OK, so you’re just about to head out on your dream trip to Indonesia. Perhaps you’re planning on visiting Bali. Or maybe you’re going to get more adventurous and visit Yogyakarta to see the beautiful temples, like Borobudur or Prambanan. Or you could be planning on diving Raja Ampat, one of the best places int he world to dive. You’ve seen all the pictures of this, the world’s largest archipelago, so you know it will be beautiful. You’ve probably also heard that Indonesia is a food lover’s paradise and you’re going to have some of the greatest tasting food you’ve ever had! And if you haven’t heard this, you won’t be the first or last person to visit these islands and be surprised at the variety or incredible flavors you’ll experience. But it’s always nice to know what you’re getting yourself into before you go. With this in mind, I’ve developed a quick study for you: Indonesian Food 101.
The history of Indonesian food
Hundreds of years ago, Europeans began coming to these mysterious islands in the Pacific ocean looking for spices. In the early 15th century, these Europeans (including the French and Italians!) got tired of eating their fish & potatoes with just salt. They encountered Arab traders who brought them spices with complex flavors – nutmeg, black pepper, curry, and many others. These spices added depth to the bland foods they were used to eating. And even though they were quite expensive, they were addicting. They had to have more, and they certainly didn’t want a middle man jacking up the prices!
The promise of great food prompted explorers and traders to set sail around the world in search of the source of these spices: The mythical Spices Islands. The era of colonization began, lead by the Spanish and the Portuguese.
Just in case you haven’t figured out yet, the Spices Islands refer to Moluccas, the modern Archipelago of Maluku in Indonesia. That hunt for incredible food, started hundreds of years ago by explorers on massively expensive expeditions, continues to this day.
I’m a proud Indonesian who has lived half my life now in the United States. I understand that the vast cultural differences between two completely different cultures can sometimes make it difficult for Westerners to understand the culture of food in other countries, especially one like Indonesia. So, what are the basics? What do you need to know about Indonesian food before you get on that plane?
1. What does Indonesian food taste like?
In the Netherlands, a country that once occupied Indonesia, you can find plenty of Indonesian food in Indonesian restaurants all over the country. And I was surprised that Germans actually recognize Nasi Goreng, or “Asian” fried rice, which can be easily found in their frozen supermarket aisles. Even here in Atlanta, you can get a taste. The majority of my friends here had never experienced Indonesian food until they met me. Over the years, we’ve have a lot of fun introducing them to it when we can. Michael and I enjoy bringing our friends in Atlanta to eat at Batavia Restaurant, our favorite Indonesian food spot in the city. There are actually two Indonesian restaurants here (that we know of), but Batavia is the best, in our opinion. Almost invariably, our friends enjoy it. But before I take someone to eat Indonesian food for the first time, they always ask me how it tastes!
My simplest explanation is that Indonesian cuisine it is a marriage of Indian food (lots of spice mixes, especially curry), and Thai food (boiled in coconut broth). The result is phenomenal – you simply can’t stop eating!
2. Indonesian food is not always pretty
You won’t see too many Indonesian chefs looking closely at their dishes, gently placing a garnish on the rice with a pair of tweezers. In fact, if you see typical Indonesian food on a plate, it probably won’t look all that appetizing! But Indonesians don’t rely on the prettiness of a dish to work up an appetite. They go for smell and taste! So although it is not usually visually attractive, you can rest assured that your food is going to be delicious! You will want more.
3. Rice is our main dish
Fun fact: you may know that Indonesia is a big part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. We have the most active volcanoes in the world and about 76 of them have erupted in recent history. As a result, our soils are some of the most fertile in the world. Because of this, Indonesia is one of the largest producers of rice on the planet. You can imagine then that rice is very important to us. So much so that we consider it the main dish, unlike in the Western world where we consider rice a side dish.
In the U.S., rice is served in a pathetically small scoop on the side of your plate. In Indonesia, it will cover the majority of your plate! Rice is the staple of our main meals. It’s the rest of the food – the vegetables, the meats – that are served in small scoops on the side. Indonesians consider full meals the ones with rice as the main portion. All others are just snacks around meal times. Which brings us to my next point…
4. Indonesians eat – a lot
Indonesian food includes big portions of rice in filling meals, but we also tend to snack a lot between our meals. But what about between snacks? Yes, we also eat between snacks. Confusing, right? In short, we almost always eat. Sure, a lot of what we eat is not in huge amounts, but a day in the life on an Indonesian is like getting invited to a tasting menu gala at a restaurant tat lasts all day. We have various sorts of food available, day and night.
