The best of Indonesian cuisine

Indonesia, the spice-islands cuisine

Indonesian food is strong in flavors, with a delicious array of fish, unusual vegetables and fruits, and minimal meat. But only the brave should sample the chillies!

The food of Indonesia is influenced by the culinary traditions of diverse nations such as China, India, the Middle East and Netherlands. In fact, Indonesia n cuisine is so varied that travelers can be assured of finding at least one dish that becomes a lifelong favorite.

The prepared dishes are placed on the dining table at noon and again at dusk, and family members simply help themselves to a meal whenever they feel hungry.

It is only on special occasions, such as on feast days or when having guests over, that the Indonesian family sits and eats together.

The Chinese influence in Indonesian cuisine is most evident in the use of stir-fried dishes cooked in a huge steaming wok, while Indonesia´s popular curries can only have originated in India.

Marinated meat on skewers, known locally as sate, owes its heritage to the Middle Eastern kebab, while the rijstaffel (rice table) traces its roots to Dutch colonial times.

Rijstaffel (Picture: Hedwig studio)

Rijstaffel (Picture: Hedwig studio)

In today´s Indonesia, all of these various culinary traditions have blended and adapted to form regional cuisines on nearly every major island.

Five pillars of the cuisine

Rice, coconut, banana, peanut and soya bean are the five pillars of Indonesian cuisine and it is almost impossible to find a meal that does not include at least one of these items.

Rice is the staple food on most of the islands, particularly the more fertile Sumatra, Java and Bali.

There are several kinds of rice in Indonesia: beras putih (white rice), ketan putih (sticky white rice), ketan hitam (sticky black rice) and beras merah (red rice).

Nearly every menu offers dishes prefixed with the word “nasi”, which means they come with rice.

The most well-know of these is nasi goreng: fried rice with an assortment of vegetables and chicken, prawns or meat – or a combination of all the three.

nasi ayam telur

Nasi ayam goreng and egg (Foto: Matheus Pinheiro de Oliveira e Silva)

If the word istimewa (special) appears, it means the dish comes with a fried egg on top.

A cone shaped mould of nasi kuning (yellow rice) cooked with turmeric, coconut milk and spices is served on feast days on a banana leaf platter.

Mi (noodles) made from rice or wheat flour is another staple.

Noodles with pork meat (PIcture: Matheus Pinheiro de Oliveira e Silva)

Noodles with pork meat (PIcture: Matheus Pinheiro de Oliveira e Silva)

In mi goring (fried noodle), the noodles are fried in coconut oil with meat, vegetables and perhaps fried egg, with hot chilli shrimp paste and lime on the side.

Both mi goreng and nasi goreng are popular breakfast dishes.

Other starches like maize, tapioca, millet and sago are eaten in the drier islands east of Bali and in smaller archipelagos along the coast of Sumatra.

In the island of Roti and Savu, the staple food is sweet nutritious juice tapped from the lontar palm.

Coconut and coconut products are central to Indonesian cooking. Every meal includes this versatile palm nut prepared in a variety of ways.

Coconut oil is the common cooking medium while santan (coconut milk) is used to thicken and add flavor to soups and curries and as a marinade for meats.

Grated coconut is often added to various vegetables dishes to provide texture, flavor and an oil base. Fried shredded coconut is served as a condiment.

Coconut is also a vital ingredient in Indonesian sweets.

There is an astonishing variety of bananas in Indonesia, ranging from the tiny pisang mas to the larger pisang lembut popular in Bali.

Bananas can be eaten baked, fried or boiled, and are a popular snack. Even the banana flower is eaten as a vegetable and the leaves are used as wrapping material for steamed meat, fish and vegetables.

Peanuts form an integral part of some meals in the form of a sweet and spicy sauce served with sate, gado-gado (steamed vegetables) and a host of another dishes.

Sate padang

Sate padang (Picture: lapiazza)

Gado-gado (Picture: Indonesia-recipe)

Gado-gado (Picture: Indonesia-recipe)

Much of the protein in Indonesian food comes from soya bean. They are eaten boiled or fermented to make tempe (soybean cake) and tahu (soybean curd).

