You may already be well acquainted with Thai curry or a Vietnamese noodle bowl, but here, we’re exploring another cultural, culinary gem of Southeast Asia: Indonesia. Because the country is so vast (read: over 6,000 inhabited islands; the fourth most populous country in the world), different regions within Indonesia have varying influences—where Javanese cuisine uses mostly indigenous flavors, Sumatra borrows ingredients from the Middle East and India. So much to explore.
Never tried Indonesian food? You’re in for a treat. Consider this your definitive guide to Indonesian cuisine, where you’ll find everything from cooking styles and flavor profiles to specific well-known dishes and must-visit spots throughout the region. Basically, you’re ready to book a trip and begin eating.
Flavors and cooking
Indonesian food centers around the interplay of sweet and sour. Many regional dishes combine fragrant lemongrass and shallots with more acidic lime and tamarind to heighten both flavor and umami. Although combos do vary by city and region, they share a focus on fresh ingredients and traditional staples like rice, chiles, and soy products.
The majority of Indonesian dishes are either fried, grilled, or steamed, and many will call for a mix of all three methods: One dinner table might feature steamed rice, deep-fried prawn crackers, and grilled meat (aka satay). This mix of textures and flavors makes for a colorful, bright meal every time.
Key ingredients and dishes
No matter where you are in the region, most dishes will include this ingredient: rice. Nasi Goreng—fried rice spiced with a sweet soy sauce called kecap manis, garlic, shallots, tamarind, and chili—is widely considered Indonesia’s national dish. You can find this classic dish everywhere you turn, from food carts lining the streets of bustling cities like Jakarta to fancier, sit-down restaurants at resorts in Bali. But there’s much more to Indonesian food than delicious fried rice…
Sambals are chile-centric condiments that come in a variety of flavors and heat levels. Many Indonesians even prefer to start meals with a sambal and pickle pairing to rev up their taste buds with some spicy, sour notes before a meal.
Tempeh is a staple, especially in the Javanese region. You may have heard of tempeh before—the fermented soybean patty is a cousin of the ubiquitous tofu, and can now be found in most American grocery stores. A typical Indonesian meal will offer tempeh with krupuk (deep-fried crackers made from prawns or vegetables) at the start of a meal alongside the sambal and pickles.
Another national dish of Indonesia, tumpeng is a cone-shaped rice dish surrounded by an assortment of vegetable and meat side dishes like fried or grilled chicken, corn fritters, and sweet, dried tempeh. Those living in Java, Bali, and Madura typically make tumpeng when celebrating a special event or holiday.
Tauge Goreng translates to “fried bean sprouts,” which are the star of this dish, in addition to tofu, packed rice dumplings, and noodles, often served with a fermented sauce called oncom. The sauce gives the otherwise neutrally flavored meal a delicious, umami kick.
Every culture needs a signature salad, and this one is not to be missed. Gado-gado features boiled or steamed vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, boiled potato, and some form of soy (tofu or tempeh). This salad is often served with the region’s classic peanut sauce dressing, made with or without the traditional ground shrimp paste.
The sites (and what to eat when you get there)
While you can find any of the above classics at countless restaurants and street vendors throughout Indonesia, there are a few locales that feature specific specials that you’ve gotta try while you’re there.
Sate Ragusa, Jakarta
You can find satay skewers cooked over piping hot coals on nearly every street corner in Jakarta. If you want to do it right, get your skewers from Sate Ragusa, which opened in the 1950s and has been serving its famous satay with peanut sauce ever since. Before dinner, though, be sure to check out the Istiqlal Mosque or take a day trip to the Thousand Islands.
Baki Gaja Madah, Jakarta
While you’re in Jakarta, you should also get your noodle fix. The Bakmi Goreng from Baki Gaja Madah is renowned around the city. Similar to pad thai, Bakmi Goreng is made with ultra-thin rice noodles, which are fried with egg and either meat, fish, or veggies.
Warung Classic, Bali
If your travels take you to the beaches of Bali (we hope they do), Warung Classic serves delicious, home-style Balinese food like tum ayam (chicken steamed in banana leaves). If you’re interested in trying your hand at Balinese cooking, Warung Classic also hosts cooking classes that can be booked in advance. We’d also be crazy not to mention Waterbom Bali, an amazing waterpark that’ll help you work up an appetite for all the eating.
Bale Udang, Bali
Indulging at Bale Udang is as much about the views as it is about the food—diners sit atop wooden bales floating above the water as they enjoy their meal. Pay a visit here if you love seafood, and order their specialty: prawns. And, while we’re still in Bali, add Babi Guling (suckling pig) to the list. Take Saveur‘s quick hits guide with you, too.
Take it home
If you’re done reading and you’re now starving, sorry, that was the plan. We’re sneaky like that. You can bite into the flavors of Indonesia right now, because Plated has you covered. First, check out your pantry. Our Pan-Asian pantry guide paired with Saveur‘s Indonesia-specific list will have you buying all the right things. So, whether you’re already planning your trip, have been to Indonesia before and want to recreate the magic, or you can’t get away but are still desperate to experience these incredible flavors, it’s time to start cooking.
Add these to your box (or make them right now):
In this hearty dinner, we took the classic approach: curried chicken skewers with a creamy peanut dipping sauce.
All the flavors of Indonesia in one delicious dinner—lemongrass, lime, and ginger, soaked up by turmeric-infused rice.
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