Our first night in Medan we went wandering, looking for something to eat. We strolled the lanes around our hotel but came up empty. It was only 8:30 but everything was shut tight. Stomachs growling, we widened our search, dodging speeding SUVs and smoke-belching motorcycle tricycles as we sprinted across a major thoroughfare toward a promising sidestreet. There didn't appear to be any shops and all the street lights were dark (common, in Medan), but we could make out the figures of pedestrians and the lightbulbs and candles of hawker stalls in the distance.
Sure enough, ten minutes on the hoof found us with a wealth of dinner choices. We eyed simple storefronts and ambulant stalls offering mie fried and in soup, nasi Padang, stir-fried Chinese dishes, and burgers, of sorts (no thanks), finally settling on grilled chicken peddled by a friendly young Batak woman who, with her long straight hair, skinny jeans, black turtleneck, and hipster glasses, resembled a beatnik. While her helper got the coals going with an electric mini fan and brushed the chicken with glossy black kecap manis, we made the most of her broken English and my middling Malaysian (quite close to Indonesian). When she pulled out her mobile phone and asked us to pose for a photo we - mindful of the hundreds of Sumatrans subjected to Dave's lens on previous trips - agreed.
The chicken was delicious, right up there with Thailand's best - moist and tender, super smoky, sweet and salty from the kecap and soured with a slice of lime. Eaten with plain white rice, a few slices of cucumber, a scorching chile dip, and good company, it was just what we'd been looking for, even if we hadn't known it at the time.
We broke our walk back to the hotel with a bowl of sweet, bean-based bubur (porridge), served up from a corner stall. After the fiery bird its cooling coconutiness hit just the right note. Next to us, an elderly man sipped a hot milky beverage. Bandrek susu, the proprietor said. It's good for you, why not give it a try?
Bandrek (it's taken both with and without susu - milk) could only originate in a place that produces a wealth of dried spices. Every warm spice we'd seen in Sumatra's markets - especially cinammon, but also coriander, cardamom, cloves, anise - swam in that brew in extravagant abundance. Palm sugar lent smoky sweetness, and ginger a gentle heat that dueled with the stinging bite of fresh chile. Each sip forged a not unpleasant, flaming path down my gullet. I would have sworn I could feel the liquid as it hit the pit of my stomach.
My throat tingled (bandrek is prescribed for a sore throat ... as well as male 'issues'), my cheeks burned, and, after a few minutes, a cooling sweat broke out on my forehead. I can't testify to the precise medicinal properties of bandrek, but I know I'd want a glass if had a cold or were recovering from the flu.
Over the next week, as we explored a patch of north Sumatra, we saw the drink everywhere, sold from specialized carts and in the warung kopi (coffee shops) and pondok tuak (palm wine 'huts') that male Sumatrans gravitate to in the mornings and the evenings. We found it all over Medan, in smaller towns, in no-name villages, and at the top of a pass on the road from Berestagi to Sidikalang and Lake Toba. There, four shops obviously suffering for lack of customers (tourism numbers on Sumatra are dismally low) serve the drink with salted eggs and a stunning view of the lake.
I can't help but wonder if we would have noticed north Sumatra's bandrek obesssion at all if chance - and our stomachs - hadn't led us to it that first night in Medan.
Our guide Idris shared this recipe with me on the long drive back to Medan. Cinammon is a key ingredient, so look for good sticks and don't skimp on the quantity. Bandrek strikes me as a very personal thing, and I'd wager that every household has its own recipe, so feel free to fiddle with amounts according to your own taste. One thing bandrek should not be is timid - the spices should sing, and the liquid should be fiery enough to at least tickle the throat. If the use of chile is a turnoff, increase the amount of ginger.
I prefer my bandrek without milk. I could see the beverage iced - not authentic, but probably delicious. Were I a more ambitious cook I'd explore bandrek as an ice cream flavor.
Makes 2 six to seven-ounce servings.
1/2 liter (about 2 1/4 cups) water
3 six-inch cinammon sticks
5 star anise
10 whole cloves
10 coriander seeds
7 cardamom pods, broken open
1 stalk lemongrass, bottom 5 inches only, peeled and trimmed and pounded to release the frangrance
3 thick slices of ginger (old, not young), pounded a bit to release the juices
Optional: fresh chilies, 1 if very hot more if less so
about 2 tablespoons of Indonesian palm sugar (substitute 1/2 dark brown sugar and 1/2 maple sugar)
1) Place all ingredients except sugar in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer, partly covered, about 10 minutes. Add the sugar and simmer a few more minutes. Taste for sweetness and add more sugar if necessary.
2) Strain through a fine mesh strainer or a piece of cheesecloth. Add milk to taste, if desired.