When we talk about Indonesian food, many of us will instantly think of the tropical island of Bali with its fresh coconuts and spicy sambal. However, Bali is only one small island out of over 17,500 islands that make up Indonesia. In this article, I will show you how incredibly diverse Indonesian cuisine is and bring new light to a largely unknown flavour profile.
In Indonesia, we say ‘Selamat Makan’ or ‘Kamu sudah makan?’. The first wishes someone a nice meal and the latter asks if they have eaten yet. This usually refers to having eaten a meal with rice; as, without rice, it is not considered to be a proper meal in Indonesia. Like in many parts of Southeast Asia, rice plays a central role in Indonesian food culture and is prepared in various ways to be enjoyed at any time of the day.
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Top 18 Must-Try Dishes in Indonesia
Did you know?… Indonesia has five official national dishes? These are Soto, Rendang, Sate, Nasi Goreng and Gado Gado as declared by the Ministry Of Tourism in 2018.
The following list of 18 dishes is far from a comprehensive list of the best Indonesian foods, but here are 18 fantastic options you should definitely try when travelling in the region!
- Gado Gado
This salad’s fun name derives from the translation which means ‘mix mix’ in English, as it is a mixed vegetable-based salad. It is assembled from scratch with various blanched vegetables like cabbage, green beans, carrots and fresh lettuce. Each seller will make their own peanut satay sauce and select sides like fried tofu, tempeh, boiled egg and chicken.
To add that extra bit of crunch, gado gado is enjoyed with different kinds of crackers called krupuk. It is one of the easiest dishes to eat as a vegan or vegetarian by asking for vegetables, tofu and tempeh only (be sure to check the krupuk ingredients too as some contain shrimp or fish).
Originally from East Java, Rawon is a beef dish like stew or soup, served with steamed white rice, salted egg, bean sprouts and sambal. This particular dish is usually made with the fatty sections of meat, so it is hearty and filling. It is flavoured with herbs and spices such as lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, ginger and chilli. The critical ingredient is buah kluwek, (Indonesian black nut) which has an earthy and sour taste.
If the ingredient comes on a stick, it’s called satay or sate. Pork, chicken, beef, fish, tofu, vegetables, egg and tempeh; you can find them all grilled with sauce and spices. Sate is served with a delicious peanut sauce, sambal and a mixed salad of cucumber, onion, chilli or steam rice cake or steamed rice.
Sate is sold by food vendors and the sellers fan the grill to waft the aromatic smell of grilled meat and vegetables around. This makes everyone who passes by crave something to eat. A good sales tactic! Chicken is a popular choice, sate ayam, and is widely enjoyed across the region by locals and visitors alike.
The satay sticks are often presented on a banana leaf, covered in sauce, with crispy shallots sprinkled on top. Try the famous Sate Lilit in Bali, a fish satay grilled on lemongrass.
Be sure to ask the seller what the protein is – you may come across different meats and offal. Furthermore, depending on the majority religion in the area, certain meat dishes will not always be available.
Rendang originates from the Minangkabau ethnic group, indigenous to the highlands of West Sumatra. The delicious spice mixture or pemasak used in rendang has long had cultural significance in Indonesia.
The classic recipe is made with slow-cooked beef simmered in coconut milk. It must be cooked for at least 2 to 3 hours to create the perfect texture. Rendang can be served with white rice, lemang (sticky rice) and vegetables. Rendang is often served at essential celebrations, and different versions of this curry are now enjoyed worldwide.
Did you know… Rendang was voted the best food in the world by CNN readers in 2011!
Meatball soup – with an Indonesian twist. A Southeast Asian street food dish that is much loved across the region. Bakso is a steaming hot bowl of broth, noodles, meatballs and spices.
The meatballs can be made from all different types of meat, including beef, pork, chicken and even fish, and there are no rules on how to make a classic bakso; the flavour and texture depend on the seller’s preference.
A bowl of bakso will traditionally be served with a few spoonfuls of broth, meatballs and the noodles of choice. There is also the option of adding soy or chilli sauce to the dish.
- Nasi Uduk
Nasi Uduk has been around since the 14th century and is a type of Betawi food from the capital of Indonesia, Jakarta. This dish is made with rice cooked with coconut milk and fragrant herbs such as lemongrass and bay leaf.
The steamed white rice is the focal point and is served with various side dishes such as fried chicken, tofu, tempeh, mixed vegetables, noodles, egg and fried onion sprinkled on top.
You will come across this Sundanese vegetable salad on the island of Java, sold by street vendors. It is usually prepared with either steamed rice cake, tempeh or tofu, as well as sambal.