Fried tempe (Picture: withlocals)

Fried tempe (Picture: withlocals)

Peanuts are also fried and tossed together with tempe, either as a snack or served as a side dish to accompany a main meal.

However, it is the fermented soya bean sauces, kecap asin (salty) and kecap manis (sweet), that are important flavoring agents used with gusto in almost every dish.

Most Indonesian restaurants tend to use liberal amounts of MSG (monosodium glutamate) in their cooking so let the waiter know beforehand if you prefer your food without this flavoring agent.

Indonesians eat a large variety of vegetables.

Most greens are picked wild and include tender tapioca, papaya and soya bean leaves, kangkung (water spinach) and bayam (Asian spinach).

Other fruits and vegetables are grown in home gardens including young jackfruits, papayas and bananas, all variety of beans, squash and pumpkin, and carrots.

Indonesians do not eat much meat for the most part, although is common to find a few dried fish alongside a mound of white rice.

Among other things, the choice of meat is determined by cultural and religious factors.

Typically, the Javanese eat a variety of meats (except pork) and favorite dishes are soto ayam (chicken soup), sop buntut (oxtail soup) and ayam goreng (fried chicken).

The Balinese people love duck and pork. Famous Balinese dishes include babi guling (roast suckling pig) and bebek tutu (spiced slow-cooked duck).

Bebek tutu (Picture: indohoy)

Bebek tutu (Picture: indohoy)

The Sumatrans eat a lot of beef. One of the most popular dishes introduced by the Sumatrans is rendang (beef chunks served in a rich and spicy sauce).

Rendang (Picture:

Rendang (Picture:

South Sulawesi is known for seafood dishes that run the gamut from shrimp, lobster and crab, to carp, eel and sea slugs.

Exotic fare

Typically, the food in Java tends to be sweeter than the food in Sumatra and Bali, which is spicier.

The coastal Papuans are said to offer the best ikan bakar (grilled fish) in th whole country.

Grilled fish or ikan bakar (Picture: 9olds)

Grilled fish or ikan bakar (Picture: 9olds)

Some of the Dayak tribes of Kalimantan consider roast lizards a mouth-watering delicacy while mice and bats are common fare in Minahasa kitchens.

As a general rule, the more rural the area, the higher the one´s chance of having meals prepared with meat and animal parts that may not agree with the palate or conscience.

Once you go off the beaten track, it is a good idea to check what type of meat has been cooked to avoid consuming animal innards.

Favorite vegetarian dishes include gado-gado (vegetable salad with peanut sauce) and cap cai (wok-fried vegetables).

Cap cai (Picture: kelompoktik8)

Cap cai (Picture: kelompoktik8)

Main dishes are often accompanied by freshly-made sambal (thick chilli concoction) of which there are numerous varieties, ranging from a simple fried diced shallot, garlic and very hot chilli paste to a pungent fried version liberally laced with terasi (shrimp paste).

Sambal terasi (Picture: menuresepmasakan)

Sambal terasi (Picture: menuresepmasakan)

Indonesia sampler

One of the best ways to sample a wide variety of Indonesian food is to order nasi rames or nasi campur.

Nasi campur (Picture: resepmasakanpedia)

Nasi campur (Picture: resepmasakanpedia)

This sampler is a plateful of steamed rice, chicken, fresh and preserved vegetables, fried egg, roasted peanuts, shredded coconut, fiery sambal sauce, and oversized crispy krupuk (fried prawn crackers).

The traditional Padang restaurant is Sumatra´s great contribution to the national cuisine.

It offers a bewildering array of tasty local dishes including ayam (chicken), sapi (beef), kambing (mutton), sayur (vegetables), ikan goreng (fried fish), various curries and maybe an assortment of entrails, plus a substantial serving of steamed rice.

Dinners are charged only for the amount consumed, so depending on your budget, either try a variety of dishes or do as most locals do and choose only a few main dishes and then fill up with rice.

