Sweet, spicy, sour and saucy. There’s no list of adjectives long enough to describe the abundance of flavours awaiting you in Indonesia.
Welcoming culinary influences from India, China and the Netherlands you can expect a drool-worthy mishmash of soups, curries, dumplings and more. If you admit to being a fussy eater, it’s worth noting that the Indonesians are real advocates of nose-to-tail eating. But, that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of plates out there to sate the appetites of the offal-averse. And so, without further ado, here are 10 delectable Indonesian favourites to work your way through.
1. Nasi goreng (and mie goreng)
Like most fried rice dishes, nasi goreng came about as a way to avoid wasting rice. Typically served for brekkie using leftover rice and meat from the night before, it also includes ingredients like chilli, tomato, pepper and crispy onions for added bite. Different from other Asian recipes, the Indonesian version stands out because of its earthy flavour created by caramelised soy sauce and shrimp paste.
There are countless variations of this meal and many come topped with an egg that’s sunny side up. You’ll also discover mie goreng on your adventures, which swaps rice for noodles.
2. Gado gado
A melange of steamed veg and boiled eggs, drizzled in a sweet peanut sauce – gado gado is a peanut butter lover’s dream. Literally translating as “mix-mix”, this dish is exactly that, often coming served with a side of crackers, fried tempeh (fermented soybean pancake) and tofu. You’ll find gado gado in local hawker markets across the country. Not surprising when you learn it’s one of Indonesia’s five national dishes, alongside sate, soto, rendang and nasi goreng.
Created by the Minangkabau people, an ethnic group from the highlands of West Sumatra, in the early 16th century, nowadays rendang is available all over Indonesia. This spicy sensation materialised as a way to keep meat from spoiling in tropical climates. Traditionally less saucy than other Indonesian curries, it’s most commonly made using beef and is often cooked for special occasions or to welcome guests.
4. Sate (satay)
You haven’t tried satay until you’ve eaten proper Indonesian sate – juicy chunks of grilled meat, fish or tofu served on a bamboo stick with a punchy peanut dipping sauce. The sauce is made by grinding together peanuts, kecap manis (a sweet, syrupy soy sauce) chillies, lime and shallots. As the home of sate, you’ll find this Indonesian food staple on menus everywhere, from street food carts to fine dining restaurants.
Remarkably, tempeh is the only major soy-based foodstuff not to come from China. This fermented soybean cake is particularly popular with the people of Java and is a really important source of protein, much like tofu. Sliced and then fried, tempeh can be eaten on its own, with sambal, or as part of a salad, sandwich or stew.
Bakso shot to fame thanks to former US President Barack Obama, who had fond childhood memories of the meal. Made using a fine beef paste and then boiled, bakso have a similar consistency to Chinese pork balls. They can be served up as part of a soup (bakso kuah), similar to Vietnam’s pho bo vien, or with noodles (mie bakso). You’re likely to see them lined up behind the glass of Indonesian street food carts.
7. Soto ayam
Born out of Medam, the capital of North Sumatra, soto ayam is a spicy yellow chicken noodle soup. Fresh ginger and turmeric are mixed with coconut milk, cumin, kaffir lime, lemongrass, lemon leaves and galangal (a citrusy ginger root) to create the signature broth. Rich and fragrant, it’s packed with rice noodles or lontong (a compressed rice cake), fresh green herbs, a boiled egg, fried potatoes and more.
Heavily influenced by Chinese cuisine, siomay are steamed meat and fish dumplings served in – yep, you guessed it – peanut sauce. They tend to be packed full of wahoo, although tuna, prawn or other seafood fillings are not unheard of. You’ll find them in all Indonesian cities being sold from street-side stalls. Perfect if you’re in need of some food on the go!
Admittedly more of a condiment, sambal is a hot sauce or paste. It’s created by pummelling chillies, shrimp paste, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, shallots, palm sugar, lime juice and rice vinegar using a pestle and mortar. Across the Indonesian archipelago, there are as many as 300 varieties and the combination of chillies used means intensity can range from mild to eye-watering. Served up alongside just about everything, you won’t be able to leave Indonesia without trying some.
Sometimes described as a ‘King (or Queen) of Indonesian Street Food’, martabak takes two forms. When stuffed with savoury fillings like egg and minced meat, it adopts the shape of an Indian-style roti. But, when it’s slathered with margarine, chocolate and condensed milk it looks more like a stuffed bread or waffle sandwich – a nod to the country’s Dutch colonial past. A real must-try!
We’re only scratching the surface of Indonesian cuisine here. So, if you’re ready to take a bite, check out Intrepid’s range of trips to Bali, Java, Lombok and beyond.