Lotek is made with mixed green vegetables such as water spinach, long beans or snake beans which are slightly blanched. The key ingredient to this dish is the addition of kencur (similar to ginger or galangal) which is fragrant and delicious.
Native to Indonesia, this green bean, also known as bitter bean or stink bean, has a whole range of fantastic health benefits. The petai pods are long and green with smaller beans inside, which can be cooked and eaten.
To prepare the beans, you split them in half with a knife, place them in boiling salted water and blanch them for about 30 seconds. In Indonesia, you will see petai in sambal, served alongside rice or vegetable dishes and enjoyed as a snack.
- Nasi Goreng
Indonesia’s famous fried rice could have an article dedicated to it all on its own! This is the number one dish that you will find, no matter where you go in the country. Quick, delicious and nutritious, nasi goreng is an absolute must-try dish.
Nasi means rice in Bahasa and Goreng means fried. The staple ingredients of nasi goreng are onion, chilli and garlic fried together in oil with the addition of pre-cooked white rice and served with sweet soy sauce.
Nasi goreng is served with everything from sate, fried chicken, pork, beef, prawns, vegetables, fried or scrambled egg, shrimp paste, sambal, tofu, tempeh and largely depends on available produce.
- Mie Goreng
Similar to nasi goreng, mie goreng is the same style dish but made with noodles (the word mie means noodles in Bahasa). All across the country, you will find street vendors cooking up portions of wok-fried noodles with a mix of sweet soy sauce, chilli, garlic and green vegetables as a much-loved late-night snack.
Influenced by Chinese Indonesian cuisine, Mie Goreng is prepared using Chinese cabbage, garlic, onions and lots of chillies. Spicy fried noodles are one of the most popular options on the menu any time of the day.
The thin noodles are usually made with flour but you can find a gluten-free alternative by ordering Bihun Goreng which are rice noodles.
- Nasi Kuning
Characterised by the bright yellow rice (nasi kuning), this is a dish typically enjoyed for breakfast but it can be eaten any time of the day. Nasi kuning is traditionally served with tempeh, noodles, vegetables, egg and sambal. However, you can request your preferred sides to customise the dish.
The rice is cooked with turmeric powder, lemongrass, bay leaf, kaffir lime leaf, and coconut milk. The fragrant rice tastes wonderful with spicy tempeh, fried shallots and fresh slices of cucumber.
- Ikan Bakar
Seafood is plentiful, fresh, affordable and cooked to perfection here in Indonesia. Ikan Bakar is grilled fish and is served all over the region accompanied with rice and spicy sambal.
Travellers may have tried a similar dish in Malaysia that uses common spices like ginger, galangal and chilli in the marinade. After marinating the fresh fish, it is grilled on an open fire, usually covered with a banana leaf, and enjoyed by the ocean. It is a social dish where comes together to share the catch of the day.
Depending on where you are, the spices, sauce, marinade and side dishes will vary but the flavour and cooking technique makes this dish simple and delicious no matter what accompanies it.
Buah means fruit in Indonesia. The region is home to a wide variety of exotic, tropical fruit. Here are 5 Indonesian fruits that you must try:
- Durian: The King Of Fruit! Known by travellers for its very intense smell and flavour, durian is like marmite: you either love it or hate it. Durian is incorporated in different Asian desserts, served with sticky rice, stewed in coconut milk and enjoyed frozen as a snack.
- Mangosteen: A beautiful fruit with a signature purple skin and white segments of fruit inside; the mangosteen can be found in Borneo and Sunda. High in antioxidants, the fruit is believed to keep skin healthy and also acts as an anti-inflammatory.
- Rambutan: Java island is the central location for Rambutan, where you will find this hairy looking fruit in abundance. Rambutan has a sweet fruit inside which is similar to a lychee.
- Snake Fruit: If you want to try an exotic fruit, Salak, might be the one! Snake fruit is found in both sour and sweet varieties and has a snakeskin-like peel that you remove to reveal the white fruit inside.
- Rukem: Popular for its medicinal properties and used to treat stomach problems like dysentery and diarrhoea; Rukem is grown in Sumatra. This Asian fruit is commonly found in a dish called Rujak, a type of fruit salad with a sweet and sour peanut sauce. Rukem can also be pickled or enjoyed in a sauce.
- Sup Buah
A different way Indonesians enjoy fruit (buah) is in the ice-cold Sup Buah. This sweet bowl of colourful fruits is served with condensed milk and ice and originally appeared in Bandung West Java. It is similar to the popular Asian dessert, cendol.