As a general rule, vegetable dishes are the cheapest with beef the most expensive.

It is a good idea to find out the price of each dish before you begin.


The array of fresh tropical fruit available in Indonesia often astounds visitors.

There are more than 40 varieties of bananas (pisang), pomelos (jeruk Bali), mangoes and pineapples (nanas), plus an array of lesser-known delicacies.

Durians might best be described as spiky green bowling balls that smell rather strange but taste like caramel peach.

To know more read: Durian

Rambutans are red or yellow, have a hairy exterior and a flavor very similar to lychee.

Rambutan (Picture Matheus Pinheiro de Oliveira e Silva)

Rambutan (Picture Matheus Pinheiro de Oliveira e Silva)

Salak is known as snake skin fruit due to its crisp texture and sharp flavor which closely resembles a snake.

Salak (Picture: Google images)

Salak (Picture: Google images)

Passion fruit (markisa) is a delicious refreshing fruit full of tiny, edible seeds

Other delicious local fruits include thirst-quenching watermelons and rose apple (jambu).


Coconut milk, sticky rice, tapioca, mung bean and bananas are common desserts ingredients.

Each island has its version of tiny cakes stuffed with sweetened mung bean, shaved cconut or banana, in a variety of colors made with sticky rice cooked in coconut milk.

Indonesians mostly used dark brown palm sugar as a sweetener for desserts and other dishes.

Look for the kueh lapis, the Indonesian version of a light layered cake made of rice flour and fragrant coconut palm sugar, and bubur ketan hitam (black rice porridge cooked in coconut milk and sweetened with palm sugar).

Bubur ketan hitam

Bubur ketan hitam, Indonesian sweet (Picture: Reisha Humaira)

Delicious pancakes of all sort, filled with fruit or palm sugar and shredded coconut are available in nearly every big cities.

A popular dessert or snack is es campur, the Indonesian equivalent of the ice cream sundae.

Es campur (Picture: Matheus Pinheiro de Oliveira e Silva)

Es campur (Picture: Matheus Pinheiro de Oliveira e Silva)

Es campur does not have a nationally accepted set of ingredients, but shaved ice is usually the base.

A number of things can be poured over the ice, including syrup and coconut milk, bits of fruits, cubes of brightly-colored gelatin, jackfruit, fermented tapioca and various others sweet tidbits


Indonesians eat three meals a day, which are interspersed with snack times.

Snacking is a way of life in Indonesia.

Children cannot resist krupuk or a plate of rujak (spicy fruit salad).

Rujak, snack of Indonesian cuisine (Picture: lapiazza)

Rujak, snack of Indonesian cuisine (Picture: lapiazza)

Food vendors ply their trade in practically all the streets, attracting customers by twang in a metal chime, beating a low wooden gong or steam whistle.

They serve bakso (meatballs), bakpao (steamed buns stuffed with meat) or simply a bowl of noodles.

Bakso soup (Picture: Matheus Pinheiro de Oliveira e Silva)

Bakso soup (Picture: Matheus Pinheiro de Oliveira e Silva)

People also get their meals and snacks at traditional Indonesian eating places known was warung, makeshift food stalls set up on the pavements of busy streets and in marketplaces with rows of tables and rickety-looking benches.

Not the most romantic place to take your loved partner, but it is there that most of Indonesian´s favorite dishes can be enjoyed at ridiculously low prices.

Standards of hygiene are low and refrigeration virtually non-existent, so cast-iron stomachs are a pre-requisite for sampling street fare.

Tasting street food flavors (Picture: Matheus Pinheiro de Oliveira e Silva)

Tasting street food flavors (Picture: Matheus Pinheiro de Oliveira e Silva)

Indeed, street foods are the cheapest ones and the most delicious food ever!

If you do not want to get stomachaches, there are a plenty of Western restaurant and other cuisines available in major cities.

The most popular fast food chains are KFC, McDonald´s and Pizza Hut.

So, what are waiting to go to Indonesia and appreciate all of its country delicacies and go to the paradise of tasty foods!

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