What is travel without a lot of…eating? In my honest opinion, one of the best ways to get to know Indonesia is through your palate. Indonesian food is as rich and diverse as its culture and you’ll find foods with Middle Eastern, Indian, Chinese, Polynesian, European influences as well as a plethora of dishes that are pure, indigenous Indonesian.
Whatever region the food hails from, however, there are some overarching similarities. One is simply spice. Remember that the Indonesia’s abundance of spices was what first attracted European traders to the region? The country even earned the nickname “The Spice Islands” at a point in its history. So it’s no surprise that those spices are used liberally and abundantly in Indonesian cuisine to the utmost adoration of some foodies and the heart-burning dismay of others. Remember to ask for less spicy (kurang pedas) if you fall in the latter group!
Cuisines vary by region and after trying a few dishes wherever you happen to be, you’ll have a hankering to roam from region to region, sampling as many of the local cuisines as your stomach can take!
But for now, here’s a beginner’s guide to Indonesian cuisine. Bon appetit! Or shall we say Selamat makan!
Reading a Menu & Ordering
It’s always helpful to know what you’re ordering, yes? Here are a few useful words to know…
Nasi: Rice (it’s a staple, you’ll see this word a lot)
Mie: Noodles (also a staple, will also see a lot)
And you’ll probably want it prepared a certain way…
As for your beverages…
Air putih/Ait matang: Drinking water
Eating Food in Indonesia
Indonesia meals are usually eaten with the spoon in the right hand and the fork in the left hand, using a sort of shove motion to push the food onto the spoon. But in many parts of the country, such as West Java and West Sumatra, you’ll have the pleasure of eating food with your hands.
You’ll know if it’s meant to be a “finger food” when they give you kokoban, a bowl of tap water with a slice of lime in it. You really don’t want to drink this water.
If chopsticks aren’t your forte – you’re in luck. Eating with chopsticks is really only done in food stalls or in restaurants serving Chinese-adapted cuisine like mie goreng (fried noodles) and kwetiau goreng (fried flat rice noodles).
10 Most Popular Indonesian Dishes
In case you’re brand new to Indonesian cuisine, you just can’t go wrong with the ten dishes below…they’re simply delectable!
Rendang is a spicy meat dish with a creamy, spicy, flavorful coconut milk sauce. It originated from the Minangkabau ethnic group of Indonesia and is now a nation-wide and even world-wide favorite.
It’s most commonly served with soft, succulent beef as the meat.
This dish is a must-try.
Sambal is not so much a dish as it is a sauce, yet it is so popular, it may as well be a dish. Sambal is an absolute staple on all Indonesian tables and the love of Sambal is so ardent that there are estimated to be as many as 300 varieties of Sambal across the Indonesian archipelago!
That’s a lot of variation for something that’s made with a combination of chilies, shrimp paste, lime juice, sugar and salt.
No dish is considered complete in Indonesia without a healthy dollop of Sambal and oftentimes, it’s the main attraction of a dish. You’ll find Sambal versions of everything under the sun – mango, mushroom, durian, cassava…you name it, they’ll serve it with Sambal.
Mmmmm. Roasting BBQ skewers of soft, succulent meat. You’ve probably tasted these in Thai restaurants as they’re a popular appetizer, but you must try them in Indonesia as well.
You can choose from a wide selection of meat – chicken, goat, mutton, or rabbit – and these yummy morsels of meat are marinated in turmeric, barbecued over hot coals, and then bathed in a hearty does of peanut sauce.
4. Nasi Goreng
No list of Indonesian food is complete without Nasi Goreng, long-considered Indonesia’s national dish. This simple, Chinese-influenced fried rice dish differentiates itself from all the other fried rice dishes of the world with a sweet, thick soy sauce called kecap and a sprinkling of acar, pickled cucumber and carrots for a refreshing note.
A slightly runny egg tops off the yummy picture.
5. Gado Gado
Sure, Nasi Goreng might be the national dish, but nothing represents culturally diverse Indonesia like the popular Gado Gado.
Gado Gado literally translates to “mix mix” and is a term often used to describe situations that are all mixed up. The dish lives up to its name – Gado Gado is a healthy, hearty mix of veggies that are boiled and blended together.
6. Nasi Padang
A South East Asian favorite, the popular Nasi Padang is 100% Indonesian.
The dish is not so much a dish as a mini-buffet: Nasi Padang dishes are prepared in a hot, spicy, dry style of cooking full of flavor and aroma.
Choose from around a dozen dishes and dig in!
Sure, you can find KFC in Indonesia, but after you try Ayam Goreng, you won’t even be tempted to visit. Indonesia’s fried chicken dish uses small village birds that are given free reign to run around the yard all their lives. The life spent roaming free and happy – as opposed to being cooped up in a cage – makes these chickens pure juicy yumminess.
Freedom never tasted so good.
Soto is ubiquitous in Indonesia – you can trek from one end to another and still manage to consume a bowl of Soto every day. The broth and ingredients do vary across the archipelago, however, so you probably won’t even get sick of eating it.
It’s a super simple dish, a traditional soup composed of broth, meat and veggies. Common street versions are made of a simple, clear soup flavored with chicken, goat, or beef – sometimes with a deliciously sweet, creamy, coconut-milk base.
Garnish with crispy shallots and fried garlic and you’ll understand why this simple dish is so darn popular.
Another Chinese-influenced dish, Bakso made it to international fame when President Barack Obama fondly recalled it being one of his favorites during a recent trip to Jakarta. The main feature of this dish is the Bakso, or Indonesian meatball, which is made a meat – beef, chicken, fish, shrimp – combines with a big of tapioca flour.
These meatballs come in various shapes, sizes, and flavors but are usually served in a bowl of beef broth with noodles, veggies, tofu, egg, and wontons and sprinkled with fried shallots and celery.
Last but certainly not least, Rawon is a deliciously flavorful black beef stew from East Java. The soup uses keluak nut for a deepy, nutty flavor combined with garlic, shallots, ginger, turmeric, and red chili for a hearty spiciness.
It’s an unforgettable flavor.