Header image courtesy of Wilson Amran (via Flickr)
First things first—Indonesia is a singular term that represents a particular nation, but what it does not represent is uniformity. There are around 300 ethnic groups in this country, with prominent influences from Hindus, the Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese, and the Middle East, each bringing their own set of customs and distinctive cultural identity with them. So, what the term “Indonesia” really means is an amalgamation of these cultures, and that we must always keep in mind the extent of diversity that comes with it.
Now that we have established its multiculturality, let’s move on to its cuisine. Needless to say, Indonesia’s cultural variability extends to its cuisine as well, and the result is a myriad of unique and distinctive flavours that all come together as one massive colourful fabric of different ethnicities and races under one mighty archipelago. From good old classics like nasi goreng (“fried rice”) and nasi uduk (steamed rice cooked in coconut milk) to bold and surprising combinations like sop buntut (oxtail soup), the list is endless. Indonesian cuisine is sure to leave you salivating for more. Here’s an attempt to spotlight the best must-try dishes from Indonesia that you just ought to try.
Satays are the ultimate culinary indulgence—sinful, but simply irresistible! From street-side tent-restaurants to high-end restaurants and traditional celebration feasts, the sensational taste of grilled skewered meat over open fire never fails to attract crowds. Its divine taste has made satay accessible and popular in most parts of Southeast Asian countries, as well as India and the Middle East. Although the ingredients and the preparation style may vary from region to region, there’s no denying the universal appeal of these smoking hot juicy meat chunks and the Indonesian version is undoubtedly top billing.
Satays from various regions of Indonesia are different, each with its own unique taste. We all know how finger-licking good sate ayam (chicken satays) are—traditionally made by marinating chunky pieces of juicy chicken breast in soy sauce, a mix of Indonesian spices and herbs, and barbecuing them until they are toasty from the outside yet still juicy and succulent from the inside. Generous bastings of peanut sauce on top is just as important.
Much like chicken, sate kambing (lamb satays) are also quite popular for their soft and chewy texture. To get that perfect melt-in-the-mouth bite from the lamb, the meat is washed with pineapple water before the marination process. For a spicier kick, the satays are rubbed with a traditional green chilli paste, cuka lahang (cane sugar vinegar), and lime. Lamb satays are then complemented with tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions along with a helping of rice and a refreshing yoghurt dipping sauce on the side for that extraordinary balance of tangy, sweet, and sour flavours.
Say hello to Yogyakarta’s most consumed fruit—the jackfruit. It is the chief ingredient in gudeg, a popular vegetarian stew with a surprisingly meaty texture. Since the fruit in itself does not taste fruity and sweet enough and has a rather dense and fibrous texture, it is traditionally simmered in a clay pot for hours with a mixture of coconut milk, heaps of palm sugar, a typical Indonesian spice mix that contains lemongrass, bay leaves, kaffir lime leaves, and galangal, along with a spice paste made of shallots, garlic, and coriander seeds, until it reaches a super tender, melt-in-the-mouth texture.
If you want to keep it vegetarian-friendly, you could just leave it at that and serve it up with a bowl of steaming hot rice. Otherwise, a side of boiled eggs, fried beef skin, or chicken also goes really well with this mouth-watering jackfruit stew. Your patience might be tested with its excruciatingly long cooking process but in the end, it is truly worth its weight in gold.
Apparently, President Barack Obama’s visit to Indonesia back in 2010 bagged the spotlight not for its bilateral talks but for the dish he tried and savoured—bakso (meatball soup). He then very fondly revealed how a piping hot bowl of bakso brought back warm childhood memories of his stay in Indonesia when his mother would prepare this very soup every Friday night for supper. “Meatball soup or fried rice, it’s all delicious!” exclaimed Obama and so did millions of Indonesians in agreement.
Hailed as Indonesia’s national street food, there’s nothing quite like a pot of this belly-warming soup to recharge you on a dreary winter day, or to satisfy those all-day-long hunger pangs. We all dread the time when we have to dig out the pots and pans and hunt for extra quick soup recipes at the end of a long day. What we really need is a quick, light, and hearty soup that leaves enough room for us to play with those leftover vegetables in the fridge and create amazing textures and flavours in no time, and bakso does just that!
The combination of soft and juicy meatballs and the freshness and crispiness from vegetables like shallots, bok choy, and spring onions, along with some boiled rice, noodles, or eggs creates an explosion of different flavours and textures with every bite. This is the dish where you can go all experimental to create contrasting flavours and textures. For example, you could use starchy noodles and rice to give it a chewier texture. Instead of cooking the noodles, rice, and eggs separately, prepare them in the broth to get more flavour and save the heavy-duty clean-up afterwards. Bakso really is one of those fulfilling and forgiving soup recipes.
