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Indonesian Food: A Memorable Southeast Asian Cuisine
Have you ever tasted Indonesian food? Some expatriates never go beyond the usual nasi goreng (fried rice), bakmi goreng (fried noodles) or sate (charbroiled meat or chicken on skewers), but for the more adventurous there is a wonderful variety of tasty treats right here in Jakarta.
Indonesians love to eat, not only meals, which they may consume at any hour of the day whenever they feel hungry, but also snacks of many kinds. Eating is also a social activity and meals are often shared with others who happen to drop in. The meals lend themselves to easily extending the amount of food available by the addition of another hastily prepared dish such as dadar telor (omelet). It is considered impolite not to provide some sort of drinks and snacks to a guest, whether invited or unexpected.
A normal Indonesian-style family meal consists of white rice served with three or four accompanying dishes. When guests are present, and on special occasions, the number of dishes served is much greater and in more abundant quantities. In keeping with Indonesian hospitality, a wide variety and choice of dishes should be provided to honor a guest. Whatever is not eaten is never wasted. Guests may be encouraged to take home some of the leftover food and plastic bags or containers are always on hand for this purpose. The remainder goes back to the kitchen, to be eaten by domestic staff or to be reheated and served again the next day. Indonesians are honored if foreigners like their food and are adventurous to try new dishes.
Generally all of the dishes are placed on the table together and guests are asked to help themselves. This “family style” serving practice is the origin of the Dutch expression rijstafel. Unlike a formal Western style dinner, courses are not served separately. It is becoming more common for Indonesians to serve a soup that may be eaten before the main meal, but traditionally Indonesian soups are served and eaten together with the rice and other dishes, though some prefer to take their soup after eating their rice. You can sample the dishes one at a time if you like, but it is more common to take some of each dish together on your plate, placing them around your mound of rice. It is a complement to the hostess if you take second or third helpings. You do not need to empty your plate before you add another helping of a dish you particularly like.
Eating on the Floor and With Your Fingers
Sometimes Indonesian food is served and eaten not at a table, but on woven mats covering a low platform or the ground. This style of eating is called lesehan and is common in Yogyakarta and Central Java as well as West Java. Traditionally food is eaten with the fingers of the right hand, and many Indonesians insist that certain dishes taste much better this way. Finger bowls, often with a slice of lime floating in the water to cut the grease on your fingers, are usually provided for cleansing your fingers after such meals. Note that only the right hand is used to eat the food, never the left.
These days Indonesian food is generally eaten with a spoon and fork, the spoon in the right hand and fork in the left (or vice versa for lefthanders). The fork holds food steady while breaking off portions with the spoon, and is used to assist in loading up the spoon by pushing food into it. Most food is cut up into relatively small pieces before it is cooked, although chicken and duck are usually served on the bone, and fish is often served whole.
When you are finished eating, you turn your spoon and fork over and lay them crossed in your plate. This signals the hostess that you are full and doesn’t lead to an urging to take more food!
Indonesian food is usually cooked in advance and served at room temperature, although there are some dishes that should be consumed hot and fresh from the stove or barbecue. Indonesian food has been greatly influenced by other cuisines, including Chinese, Indian and Dutch, but has been adapted and modified to suit the local palate.
The Importance of Rice in an Indonesian meal
Rice is the staple food of Indonesians and they are happy to consume it two to three times a day. In fact there is an expression: “Kalau belum makan nasi, belum makan” (if you haven't eaten rice, you haven't eaten), which implies that no matter what snacks you have consumed, you have not had a proper meal until you have filled your tummy with rice in some form or another. White rice is preferred, rather than unpolished brown rice, even by those who are aware of the loss of nutritional value in the processing.
Ideally rice should be boiled then steamed, but most modern Indonesians find it very convenient to use an electric rice cooker. Nasi goreng, fried rice using the leftover rice from the previous day, or bubur (rice porridge) are often served for breakfast.
For special celebrations or ritual meals called selamatan, nasi kuning (yellow rice) is traditionally served, usually in the form of a tumpeng, a cone shaped mound of yellow colored rice served on a large platter elaborately garnished and accompanied by side dishes. The rice is cooked in santan (coconut milk) flavored with spices including turmeric, which gives the yellow color. Other special rice dishes include nasi uduk (rice cooked in santan but without turmeric). This is a richer, more aromatic form of white rice and is served with accompanying side dishes. In West Java the Sundanese people serve cooked white rice wrapped up in cylindrical shape in banana leaf. This is called nasi timbel, and after opening the rice parcel the banana leaf becomes the “plate” on which to put selections of accompanying dishes such as grilled or fried fish, chicken, cooked or raw vegetables and sambal (chili paste).
Rice can also be cooked in banana leaf or woven coconut leaf containers to create a solid mass of compressed rice, which when cold is cut into mouthful sized chunks. Lontong, cooked in banana leaf, often accompanies sate, gado-gado (cooked vegetable salad with spicy peanut sauce) or curries, while ketupat is the special compressed rice cooked in rhomboid shaped coconut leaf containers that is served at Lebaran to celebrate the end of the Islamic fasting month. Ketupat is usually served with opor ayam (chicken in mild white curry sauce) and sambal goreng (vegetables, meat or liver cooked in santan with chili and spices). The Sumatran equivalent of lontong or ketupat is lemang, which is glutinous or sticky rice cooked in bamboo and traditionally accompanied by rendang (beef cooked in santan with chili and spices until liquid is absorbed).
