Indonesian cuisine is an umbrella term referring to the culinary traditions spanning the archipelago of Indonesia, using different ingredients and spices to create a rich and flavourful masterpiece.
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 flavourings the Javanese favour 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 (excluding Maluku and Papua), 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; popular at breakfast, 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 topping (omelette, fried chicken, etc.); 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
- ketoprak, a vegetarian dish from Jakarta, mainly consists of ketupat, tahu (tofu), toge (beansprouts), peanut sauce; it is sometimes served with boiled or fried egg
- perkedel, deep-fried patties of potato and meat or vegetables (adopted from the Dutch frikadel)
- rendang, a spicy Padang favourite; the most famous type is beef rendang, beef cooked in a santan (coconut milk) and spice curry until it is soft (rendang is not only made from beef; it also can made from chicken, egg, potato, etc)
- sate (satay), grilled chicken, beef, goat or, rarely, lamb, horse or rabbit on a skewer and served with sauce (several varieties, but peanut sauce is most common)
- 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 (cuko). 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. Not to be confused with the savory Indian murtabak.
- lapis legit : an egg-based cake of many thin layers, often flavoured 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.
Quite a few Indonesians believe that cold drinks are unhealthy, so specify dingin when ordering if you prefer your water, bottled tea or beer cold, rather than at room temperature.
Fruit juices — prefixed by jus for plain juice, panas for heated (usually only citrus drinks), or es if served with ice (not to be confused with the dessert es buah); are popular with Indonesians and visitors alike. Just about every Indonesian tropical fruit can be juiced.Jus alpukat, found only in Indonesia, is a tasty drink made from avocados, usually with some condensed chocolate milk or, at more expensive places, chocolate syrup poured around the inside of the glass prior to filling it. For a total refreshment, you can try air kelapa (coconut water), easily found at virtually every beach in the country. An oddity is "cappuccino juice" which, depending on where you buy it, can be very delicious or forgettable. There are sometimes a variety of colourfully (and confusingly) named mixed juices.
Coffee and tea
Indonesians drink both kopi (coffee) and teh (tea), at least as long as they have had vast quantities of sugar added in. An authentic cup of coffee, known as kopi tubruk, is strong and sweet, but let the grounds settle to the bottom of the cup before you drink it. Some coffees are named after areas, like kopi Aceh and Lampung. No travel guide would be complete without mentioning the infamous kopi luwak, coffee made from coffee fruit which have been eaten, the beans partially digested and then excreted by the luwak (palm civet), but even in Indonesia this is an exotic delicacy costing upwards of Rp200,000 for a small pot of brew. However, conservationists advise against this drink due to the cruel conditions in which many of the civet cats are kept. But now many stalls in the shopping malls serve up to 20 combinations of coffee beans and produce with grinding and coffee maker for less than Rp20,000, but be ready to stand when you drink it.
Tea (teh) is also quite popular, and the Coke-like glass bottles of the Sosro brand of sweet bottled tea and cartons and bottles of Fruit Tea are ubiquitous, as is Tebs, a carbonated tea. In shopping areas, you can often find vendors selling freshly poured large cups of tea, often jasmine, such as 2Tang or the stronger Tong Tji jasmine, fruit and lemon teas for as little as Rp2,000.
The label jamu covers a vast range of local medicinal drinks for various diseases. Jamu are available in ready-to-drink form, in powder sachets or capsules, or sold by women walking around with a basket of bottles wrapped to them by a colourful length of Batik kain (cloth). Most of them are bitter or sour and drunk for the supposed effect, not the taste. Famous brands of jamu include Iboe, Sido Muncul, Jago, and Meneer; avoid buying jamu from the street as the water quality is dubious. Some well-known jamu include:
- galian singset — weight reduction
- beras kencur (from rice, sand ginger and brown sugar) — cough, fatigue
- temulawak (from curcuma) — for liver disease
- gula asem (from tamarind and brown sugar) — rich in vitamin C
- kunyit asam (from tamarind, turmeric) — for skin care, canker sores
Chase a sour or bitter jamu with beras kencur, which has a taste slightly reminiscent of anise. If you'd like a semeriwing (cooling) effect, request kapu laga (cardamom) or, for heating, add ginger.
- Wedang Serbat - made from star anise, cardamon, tamarind, ginger, and sugar. Wedang means "hot water".
- Ronde - made from ginger, powdered glutinous rice, peanut, salt, sugar, food colouring additives.