The best part? In Indonesia, we make it easy for you. In any Indonesian city or town, you can get all all types of Indonesian food – from meals, to snacks, to quick bites – in any of the hundreds of nearby street vendors and restaurants.
5. Krupuk: the Essential to any dish
Krupuk is basically a deep-fried crackers made from starch or other ingredients. Indonesians eat them with our meals as an additional layer of texture. Remember when you were a kid, you only wanted to eat your meat? Well, Indonesian kids only want to eat their krupuks.
There are hundreds kind of krupuks, and sometimes, a specific dish requires a specific type! And the list of the kinds of krupuk is endless – tofu krupuk for snacking, shrimp krupuk for white rice, krupuk emang that is served with sweet soy sauce, and krupuk melarat for your gado-gado.
6. Sambal Sauce
As if a typical Indonesian dish is not flavorful enough, we have ways to make it even better. In Indonesia, many meals are not complete without sambal sauce. In any place you decide to eat, there will be at least two sambal hot sauces available as a condiment. Like krupuk, some are for specific dishes. It’s a complicated relationship, but I recommend you try a few different types to see which one you like best. Then ask for it wherever you go!
7. Nasi Padang
Padang is the capital city of the West Sumatra region of Indonesia. The majority of Indonesians associate the name “Padang” with delicious and cheap food. Nasi Padang (literally “Rice of Padang”) is a type of dish that originated in West Sumatra. It consists of many different side dishes over rice. Eating at a Padang Restaurant will be a very different experience for you, but it is one you must try. The first thing you’ll notice is that when you sit down at your table, the waiter will bring a whole selection of these dishes and stack them on your table. You pick what you want. Anything you eat or touch goes on your bill!.
Look around for signs that read “Restoran Padang” when traveling in Indonesia, especially if you’re on a thin budget. A lot of times they’ll have pointed roof decoration: typical of the architecture of West Sumatra. You can find them pretty much everywhere you go in the country. A Restoran Padang is also a great option if you’re a vegetarian. Michael has been to Indonesia several times and can often be found hunting for a Restoran Padang. In addition to meat and fish dishes, they’re great places to find tofu, tempeh, greens, and various other delicious Indonesian vegetarian food. It’s good, cheap, and flavorful.
8. Fried eggs
Indonesians like their eggs well-done. Kind of an understatement, actually. Michael noticed this one morning when I was frying my own eggs. “Are you sure it’s dead?” he asked? Yes, Indonesians prefer our fried eggs fully-cooked – almost burned. The Indonesian menu just doesn’t have room for runny fried eggs. It’s instinctual of us – we want to make sure that our eggs are completely dead on our plate! If you order nasi goreng (fried rice) or mie goreng (friend noodles), chances are you’ll get one of these served on top.
Like everyone else on the planet, Indonesians love our desserts! Our desserts are unlike any other desserts in the world though. They have a muted sweetness to them that is unique. More often than not, Indonesian desserts contain little chunks of deliciousness, depending on the dish. Es teler is one my favorites. It’s basically an Indonesian fruit cocktail served in coconut and condensed milk, shaved ice, cocopandan syrup, a few slices of avocado, jackfruit, cincau grass jelly, and kolang kaling fruit. It is colorful and quite healthy.
Would you like a bir with that?
And of course, no story about Indonesian food would be complete without mentioning Indonesia’s national beer – Bir Bintang. You might know it from tank tops you’ve seen while wandering around Southeast Asia! And when you get to Indonesia, you’ll see adverts for it everywhere. It’s worth noting that most Indonesians don’t bother with alcohol, so this beer is mostly marketed towards bule (look it up!)
Indonesia is my home country and aside from my family, I miss Indonesian food most of all. With such a complex food culture, I could go on all day about our relationship to our food. One thing is for sure though, you definitely have to give it a try.
It wont take you long to understand why!
More on Indonesian Food
Check out our blog post on How to Make Easy Indonesian Homemade Tempeh. You can even get some of the ingredients and cooking ware from the post. We also attended a cooking class in Bali, and we share the recipe and what we learn there.
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