Sometimes, the best restaurants are the ones that offer something we can’t get anywhere else. For Melbourne’s sizeable Indonesian population, many of who are international students, Famili Ria provides the beloved South Sumatran fishcake, pempek.

Owner Gio Tondas is originally from Palembang in the Indonesian province of South Sumatra. He moved to Australia in 1994 to study architectural drafting and now works as an interior designer.

He opened Famili Ria with brothers Marco and Velix, and mum Hana, in 2013. Although Melbourne already had a number of Indonesian restaurants, none were dedicated to pempek.

“When I was in Indonesia, our Mum sold pempek from our house,” Gio says. “It’s something that began in Palembang but is now very popular all over Indonesia, it’s a street snack.”

The restaurant is located in Surrey Hills, at the end of the 70 tram line, directly across from Wattle Park. It’s a small, bright space and for the uninitiated, has a large menu on the wall featuring photos of almost every dish.

Groups of Indonesian students from nearby universities Swinburne and Deakin make up a large portion of the diners, but Famili Ria’s fish cakes have attracted a loyal following among Indonesians all over the city for their taste and authenticity.

Pempek are made with Spanish mackerel, eggs and tapioca flour, and served either deep-fried or boiled with a spicy vinegar sauce called cuko made from palm sugar, dark vinegar, garlic and lots of chilli. It’s designed to be slurped liberally as you chew.

“You always have the bowl [of cuko] in your hand,” says Gio.

“And the people from Palembang have terrible teeth because of it,” adds Marco, laughing.

In the kitchen, Hana uses a very large shallow bowl with a hatched surface texture – similar to the Japanese suribachi bowl – to work tapioca flour and water into the thick paste of mackerel and eggs.

“It’s not an exact amount, much more about the feel,” says Gio, referring to Hana’s measurements of flour and water.

“At different times of year the mackerel will have different fat content – our mum can tell just by touching it,” says Marco. “It’s better when it’s less fatty.”

Famili Ria has a range of pempek, including the egg-filled kapal selam (meaning “submarine” in Indonesian) and a curly keriting style.

Hana makes keriting by working the paste across the chopping board with a small brass colander called a pirikan until a tidy nest of cake has built up on the inside face.

It’s about the size of an egg and looks like a brain made of udon noodles. Very gently, she teases it up from the sides and drops it in to a pot of boiling water.

“In Jakarta, everyone likes it fried, but in Palembang we have it boiled in the morning,” says Gio.

Famili Ria also specialises in another Indonesian favourite, bakmi ayam: a “dry” noodle soup found all over South-East Asia, made with wheat noodles coated in lard, served with marinated chicken, steamed greens, a fried wonton and most importantly, broth served on the side (hence the term “dry”) to preserve the flavours of the ingredients. “We use chicken lard instead of pork: the majority of the Indonesians who come here are Muslim, so we’ve tried to cater for everyone,” says Gio.

Famili Ria
1115 Riversdale Road, Surrey Hills
(03) 9808 6767

Tue-Sat 11.30am–3pm, 5.30pm–9pm
Sun 2pm–9pm