Another rice dish that you may find on the menu in Indonesian restaurants is nasi rames. This is a meal in itself, a plate of ordinary white rice topped with generous spoonfuls of various meat, chicken and vegetable side dishes. Nasi kebuli is an Arab-influenced dish of aromatically speced rice cooked together with chicken or meat and spices.
Regional Food Specialties
Each region of Indonesia has its own specialties and there is great variety in the cuisine available. One of the most famous is West Sumatran or Padang food, which uses a lot of chili, spices and santan. Padang dishes include rendang, kalio (similar to rendang but the sauce is not reduced and thickened), gulai (a spicy curry), kari (curry), dendeng balado (thin sliced and crisp fried beef with red chilies). Padang food is Indonesia’s version of fast food. All the food is cooked in advance and displayed on dishes stacked up in the window of the often distinctively decorated restaurants. When you come in and sit down at a table, waiters will immediately appear bearing 10 or 12 small plates of different dishes along their arms and a huge variety of food will be set down on your table, along with a plate of rice and a glass of hot tea for each person. You may choose whatever you like and at the end of the meal the headwaiter will check all of the dishes to count what has been consumed. Needless to say you pay only for what you have eaten. Some recommended Padang restaurants are those in the Sederhana chain, Natrabu, Nasi Kapau and Sari Bundo.
Central Javanese food tends to have a sweeter taste with palm sugar or the dark sweet type of soy sauce being added to most dishes. Traditional dishes from Central Java include ayam goreng (spiced fried chicken), ayam panggang (broiled chicken cooked with either soy sauce or santan and spices), semur daging (beef braised in soy sauce), empal daging (slices of beef cooked with spices then fried), opor ayam (chicken in mild white curry sauce), gudeg (jackfruit cooked in santan and served with chicken, egg and soybean cake) and sayur asem (tamarind flavored vegetable soup). One of the specialties of East Java is rawon (diced beef cooked in spicy black sauce). You can find Javanese fried chicken at Mbok Berek Ny Umi and gudeg at Gudeg Bu Tjitro.
In West Java, the Sundanese use fewer spices but some kind of sambal is always served with meals. Sambal is a hot and sometimes spicy sauce or relish served as an accompaniment to other dishes. Take only a tiny portion and taste with caution! Acar (pickled cucumbers and carrots with little green chilies – the hottest ones!) is also frequently served, along with krupuk (prawn crackers) or emping (nut crackers). Sundanese meals generally include lalab (a selection of raw or lightly cooked vegetables) with each mouthful being dipped first in sambal, as well as the Sundanese version of sayur asem or sayur lodeh (vegetables cooked in santan). In addition to nasi timbel mentioned above, Sundanese restaurants usually offer fried or barbecued fish or chicken as well as pepes ikan (marinated fish wrapped in banana leaf and grilled). In Jakarta you can find Sundanese food at Dapur Sunda, Padzzi Pondok Ulam, Ratu Kuring and the Sari Kuring chain.
Pork is rarely consumed in Indonesia due to the Muslim teachings against its consumption by the faithful. However the Hindu people of Bali are well known for their pork dishes, such as babi kecap (pork braised in soy sauce) and sate pentul (minced pork sate) as well as ayam/daging bumbu Bali (chicken or beef in chili and tamarind sauce), lawar (raw vegetable salad) and duck dishes such as bebek bangor (crispy duck) and bebek betutu (smoked duck). For Balinese food try Ajengan, Bebek Bali or Bebek Bengil.
Food from Manado, North Sulawesi is also very popular and focuses on seafood with many dishes being fiery hot. Manadonese specialties include ikan kuah asam (fish with tamarind sauce), ikan cakalang garo rica (fish with chili), ayam rica-rica (grilled chicken with chili), cumi/ayam woku belanga (sautéed squid or chicken with spicy green chili sauce), sayur Manado (hot and spicy mixed vegetables) and ayam isi di bulu (chicken cooked slowly inside a bamboo tube with green chili sauce). You can find these dishes at Cak Tu Ci, Waroeng Camoe-Camoe and Ikan Bakar Manado Rica-Rica.
In addition to the restaurants mentioned above serving regional cuisines, there are also numerous restaurants in Jakarta offering a general selection of Indonesian food from across the archipelago. Some recommended restaurants for starting off your culinary journey through Indonesia are: Sate Khas Senayan, Dapur Tempo Doeloe, Klub 45, Waroeng Podjok, Para Para, Kafe Foto, and the more upscale Bumbu, Kafe Museum and Oasis famous for its traditional presentation of rijstafel.
Many hotels, such as the Borobudur, Dharmawangsa, Sahid Jaya and Sheraton Bandara, also have special Indonesian restaurants or coffee shops which serve excellent Indonesian food in addition to international cuisine.
Enjoy tasting Indonesian food, and as they say in Indonesia: selamat makan! (enjoy your meal!)
Enjoy this fun story about Indonesian Food Etiquette
Indonesian Food Resources
If you would like to learn more about Indonesian food, get some recipes or purchase spices and ingredients, visit these websites:
Tasty Indonesian Food
Tempeh.info - all about tempeh, great fusion recipes!
To purchase spices and ingredients in the US
Interesting Articles on Indonesian Food
Indonesian Chili Peppers - Hot Sauce
Our thanks to Colliers International for their generous contribution of the base for this article!
Partially updated December 21, 2021