Make way for the king of all curries—to say it is extravagantly delicious would be an understatement. With an incredible depth of flavour, perfectly cooked melt-in-the-mouth beef chunks, and an impeccable complexity of layers of aromatic spices and seasoning, beef rendang (a slow-cooked spicy beef dish) is literally a little piece of heaven in a bowl. Although several other Southeast Asian countries have tried to claim this dish as part of their national heritage campaigns, it is widely accepted as having originated from an ethnic minority group called Minang from Sumatra. Nevertheless, the more important question isn’t who invented rendang, but who’s going to eat it, and we know we’ll be first in line.
To give it that intense dark brown colour, loads of red chillies, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, and fried shallots are blended into a thick paste and slow-cooked with the beef chunks along with a bunch of whole spices like star anise, cinnamon, and cardamom on a low flame for a couple of hours. Then freshly chopped kaffir lime leaves are added for a zestier, citrusy flavour as well as coconut milk to tone down the extreme heat levels. You’ll know that the stew is ready when some meaty bits easily flake off as you stir it and the sauce is reduced to an extremely fragrant thick brown paste. Serve it up with some freshly made coconut rice, chopped cucumber, and a fried egg on top to experience the best of these amazingly complex flavours.
Before you dismiss it as “just another omelette,” hear this—it’s traditionally cooked over charcoal to give it a smoky earthy flavour and the preparation method involves a cool technique that somewhat resembles that of making an Italian frittata. And if that doesn’t pique your interest, then the creaminess and richness from the duck eggs and an ultimate toasty and spicy coating of the glutinous rice will definitely make you want to try it.
This traditional Betawi spicy omelette dish—kerak telor—is a lip-smackingly delicious street food popular in Jakarta and Java and also many other parts of the world. Indonesian food peddlers also like to amaze their audiences with a bit of drama and theatre when preparing this dish. The ingredients are as simple as they can get, but it is the technique that makes it a stand-out street food delight.
You start off by spreading a thinnish layer of sticky rice in the bottom of a large and hot wok, which is placed over the coals. Duck eggs are then beaten separately in a bowl along with some garlic, shallots, chillies, pepper, shredded coconut, fried shrimps, and palm sugar, before smearing it all over the rice and giving all the components a vigorous whisk. After leaving the eggs to sit for a minute, the wok is then flipped over very skilfully to expose the eggs directly to the heat generated from the coals, and this is what gives it the smoky kick. The final act of this theatrical, immersive-style cooking then involves making that omelette slide from the pan into the plate effortlessly after it gets its final dose of browning. Once you tuck into this plate of sunshine, usually topped with heaps of crispy shallots and dry-toasted coconut, you’ll never go back to the same old mundane omelette recipes.
Been through enough savoury dishes? Martabak (a stuffed pancake) comes to the rescue! While some point to the Middle East and others to South Asia, the details of its exact origins aren’t entirely clear. However, one thing is: Martabak is Indonesia’s street food at its finest. You can enjoy it sweet or savoury, and the trick to making your choice is simple—you don’t! Although these two snacks share the same name and are typically sold at the same carts, there is hardly anything similar about these delightful Indonesian bites.
A savoury martabak somewhat mimics the technique used in making Indian naan breads or flaky paratha flatbreads. It involves stretching and massaging a firm wheat dough vigorously before gathering and overlaying it onto an egg, minced meat, fried shallots, and coriander leaves. These savoury crêpes are then fried in oil until blisters start to appear and the outer layer turns crunchy and crumbly. Posturing a bit of nifty handwork, the vendors then very swimmingly scoop out the cooked martabak from the pan, slice it into squares, and dip into peanut sauce and chilli sauce before offering them to the amazed customers.
Sweet martabak, on the other hand, vary not just in taste but also in texture, consistency, and cooking technique. The magic begins by pouring a runny eggy batter into a piping hot, deep, and well-worked skillet. Once the bright yellow mixture starts to turn pale and bubbles appear on the surface, oodles of butter, chocolate sauce, fresh cheese, and a generous dash of condensed milk are added, making it your ultimate go-to cheat meal. These Indonesian pancakes are then cut into small pieces and served with toasted peanuts, sesame seeds, and a range of dipping sauces as per your liking.
Although the Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand versions are giving Indonesian martabak a run for their money, given the rise in their popularity in recent years, it is and will remain largely exclusive to Indonesia. After all, it has been satisfying the sweet cravings of Indonesians for centuries now and will always have a special place in their hearts.