Using a selection of whatever is available, the street vendor will add chopped fruit (papaya, watermelon, pineapple, mango), shaved ice, your choice of sugar or syrup and condensed milk. You can also find this dish with coconut milk for a dairy-free alternative.
Made from cooked sweet potato or banana, kolak is served with warm coconut milk, palm sugar and pandan leaf. Used often to break fasting during Ramadan month, kolak is deliciously sweet, and much loved on the island of Java. Kolak can be enjoyed hot or cold, as a snack or a dessert.
- Pisang Goreng
You can not visit Indonesia without indulging in the street food snack; Pisang Goreng. If you can’t tell by now, Indonesians eat a lot of deep-fried food! Deep-fried banana is one of the most famous street food snacks that you will find.
Depending on where you are in Indonesia, you may come across different recipes and flavours. (If you’re a vegan traveller, check with the seller to see if the batter contains milk or eggs as this can vary.) You can also find savoury options such as plantain, sweet potato or yam instead of banana.
Local tip: Pisang Goreng can be perfectly paired with hot black coffee.
This is a street food snack that will satisfy even the sweetest tooth! This pancake can be filled with everything from crushed peanuts, chocolate sprinkles and condensed milk: the list of sweet fillings is endless.
If you prefer savoury dishes, you can also order Martarbak with ingredients like chicken, egg, and spring onion. Whilst this dish might not have its origins in Indonesia, this flatbread style pancake has long been popular in the country making it an absolute favourite among locals and tourists.
Last but not least is sambal! Sambal is best described as spice paste or sauce made from different types of chilli peppers. Here are a few of the most popular sambal recipes in Indonesia:
- Sambal Matah: Originally from Bali, made with shallots and lemongrass, bird’s eye chilli, terasi (shrimp paste) and lemon juice.
- Sambal Petai: Featuring petai (stink bean) mixed with red chilli, garlic, and plants of raw shallot
- Sambal Terasi: Made with a blend of red and green chillies, fermented terasi, sugar, salt, lemon juice.
- Sambal Tomat: This sambal uses crushed tomato and sugar to make a sweeter version of this spicy condiment. The tomato is stir-fried to create a paste.
- Sambal Asam: A sour sambal, this dish uses tamarind to create a unique flavour profile.
- Sambal Colo-Colo: Originally from Ambon, Colo-Colo is made of sweet kecup manis (soy sauce), chilli, tomatoes, shallots and lime juice. Some variations will add butter or vegetable oil to the sambal.
- Sambal Kacang: Made with a mixture of chill, garlic, shallots, sugar, salt, crushed fried peanuts, and water. Often served alongside Nasi Uduk.
The good news is that many of the above Indonesian dishes are customisable to meet the majority of dietary requirements. However, if you are travelling with an allergy, do be mindful of ingredients such as peanuts or soy as they may be present in cooking oil or within condiments.
When ordering a vegetarian meal, be sure to check whether meat or fish have been used in any soups and broths. You also need to check for egg and milk products, especially in traditional desserts if ordering vegan. If you’re travelling Southeast Asia as a vegan, you’ll also need to check for egg and milk products. These frequently appear in traditional desserts.
What Are The Main Ingredients of Indonesian Cuisine?
Traditional Indonesian cuisine relies on a careful blend of herbs and spices, giving each meal a significant taste and aroma. You can be sure to find dishes that combine sweet, salty, bitter and spicy; there is something for everyone in Indonesian cooking.
Coriander seeds, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cumin, ginger, candlenuts, basil, lemongrass, chilli and turmeric are widely used in Indonesian cooking to enhance the colours and bring out the flavours of essential ingredients such as rice and noodles.
Regardless of whether you fancy a salad, soup, curry or stir-fry, you’ll find a variety of vegetables used. When it comes to street food, be sure to try the delicious grilled corn sold on the roadside with butter and chilli sauce! Street food vendors are everywhere selling deep-fried vegetable fritters called Bakwan, deep-fried tofu stuffed with vegetables and rice noodles called Tahu Isi, and steamed vegetables such as sweet potato, purple yams and cassava.
What Are The Traditional Cooking Methods in Indonesia?
Deep frying is a very popular style of cooking because it is both quick and cheap. Fried snacks are sold by street vendors in local warungs (restaurants) and cooked as a quick meal at home. Fried chicken, fried fish, fried vegetables, fried bananas, fried tofu; the list is endless.
Grilling meat and fish is a much-loved pastime in Indonesia. Home to a wide variety of satay recipes (essentially meat on a stick), this is a great destination for carnivores.
