Indonesian cuisine is the food of Indonesia.
With 17,000 islands to choose from, Indonesian food is an umbrella term covering a vast variety of regional cuisines found across the nation. But, if used without further qualifiers, the term tends to mean the food originally from the central and eastern parts of the main island Java. Now widely available throughout the archipelago, Javanese cuisine features an array of simply seasoned dishes, the predominant flavorings the Javanese favor being peanuts, chillies, sugar (especially Javanese coconut sugar) and various aromatic spices.
All too often, many backpackers seem to fall into a rut of eating nothing but nasi goreng (fried rice), and perhaps commonly available Javanese dishes, but there are much more interesting options lurking about if you're adventurous enough to seek them out. In West Java, Sundanese dishes composed of many fresh vegetables and herbs are commonly eaten raw. Padang is famous for the spicy and richly-seasoned Minangkabau cuisine, which shares some similarities to cooking in parts of neighbouring Malaysia, and eateries specialising in the buffet-style nasi padang are now ubiquitous across the nation. The Christian Batak people and the Hindu Balinese are great fans of pork, while the Minahasa of North Sulawesi are well known for eating almost everything, including dog and fruit bat, and a very liberal usage of fiery chillies even by Indonesian standards. Tamed Muslim-friendly versions of all three can be found in the malls and food courts of many Indonesian cities, but it's worth it to seek out the real thing especially if you happen to be in these regions. And by the time you get to Papua in the extreme east of the country, you're looking at a Melanesian diet of boar, taro and sago.
Across much of the archipelago the staple is nasi putih (white rice), while ketan (sticky rice) is frequently used for particular dishes and many snacks. Red rice is available, and rapidly becoming more popular. Rice is so important that it has several different names depending on what stage in the growing/consumption process it is in, from "padi" when growing in the field, gabah when harvested but not yet husked, "beras" in the cleaned state before being cooked, and "nasi" once steamed on your plate. Rice is served up in many forms including:
- bubur, rice porridge with toppings and chicken broth, popular at breakfast, generally salty
- lontong and ketupat, rice wrapped in leaves and cooked so it compresses into a cake
- nasi goreng, the ubiquitous fried rice; order it special to get an egg on top, eaten at any time, even breakfast
- nasi kuning, yellow spiced rice, the festive ceremonial dish version is moulded into a sharp cone called a tumpeng
- nasi padang, white steamed rice served with numerous curries and other toppings, originally from Padang but assimilated throughout the country with lots of variations and adjustments to taste.
- nasi timbel, white steamed rice wrapped in a banana leaf, a common accompaniment to Sundanese food
- nasi uduk, slightly sweet rice cooked with coconut milk, eaten with omelette and fried chicken; popular at breakfast
- nasi liwet, white rice served with roughly shredded chicken, opor (coconut milk soup), eggs and other add-ons, including internal organs and quail eggs, traditionally served late at night
Bubur, lontong and ketupat with vegetables, and also nasi kuning usually available in the morning only and serve in many stalls.
Noodles (mi or mie) come in a close second in the popularity contest. Most stalls nowadays offer bakmi ayam, fresh noodle with shredded chicken and one kind of vegetable and cost Rp10,000.
- kuetiaw/kwetiau/kway-tiau, flat rice noodles most commonly fried up with soy sauce, but can also be served in broth-based soups (less commonly)
- so'un, long, thin, usually transparent (best quality), round vermicelli ("glass" or "bean thread" noodles) made of starch from beans, cassava and other sources are usually used in soups
- bihun, long, thin, white (poorer quality are blue), round rice flour noodles are usually fried or added to certain dishes
- pangsit, similar to ravioli, these Chinese-originated pasta are stuffed with a bit of meat and are very soft, most often served fried in or with soup, or served "wet" in broth
Soups (soto with turmeric, and sop) and watery curries are also common. Soup can be a main course, not just a starter:
- Bakso (BA'-so) — beef, chicken, fish or prawn balls in broth with glass noodles. Bakso from Solo are known for their larger size
- Rawon (RAH-won) — spicy beef soup, coloured black by the keluak nut Pangium edule, a speciality of East Java
- Sayur asam — from the Sundanese cuisine of West Java. Clear vegetable soup soured with asem Jawa (tamarind) and belimbing wuluh (a variety of starfruit Averrhoa bilimbi)
- Lodeh (LOH-day) — thin coconut milk broth. Usually vegetable-based, but lodeh tempe is also found
- Soto ayam — chicken soup with vermicelli. Widely available, with many local variations.
