrimp are sometimes added. The dough can be boiled, steamed, fried or any combination thereof before it is served. When not being used as a component in a larger entree, pempek can be served with a type of sweet and sour sauce called kuah cuko and then sprinkled with powdered, dried shrimp or served with crispy krupuk, also known as shrimp chips.

The different shapes into which pempek can be made and the variations in ingredients each carry their own names. A long, log-shaped cake is called a lenjer and a small ball is an adaan. When the dough is wrapped around an egg, it is known as kapal selam, if stuffed with tofu it becomes tahu, and when filled with papaya it is called pistel. Many other variations also exist.

The basis for all pempek, regardless of the shape or eventual contents, is the dough. One of the main flavor elements is the fish that is used. Traditionally, the fish is one of any number of local varieties, including snakeheads and wahoo, although mackerel is often used outside Indonesia. The meat of the fish is separated from the bones and skin and either dried and turned into a powder or ground down into a very smooth paste.


The ground fish, some ice water and tapioca flour, sometimes mixed with a little wheat flour, is mixed together. The dough is then kneaded until it has a very even and soft texture. Unlike some other types of dough, pempek dough should be mixed and kneaded in a way that does not incorporate air into the mixture to ensure that the final product is heavy and firm.

Some versions of pempek, such as kulit, add additional ingredients such as diced fish skin and incorporate it directly into the dough. Other variations, such as kapal selam, wrap the dough around an ingredient, in this case a hardboiled egg. Whatever the preparation, the dough is formed into the desired shape and is then ready to cook.

Most pempek is either boiled in water or steamed until done, a process that can sometimes take an hour or longer. Some varieties, such as kapal selam, are deep fried in oil. Another option is to parboil or steam the fishcake to cook it through, and then fry it to create texture.

The traditional way to serve pempek is with kuah cuko sauce made from cane sugar, vinegar, garlic and chili peppers that are cooked in boiling water. The finished dish can be sprinkled with dried, powdered shrimp or have a small amount of shrimp powder paste on the side. It also can be used as an element in dishes such as tekwan soup.


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