If you like satay then make sure you sample a few of the different varieties available. Sate Padang, Sate Madura, Sate Lilit Ikan Bali, Sate Daging Rembiga Lombok, Sate Maranggi, Sate Klopo Surabaya and Sate Tulang Banjarmasin are all very tasty options.
Satay is often served with sambal, peanut sauce, sweet soy sauce and a fresh salad consisting of cucumber, onion and tomato. This Indonesian snack is best enjoyed at the small warungs accompanied with a fresh lemon ice tea.
You will see local warungs (food places) selling braised meat, stews, curries, soups and boiled mixed vegetables. Almost every style of cooking is used to bring out the different flavours and textures.
Many traditional kitchens have a wok, gas stove and rice cooker. As in many parts of tropical Southeast Asia, an oven is the least widely used cooking appliance, meaning baked or roasted ingredients are not commonplace. Banana leaves are often used to steam ingredients.
In Indonesia, essential home cooking utensils include:
- Rice cooker
- Granite Stone Grinder (mortar & pestle)
- Food Processor or Blender
- Large Cooking Pot
How to Eat Indonesian Food
If you ever find yourself in Indonesia, you will likely end up enjoying a meal in a traditional-style restaurant, also referred to as Nasi Padang.
You will find many dishes here, ranging from mixed vegetables, rice, tofu, tempeh, curry, fried meat and seafood. Simply tell the server which dishes you would like, and they will spoon a serving onto your plate to create your desired meal.
Local Indonesian styles of eating vary, but eating with your hands is commonplace, as it is in many places in India. You may see a small bowl with water at the table for washing your right hand which is the polite hand to eat with. If there isn’t an option at the table, look around because you will often find a washroom or sink close by.
After you have washed your hands, you can begin to enjoy your meal. Take your right hand, and using your fingertips, take some of the vegetables, meat, and steamed rice.
You will notice that only the fingertips have food on them, and the rest of the hand stays clean. It may sound a little tricky, but you will be eating your meal like a local before you know it. If you wish to use cutlery to enjoy your food, don’t worry, you will usually find a selection at the table.
If you are sitting down for a meal with other people (depending on the occasion), there are a few practices to observe. For example, if the dishes are presented on the table, you shouldn’t reach over and bring the entire plate towards you. Instead, you should use the serving spoon to place food on your plate or ask someone else to pass it to you.
It is also respectful to allow the elders at the table to serve their food first. If you aren’t sure where to begin – serve yourself a spoonful of rice and then select the rest of your preferred side dishes.
Indonesian Food Translations
- Steamed white rice (nasi putih)
- Uncooked rice (beras)
- Rice noodles (bihun)
- Steamed rice cake (lontong)
- Wheat noodles (mie)
- Cassava (singkong)
- Yellow rice (nasi kuning)
- Turmeric (kunyit)
- Salt (garam)
- Sugar (gula)
- Vegetable (sayur)
- Fruit (buah)
- Meat (daging)
- Chicken (ayam)
- Fish (ikan)
- Coconut (kelapa)
- Shredded coconut (serundeng)
- Chilli paste (sambal)
- Peanut sauce (saus kacang)
- Tofu (tahu)
- Fried snacks (gorengan)
- Coffee (kopi)
- Tea (teh)
- Milk (susu)
The Health Benefits of Indonesian Cuisine
Indonesian cooking relies on commonly found herbs and spices as well as fresh ingredients to balance flavour. The famous Spice Islands of Indonesia are located on the islands of Maluku and throughout history, they have played a significant role in bringing native spices to the rest of the world.
The Indonesian word for spice is Rempah, and Bumbu is the word used for a ‘spice mixture’, or a type of seasoning. A number of ingredients go into preparing Indonesian food including, ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, honey, cinnamon, chilli, garlic, onion, tamarind, coriander, celery leaf, leafy greens and a mixture of vegetables; all of which offer a range of health benefits.
Herbal medicine is not only found in Indonesian cooking but also in a variety of Indonesian drinks and tonics. Herbal drinks are very popular and consumed daily by many. Drinks such as Jamu contain natural herbs and spices like Kencur (aromatic ginger), Jahe (ginger), Kunyit (turmeric), Daun Salam (bay leaf), Kemiri (candlenut), Madu (honey), Lengkuas (galangal) and Kayu Manis (cinnamon). Jamu is believed to remove pain and inflammation from the body, treat digestive issues, hormonal imbalance, boost immunity and much more.
Indonesian Cuisine: The Verdict!
Indonesian food is varied, spectacular and highly underrated. This list of 18 dishes is barely scratching the surface when it comes to Indonesian cuisine. Each region has something unique to try, a particular tropical fruit, a different cooking style, and a new way of presenting a dish; you will never run out of food options here!