- Sayur bening — spinach and cubed chayote in clear broth
Popular main dishes include:
- ayam bakar, grilled chicken
- ayam goreng, deep-fried chicken
- cap cay, Chinese-style stir-fried vegetables, usually with chicken, beef or seafood
- gado-gado, blanched vegetables with peanut sauce
- gudeg, jackfruit stew from Yogyakarta.
- ikan bakar, grilled fish
- karedok, similar to gado-gado, but the vegetables are finely chopped and mostly raw
- perkedel, deep-fried patties of potato and meat or vegetables (adopted from the Dutch frikadel)
- rendang, a spicy Padang favorite: beef cooked in a santan (coconut milk) and spice curry until it is soft
- sate (satay), grilled chicken, beef, goat or, rarely, lamb, horse or rabbit on a skewer
- sapo, Chinese-style claypot stew, usually with tofu, vegetables and meat or seafood
- pempek or empek-empek comes from Palembang, Sumatra and is made from ikan tenggiri (mackerel) and tapioca, with different shapes (lenjer, keriting), some of which may contain an egg (kapal selam), some form of onion (adaan) or papaya (pistel), steamed and then deep-fried and served with chopped cucumbers in a sweet and spicy vinegar- and sugar-based sauce. Some recipes taste fishy while others are fresh. Beware pempek that is very cheaply priced - it probably has a disproportionate amount of tapioca and will be rubbery. Good pempek should be mildly crunchy outside and soft (but very slightly rubbery) inside, and the sauce's flavour should be able to soak into it after a while.
Warning! It is best to avoid raw dishes such as karedok, raw vegetable salads (like cucumbers in creamy sauce) and salads unless you can verify that the vegetables were prepared sanitarily with boiled, filtered or bottled water, as otherwise you may suffer from diarrhoea or food poisoning. Eat dishes with santan (coconut milk) with care, as it can take a toll on your cholesterol level or it may give you diarrhoea.
Chillies (cabe or lombok) are made into a vast variety of sauces and dips known as sambal and saus sambal. The simplest and perhaps most common is sambal ulek, which is just chillies and salt with perhaps a dash of lime ground together using a mortar and pestle. There are many other kinds of sambal like sambal pecel (with ground peanuts), sambal terasi (with dried shrimp paste), sambal tumpeng, sambal mangga (with mango strips), sambal hijau (using green chilli), sambal bajak (fried, usually with tomatoes), etc. Many of these can be very spicy indeed, so be careful if you're asked whether you would like your dish pedas (spicy). Also, sometimes sambal may not be fresh and could lead to diarrhoea, so verify freshness before you put it in.
Crackers known as kerupuk (krupuk or keropok, it's the same word spelled differently) accompany almost every meal and are a traditional snack too, and can be loosely termed puffed [ingredient] crackers, and are often large round or square affairs. They can be made from almost any grain, fruit, vegetable or seed imaginable, including many never seen outside Indonesia, but perhaps the most common are the thin, light pink, rectangular kerupuk udang, made with dried shrimp, and the slightly bitter, small and thin, light yellow emping, made from the nuts of the melinjo (Gnetum gnemon) fruit, as well as those made with cassava or fish, both of which are usually large, round or square and white or orange off-white, although smaller varieties exist with vivid colours like pink. Most kerupuk is fried in oil, but a machine has been devised that can instantly cook a chip with high heat. In a pinch, kerupuk that has been created by pouring the batter in a curly pattern can be soaked in broth to do double duty as noodles - a good way to make use of soggy krupuk.
What North Americans call chips and others call crisps (not to be confused with kentang goreng, or French fries) are keripik to Indonesians. Potato chips exist, but they play second fiddle to cassava chips, and you can also find chips made from other fruits and tubers, such as sweet potatoes and bananas. Keripik is not as commonly eaten as kerupuk, and it is best to eat both kinds immediately or store them in an airtight container as they readily absorb moisture in the air and become soggy.
Pickled vegetables (using vinegar and sugar), are often served with certain dishes, especially noodles and soups, and are called acar. It almost always contains chopped up cucumber, but may also have chili peppers, chopped carrots, and shallots in it. These are not to be confused with pickles, which are only found in certain supermarkets and are expensive.
