The best Indonesian food to try includes iconic traditional and heritage dishes from the many different Indonesian islands, as well as cuisine that are a result of various foreign influences. If you’re a first-time visitor, this following compilation will help you as a starting point on your culinary adventures. If you’ve already travelled to Indonesia and found your favourite dish in one destination, you’re bound to easily fall for another.
Lovers of good food will never feel out of place in Indonesia. Some of the most popular Indonesian dishes have even frequently made it to among ‘the world’s best foods’ and ‘most delicious foods’ lists, such as the flavoursome ‘beef rendang’ that hails from Sumatra. Choices are limitless, but for a head start, enjoy this list of the best Indonesian food to try at least once, and experience one of the world’s diverse and flavoursome cuisines.
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Rendang is a West Sumatran specialty, consisting mainly of thick beef dices slowly cooked for several hours in a blend of coconut milk and spices. The process alternates between boiling and frying as some of the liquid evaporates until the gravy dries up and is well absorbed into the meat. The result is super tender and juicy pieces of meat, with the reduced gravy alone a wonderful treat to be mixed with rice, which is typically served on the sides.
Indonesia’s fried rice, nasi goreng, is a simple and wholesome dish that comes in numerous styles. Basically, steamed white rice is thrown into a hot wok or frying pan together with chilli, shrimp paste, onions, garlic, tomato sauce and soy sauce then a few extra ingredients are added as chef’s preference. These include chicken, lamb, pork or beef, green peas, cabbages, mushrooms, fried or scrambled eggs and slices of cucumber to garnish. No recipe is quite the same throughout the country.
There are many variations of satay across the archipelago, either in the meat used or the accompanying sauces. Generally, satay is made by first marinating uniform-sized chunks of beef, mutton, chicken, pork or fish with spices and seasoning, before skewering the pieces and then grilling them over hot charcoal. Most of the times, it is served with hot and spicy peanut chilli sauce, pieces of cucumber, shallots, and rice or slices of lontong or ketupat rice cakes on the side.
Bakso, or meatball soup, is one of Indonesia’s most popular street food dishes, sold by most of the meals-on-wheels that you’ll find throughout Indonesia. A bowl of bakso is often served with rice vermicelli or egg noodles, tofu, boiled eggs coated in the same meatball mixture, chilli, crispy fried onion pieces and sweet soy sauce to taste. The meatballs can be of any meat, from beef, chicken to fish and even pork. Sizes also vary, from small marbles to tennis balls!
Gado gado is a favourite Indonesian vegetable salad, comprised of mixed vegetables such as cabbage, chayote and bitter melon (mostly steamed or blanched), together with fried tofu and tempeh, and lontong or ketupat rice cakes. The mix is doused in a runny sweet to spicy peanut sauce dressing. Gado gado also comes in numerous variations, according to the choices of vegetables used.
Indonesia’s oxtail soup, sop buntut, is a meaty serving that hails from West Java. A serving generally consists of slices of oxtail (usually fried but in most cases grilled), in a clear broth that is infused with shallots, garlic, pepper, nutmeg and cloves. Presentations vary widely, but mostly include boiled potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, leek, celery, and fried shallots. A slice of lime to be squeezed over the bowl, chilli sauce and plate of steamed white rice usually accompanies the dish.
Ayam penyet, literally ‘flattened chicken’, is chicken, be it the breast or drumstick, marinated in spices and then deep-fried to a crispy, golden perfection. The ‘flattened’ bit mostly refers to it being served squashed down onto a bed of spicy sambal. The sambal chilli sauce is the main draw among Indonesians who like their meals hot. It is commonly served with plain steamed rice, freshly picked vegetables and fried bean curd or tahu and tempeh.
Gudeg hails from the sultanate of Yogyakarta in Central Java, and is a national favourite. Most cuisine from this area is known for its sweetness, and gudeg is no exception. The dish comprises young jackfruit that is boiled for several hours together with a mixture of spices, palm sugar and coconut milk, resulting in a tender and sweet flesh. It is served as a vegetarian dish on its own, but hard-boiled egg, tempeh and chicken cooked in the similar way usually complements it.
Babi guling is Bali’s popular spit-roast pig. Stemmed from communal gathering feasts and temple ceremonies, the dish has become a popular commodity sold in warung and restaurants throughout the island alone. It is rarely found outside the dominantly Hindu island, due to the majority of Muslim communities. A serving of babi guling is usually accompanied by a place of steamed rice and trimmings of crispy skin, meat, fried innards and a meat and veggie salad mix called ‘lawar’.
Nasi uduk is rice boiled in coconut milk that is mixed with coriander, salt, bay leaves, and scented with lemongrass. Fluffy and fragrant, it is often served with fried or grilled chicken, or beef strips, and garnished with sliced cucumber and lemon basil leaves. This original Jakarta rice dish is usually served topped with fried shallots and with other soups and salads on the side. Some sellers serve their nasi uduk wrapped in banana leaves together with a variety of side choices.