Lovers of good food will never feel out of place in Indonesia. There are plenty of international dining options available here, from fine dining to fast food, particularly in larger cities like Jakarta and Yogyakarta, and those who have visited this country often insist that the Indonesian culinary experience is something you shouldn’t miss.
Indonesian cuisine may be lesser-known compared to its Asian counterparts from, say, China, Japan or Thailand, but its unique flavour combinations make it worth checking out. It's an exotic blend of several cultural influences and each region features its own version of the national favourites. Coconut milk is a main ingredient in most Indonesian dishes and in certain parts of Indonesia, a bit of ‘sambal’ (spicy homemade chilli sauce) or ‘cabe rawit’ (bird’s-eye chilli pepper) accompanies almost every dish. Indonesians’ staple food is rice, which is cooked in a variety of ways.
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Ayam penyet, literally meaning ‘flattened chicken’, is actually a piece of chicken which has been flattened, marinated in spices and fried to a crispy, golden perfection. It is served with plain steamed rice, sambal and vegetables – sometimes accompanied by tauhu goreng (fried beancurd) and/or tempe (fermented soybean cake).
A popular street dish in Indonesia, bakso is meatball soup often served with noodles, tofu, chilli, crispy fried onion pieces and sweet soy sauce. The meatballs can be beef, chicken or fish, or a mixture of the three.
Consisting of a variety of ingredients such as cauliflower, cabbages, carrots, meatballs, chicken meat or shrimps, garlic, onions, chilli peppers and mushrooms fried with a bit of soy sauce, Cap Cai is a Chinese-inspired stir-fry dish normally eaten with plain steamed rice.
Empal is Indonesia’s fried beef steak. A huge chunk of beef is boiled together with a mixture of coriander, onion, garlic, tamarind, palm sugar and bay leaves, before it is cut into slices and fried. Bacem is the vegetarian alternative to empal, which is essentially soybean cake made and cooked using the same method.
Gado Gado is a mixed vegetable salad consisting of lightly-steamed vegetables, potatoes and eggs served with mildly-spicy peanut sauce used for dipping. The types of vegetables used can be varied according to preference.
A strong and sweet coffee served at any time and with any meal, kopi tubruk is made by scooping a tablespoon of homegrown coffee powder into a tall heat-resistant glass, followed by some sugar. Hot water is then added bit by bit, stirring carefully in between, until the glass is full. The glass is then covered for a bit, letting the coffee bits settle at the bottom of the glass. The perfect accompaniment to kopi tubruk would be kueh lapis. Made from spices, butter, sugar and eggs, kueh lapis goes through an elaborate layer-by-layer baking process, making sure each layer is cooked before another layer is added on.
Simple and wholesome, nasi goreng is steamed rice fried together with chilli, shrimp paste, onions, garlic and soy sauce, with a few extras thrown in according to preference such as meat, vegetables, mushrooms, fried or scrambled eggs and slices of cucumber. Different variations of nasi goreng can be found throughout the country – from pale and mild, to rich and spicy.
Originating from Sumatra, nasi padang is a hearty local spread served buffet-style. Cooked early in the morning, the buffet spread – consisting of a wide variety of local dishes - is displayed on a table where diners are free to choose which dishes they want. Diners only pay for what they pick.
Nasi uduk is rice boiled in coconut milk mixed with coriander, salt and salam leaves, and scented with lemongrass. Fluffy and fragrant, it is often served with fried or grilled chicken, empal or bacem, and garnished with sliced cucumber and kemangi leaves (an aromatic type of parsley).
Otak otak is a concoction of minced fish meat, lemongrass, kadok leaves, ginger, lime leaves, turmeric, eggs, coconut milk and a bit of seasoning wrapped in banana leaves and steamed or grilled over an open fire. It is best eaten with a plate of steaming white rice and a little sambal on the side, although it can also be eaten on its own.
A West Sumatran specialty, rendang is a spicy dish consisting of pieces of chicken or beef slowly cooked in coconut milk and spices for several hours until the gravy is all dried up and absorbed into the meat, employing a cooking process which changes from boiling to frying as the liquid evaporates. It is typically served with rice in Indonesia and can be found in Padang restaurants.
Satay is made by first marinating chunks of beef, mutton or chicken with spices and seasoning, before skewering the pieces pieces and then grilling them over charcoal. It is served with hot and spicy peanut chilli sauce, pieces of cucumber, onions and nasi himpit (cubes of compressed rice).
A tasty, mild soup, soto is made using herbs, coconut milk and pieces of organs or meat – either chicken or beef. Often eaten with cubes of compressed rice called nasi himpit, this popular dish comes in different versions depending on the region it comes from, ranging from mild to spicy.
Tempe or fermented soybean cake is often used as an ingredient in other dishes, such as stir-fries and gravies. A substitute for meat that is rich in protein and high in vitamins, it has a nutty, slightly-tangy flavour, and can also be eaten on its own – marinated in spices, lime juice and turmeric, and fried.