- Wedang Sekoteng - made from ginger, green pea, peanut, pomegranate, milk, sugar, salt and mixed with ronde (see above).
- Bajigur - made from coffee, salt, brown sugar, coconut milk, sugar palm fruit, vanillin.
- Bandrek - made from brown sugar, ginger, pandanus (aka screwpine) leaf, coconut meat, clove bud, salt, cinnamon, coffee.
- Cinna-Ale - made from cinnamon, ginger, tamarind, sand ginger and 13 other spices.
- Cendol/Dawet - made from rice flour, sago palm flour, pandanus leaf, salt, food colouring additives in a coconut milk and Javanese sugar liquid.
- Talua Tea/Teh Telur (West Sumatra) - made from tea powder, raw egg, sugar and limau nipis.
- Lidah Buaya Ice (West Kalimantan) - made from aloe vera, French basil, javanese black jelly, coconut milk, palm sugar, pandanus leaf, sugar.
Islam is the religion of the majority of Indonesians, but alcohol is widely available in most areas, especially in upscale restaurants and bars. Public displays of drunkenness are strongly frowned upon and in the larger cities are likely to make you a victim of crime or get you arrested by police. Do not drive if you are drunk. The legal drinking age is 21 and supermarkets have begun enforcing ID checks for alcohol purchases.
In staunchly Islamic areas such as Aceh alcohol is banned and those caught with alcohol can be caned.
Indonesia's most popular tipple is Bintang bir (beer), a standard-issue lager available more or less everywhere, although the locals like theirs lukewarm. Other popular beers include Bali Hai and Anker [dead link]. In mid-April 2015, supermarkets and mini markets across Indonesia are "clean", meaning they no longer sell alcoholic drinks. However, cafes, bars and restaurants with appropriate licenses can continue to sell alcoholic drinks, including hard liquor. Tourist areas are exempted at the discretion of each regent and mayor, who can decide which area with small vendors or 'warung' can serve/sell 1-5% alcohol drinks. They can cost as much as Rp50,000 in a fancy bar, but a more usual bar/restaurant price for Bintang is Rp25,000-35,000 for a big 0.65 litre bottle.
Wine is expensive and only available in expensive restaurants and bars in large hotels. Although you can still find some wines in the big supermarkets within some big malls in big cities. Almost all of it is imported, but there are a few local vintners of varying quality on Bali whose wine is cheaper. 30 percent of alcohol drinks are imported and new taxation scheme of imported alcohol drinks are 150 percent of base price and 90 percent of base price for imported beers.
Various traditional alcoholic drinks are also available:
- Tuak — sugar palm wine (15% alcohol)
- Arak — the distilled version of tuak, up to 40%
- Brem Balinese style sweet glutinous rice wine
Exercise some caution in choosing what and where to buy — homemade moonshine may contain all sorts of nasty impurities. In May 2009, 23 people, including four tourists, were killed by adulterated, or possibly inadvertently contaminated illicitly-supplied arak distributed in Java, Bali and Lombok. In many other cases, tourists have been blinded or killed by methanol in drinks. If you want to save money in Indonesia, don't do it by buying the cheapest alcohol you can find. Buying them at supermarkets would usually be the safest option.
Although common Western dietary lifestyle such as vegan and Kosher are only known among the modern societies and food allergies are generally not a common topic, by and large visitors should not have a lot of trouble eating out. Meats and soups, especially beef and lamb, may be heavy in salt and fat. Packaged food and drinks can also contain a lot of sugar.
Vegetarian & vegan visitors should have no trouble eating in Indonesia as virtually every single establishment provide at least one vegan dish, most of which are cheaper than items with meat. Moreover, the more established stalls also indicate them separately on their menu. These however may be limited in quantity, while pure vegan restaurants however are still limited to new establishments within large metropolitan cities. Common dishes served include green vegetables such as spinach (bayam) or water spinach (kangkung), which may be cooked with soybean paste (tauco).
With nearly 90% of Indonesians practicing Islam, eating halal is generally not an issue, although you may need a little more effort if you travel within a Muslim minority area such as Bali, North Sumatra, East Nusa Tenggara, Papua, and North Sulawesi. Genuine halal restaurants have a certificate issued by the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI) hung on their wall, and this also includes most fast food chains, however even those that do not have the certificate are by default halal except Chinese restaurants and those otherwise explicitly indicated with the word pork (babi) or non-halal. Most restaurants at hotels generally are not halal as they serve alcohol, but with the exception of Chinese restaurants, they do not generally serve pork.