Indonesian food beginner's guide: 7 dishes you absolutely must try

Award-winning chef Petty Elliott unlocks a few secrets of Indonesia’s diverse cuisine and shares everything you need to know about the best dishes Indonesia has to offer...

5 mins

Indonesia is home to 270 million people across 17,000 islands, an eclectic mix of lush jungles, untouched beaches, sprawling cities and crowded tourist favourites.

It was also the place visited by traders seeking the much-valued cloves and nutmeg indigenous to Banda Island in the 16th century. That Indonesia is often sadly forgotten. 

Indonesia also has a rich food heritage, from the influence Arabian and Indian traders of centuries past, to the impact of Dutch colonial history. Equally to be explored is the culinary influence of Chinese immigrant cookery expressed in noodles, rice and stir fried dishes found nowhere else but Indonesia.

Here is a selection of the flavours, textures and fragrances that help define Indonesian cuisine...

1. The best curry in the world

Nasi Padang (Shutterstock)

Nasi Padang (Shutterstock)

Among many variants in curry, the Nasi Padang dish from (guess where) Padang in West Sumatera is a firm favourite.

It offers the hungry diner a generous portion of steaming rice with a wonderful range of curry flavours to sample including world favourite beef rendang curry, ayam kalio (chicken curry), jackfruit curry or boiled cassava leaves served with sambal ijo (a rustic green sauce accompanied by crunchy baby anchovies) or sambal balado (red chilies, salt and coconut oil) plus slices of cucumber. 

And there are many more curry dishes than beef rendang, from Acehnese in the northern part of Sumatera Island to North Sulawesi.

2. Soto

Soto Banjar, traditional Indonesian Chicken Soup (Shutterstock)

Soto Banjar, traditional Indonesian Chicken Soup (Shutterstock)

Arguably Indonesia’s favourite soup, soto is available in many varieties in Java and across the rest of the archipelago. Soto is considered to be both a heartwarming stew and a reviving broth. Beef, chicken or vegetables are the most popular ingredients with alternative recipes to choose from, depending upon regional preferences and traditions, expressed through local names such as sroto, coto or even tauto. 

A delightful broth, infusing spices and herbs, soto can be served with the optional extra of coconut cream. The main ingredient can be tender meat or juicy chicken, or just fresh vegetables. It must be piping hot, served with rice or noodles and ketupat or buras (types of rice cake) plus local condiments including sambal and crackers known as kerupuk, famous for their crunchy texture. 

Every soto recipe has its own distinctive flavour, some richer and creamier, others more delicate, refreshing, comforting and full of goodness. Soto could be the new ramen or pho!

3. Sizzling sate

Sate cooked on the streets of Bali (Shutterstock)

Sate cooked on the streets of Bali (Shutterstock)

Sate (or satay if you prefer) is just one among a number of barbeque recipes. It's probably the dish most associated with the Indonesian archipelago worldwide, and is cooked over hot coconut charcoal with spices and herbs, with special sauces for marinating. 

Whether pork, goat, seafood, beef or even quail eggs, sate provides superb choice and is always best served with a piquant peanut sauce or special sambal.

4. Super Sambal

Aneka Sambal - Indonesian spicy condiments (Shutterstock)

Aneka Sambal - Indonesian spicy condiments (Shutterstock)

Despite the multitude of local specialities, the enjoyment of good sambal connects everyone. Sambal is an essential condiment comprising chillies and salt at the basic level or sweet soya, chillies and citrus plus a range of additional ingredients for more complexity. Sambal can be served raw or cooked.

It's said there are over 300 varieties, with every region having their own version - proof of the addictive power of this delightful hot sauce. Sambal sums up a wealth of natural ingredients available, especially chilli, and remains a signature national dish. 

5. Kecap Manis (Sweet Soya Sauce)

Authentic and delicious kecap manis in Soto restaurant (Shutterstock)

Authentic and delicious kecap manis in Soto restaurant (Shutterstock)

Sweet soya originated in China, but kecap manis is special version with a caramel or honey texture and a rich finish. An authentic Javanese condiment, it comprises fermented soya with spices and added palm sugar or coconut sugar.

Historically, there were many artisanal sweet soya sauce makers of Chinese descent, living in different parts of Java island. Today large scale commercial sweet soya production has overtaken the traditional market. 

Sweet soya is used in both traditional and modern cuisines. It can be added to sate and gado-gado sauce, as an ingredient in beef, chicken, and tofu stew (semur), with fried rice, fried noodles, sambal, and as a salad dressing or sauce.

6. Sweet ending: Coconut and Palm Sugar

Bubur Sumsum. Javanese dessert porridge of rice flour, coconut milk with palm sugar syrup (Shutterstock)

Bubur Sumsum. Javanese dessert porridge of rice flour, coconut milk with palm sugar syrup (Shutterstock)

Classic Indonesian desserts are simple but full of flavour. Generally speaking, butter, eggs and flour are not involved. Coconut cream, palm sugar and rice flour are essentials and also suitable for vegans. The palmyra palm and the flower of the coconut tree produce a sap, which is used to make palm sugar and should not to be confused with palm oil. 

Cincau is a grass jelly sweetened with palm sugar syrup and coconut cream, while bubur sumsum could be described as Indonesian-style panna cotta, but cooked with coconut cream and rice flour, and topped with palm sugar syrup, then infused with pandan leaves. It is a simple but delicious dish, best topped with roasted ground cashews for extra texture.

7. Spices, Chocolate and Coffee

Indonesia specialty coffee roaster (Shutterstock)

Indonesia specialty coffee roaster (Shutterstock)

Not only one of the biggest spice producers - including nutmeg, cloves, black pepper and cinnamon - Indonesia has produced fine chocolate and coffee for decades, in support of many big brands around the world. 

In recent years, an internationally recognised coffee and chocolate retailing culture has gained momentum and has preserved artisanal skills. Think of chocolate makers like Pipilltin and Monggo, plus artisanal coffee roasters such as Ginyanti, Tanah Merah, Anomali in Jakarta, and Coffee Seniman in Ubud, Bali.

Single origin coffee and chocolate is alive and well, together with artisanal products from Javara Indigenous Indonesia, a social enterprise working closely with 50,000 small holder farmers who produce organic rice, spices, honey, and coconut products.

Where's best to visit for authentic Indonesian food?

It’s best to visit the larger provincial cities such as Banda Aceh, Medan, Padang, Jogjakarta, Semarang, Surabaya, Bandung, Manado, Makassar and Bali. 

If you are really tight for time, then Jakarta – Indonesia’s capital city – can provide much of Indonesia’s culinary variation with a range of offerings from street food to fine dining. It’s all available in the capital without the time and cost of island hopping. 

For sheer charm, magnificent temples, magical ceremonies and chic resorts, you should head to Bali and especially Ubud, where you can enjoy an eclectic set of food experiences at all levels from rustic to sophisticated, including learning to make homemade coconut oil and palm sugar, to sampling the creations of the country's top chefs. 

So, what are you waiting for? Pack your sunblock and camera, and don't forget your appetite. After a busy day swimming in the azure sea, sightseeing or lying on soft white sand, the discovery of new tastes and flavours is and always has been a great way of bringing people closer together. And Indonesia’s diversity makes it the perfect place to do just that. 

Petty Elliott is the author of Jakarta Bites, which explores vibrant street food from the heart of Indonesia and was the 2017 winner of World Gourmand Book Award in the street food category.

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