It is not common to find salt and pepper offered, but things like sweet (kecap manis) or salty soy sauce (kecap asin), cuka (vinegar) and, less commonly, saus tomat (tomato sauce). In steak houses, you may find saus Inggris (Worcestershire sauce), but you'll have a hard time finding mustard anywhere other than major supermarkets and you might as well forget about relish if you're not in one of the largest cities.
Dessert in the Western sense is not common in Indonesia, but there are plenty of snacks to tickle your sweet tooth. Kue covers a vast array of cakes and certain pastries, all colourful, sweet, and usually a little bland and rather dry, with coconut, rice or wheat flour and sugar being the main ingredients in many. Kue kering usually refers to biscuits and come in a vast variety. Roti (bread) and western-style cakes have gained popularity, mostly in large cities, but traditional and Dutch breads and pastries are available in many bakeries and supermarkets.
Some popular traditional desserts include:
- martabak manis aka kue Bandung or terang bulan : yeast-raised flat bread cooked fresh and with chocolate, cheese, nuts, or any combination of the three.
- lapis legit : an egg-based cake of many thin layers, often flavored with certain spices
- bika Ambon : a somewhat pleasantly rubbery yeast-raised cake from Ambon that has an enjoyably aromatic taste
- pukis : like a half-pancake with various toppings already added
- pisang molen : the banana version of pigs in a blanket
- pisang goreng : batter-fried banana
- klepon : a Javanese favourite - balls of rice flour filled with liquified Javanese sugar and coated with shredded coconut)
- naga sari (lit.: the essence of dragon - banana inside of firm rice flour pudding that has been steamed in banana leaves)
- puding (pudding made firm with agar-agar and served with vla poured over it, which is a sauce)
- centik manis (sweetened, firm rice flour pudding with colourful balls of tapioca) and some people like to eat Javanese (block) sugar by itself - its texture and flavour make it enjoyable for many.
Some cakes and pastries here may be served with sweetened meat floss (abon) or a liberal dose of shredded cheese, and one favourite during Ramadan is the Dutch "kaastengels", a rectangular cheese-flavoured cookie that is only slightly sweet.
Due to the perennially hot climate, Indonesians tend to bask themselves in desserts made of ice. The Es buah' is shredded ice mixed with fruits and sometimes sweet potatoes or nuts and topped with coconut cream or condensed milk, comes in infinite variations ("teler", "campur", etc.) and is a popular choice on a hot day. Ice cream made from either milk or coconut milk is very common. Indonesia's traditional version of ice cream is made with coconut milk and is called es puter and comes in a variety of local flavours, such as chocolate, coconut, durian, blewah (a squash), sweetened kidney bean, sweetened mung bean, etc. Although es puter is generally safe to consume, the iced fruit concoctions may contain ice made from untreated water or dirty ice blocks transported by becak, and will lead to frequent visits to the bathroom!
Perhaps the cheapest, tastiest and healthiest option, though, is to buy some unprepared buah segar (fresh fruit) with rotating variations throughout the year. Popular options include mangga (mango), pepaya (papaya), pisang (banana), apel (apple), kiwi (kiwi fruit), belimbing (starfruit), semangka (watermelon), melon (honeydew melon) and jambu biji (guava), but more exotic options you're unlikely to see outside Indonesia include the scaly-skinned crisp salak (snakefruit), jambu air (rose apple), rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum fruit, which look like a little ball with many tiny tentacles) and the ball-shaped markisa (passion fruit) and manggis (mangosteen). A word to the wise: avoid fruit that has already been peeled and sliced for you by a street vendor unless you enjoy diarrhea.
Probably the most infamous Indonesian fruit, though, is the durian. Named after the Indonesian word for thorn, it resembles an armour-plated coconut the size of a human head, and it has a powerful odour often likened to rotting garbage or the smell used in natural gas. Inside is yellow creamy flesh, which has a unique sweet, custardy, avocadoey taste and texture. It's prohibited in most hotels and taxis but its strong smell will be found in traditional markets, supermarkets and restaurants. Don't panic - it's just a fruit, even if it does look like a spiked fragmentation bomb the size of a head. The durian has three cousins - nangka (jackfruit) sukun (breadfruit) and cempedak (Artocarpus integer fruit). The former has a sweet, candy like flavour and no offensive smell, and the unripe fruit is used in the famous Jogjakartan pressure-cooked cuisine, "gudeg", and may be as big as a small child, sukun is rounder and less scaly, usually cut and fried to be eaten for snack, and the latter tastes like jackfruit but smells weakly like durian, is elongated and bowling-pin shaped, and usually no longer than 30 cm. All three are seasonally available.