Regional Indonesian Food
What defines Indonesian cuisine? There is no simple answer as since Indonesia boasts wealth and variety in regional ingredients, tastes and culinary styles. Food is central to our culture featuring in various rituals, ceremonies and celebrations. Each region offers a range of distinctive ingredients as well as a story about each dish.
The national popularity of relatively few dishes has given the world the wrong impression. Writer and food critic A.A. Gill’s experience is typical as described in his book Table Talk “Frankly Indonesian food ain’t great – just nasi goreng and odd bits of tough chicken, butchered blindfold with a cleaver.”
Those who know recognize that India is more than curry and the Japanese diet goes beyond sushi. So it is with Indonesia. It is grossly inaccurate to summarise the food of this country as sate, rendang, nasi goreng (fried rice), and gado gado (mixed salad with peanut sauce). It is so much, much more.
In addition to many regional Indonesian cuisines we can add strong influences from outside. These include Chinese, Indian, Arabian and European, primarily Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch. Together they represent a fascinating archipelago of taste and character – for we are after all, the ‘Spice Islands.’
The plentiful supply of fresh spices defines the character of Indonesian food. Fresh root spices include ginger, galangal, turmeric, and aromatic ginger or lesser galangal. We have varieties of chilies as well as herbs such as lemon grass, pandan leaves, curry leaves, lime leaves, kemangi (local basil); citrus fruit – and lime, kaffir lime fruit and many more. Next are the famous traditional spices – that attracted so much outside interest in Indonesia from centuries past – such as nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and fennel seeds, coriander seeds and cardamom. Other important ingredients are candlenuts, sweet soya sauce and deep-fried shallots. A little belacan or shrimp paste enhances the flavour of food in some regions. Last but not least, coconut is widely used in a variety of forms.
One needs time to understand and learn about the depth and diversity of Indonesian cuisine, and its evolution great history, but don’t worry ! It is not difficult to cook Indonesian food. With a little imagination and adaptation you can enjoy taste of Indonesia wherever you are.
There is no better way to promote our food than through the regional cuisine of Indonesia. It is a never changing scene and as travel Indonesia and discover more, this website is a great way to discover and share new tastes and experiences. I adore traditional cooking technics using bamboo or banana leaves, for example – but such techniques are not always practical so most of my recipes are easily prepared in a modern kitchen environment
Selamat makan! Bon appetite!
A quick tour of Indonesian Food and its regional variations
Sumatera Island has an amazing array of cuisine from Aceh at its northern tip, to Palembang in the south.
Aceh cuisine has strong influence by Arabic and Indian cuisine with fusion of local ingredients such asam sunti, sun-dried belimbing wuluh, sour finger carambola and plik, fermented grated coconut and pandan leaves.
North Sumatera, Here the influences include Chinese, alongside Indian and Arabic. Padang style food, eaten here, as it is across Indonesia, has a strong Malay influence. And then there is the classic food of the Batak people. My favourites among the ingredients from this area are kecombrang or ginger flower torch; asam cikala or asam rias the fruit of the ‘ginger flower’; andaliman, similar to Szechuan pepper and local onions known as bawang Batak. Many dishes contain tauco, a fermented soya bean popular in Japanese and Chinese food culture.
West Sumatera, Known as Minang food but also widely described across the archipelago as Padang is famous for dishes such as rendang (dried beef curry) in many varieties. William Wongso the master of Indonesian Cuisine uses the term ‘caramelized’ to describe this style of beef curry, for rendang is distinguished by the texture from coconut milk used as a sauce. There is also sate Padang, duck lado mudo curry, dendeng balado dried beef with chilies and many more.
South Sumatera, Home to the Kingdom of Sriwijaya in the seventh century, South Sumatera includes the cities of Bengkulu, Lampung, Bangka Belitung, Jambi and Palembang, today’s provincial capital. Local specialties are tekwan (fish ball soup), pempek (fish cake with tamarind sauce) and chicken and pineapple curry. Tempoyak, fermented durian fruit, also popular in Malaysia, is added to a fish dish known as Pindang Patin. Much of the food in this area has some influence from nearby Java as well as traditions of China and India.
Java, the busiest of the major islands, although about seventh of Indonesia’s total land mass it is home to two thirds of its citizen – that’s over 140 million Indonesians living on this island. Divided into West, Central and East Java provinces each has a multitude of local food specialties.
West Java is known for its Sundanese food including barbeque chicken and fresh water fish served with the famous shrimp paste sambal. There is also urap, mixed vegetables with spiced grated fresh coconut and kencur or lesser galangal is widely used here. Bandung, the capital of West Java is aculinary destination for Jakarta people seeking a weekend getaway. Soto Bandung, is a clear beefy broth, siomay (clearly Chinese influence) a street food of fish dumplings, spicy peanut sauce and a touch of kaffir lime fruit. Sate maranggi is from Cianjur and Purwakarta and a far cry from the sweet flavour of classic chicken sate which is more popular in central Java.
Central Java food is for the sweeter tooth. Gudeg, unripe jackfruit cooked in coconut milk and spices, opor ayam, white chicken curry are well known. There is also laksa without coconut milk, pecel (similar to gado-gado with different flavour of peanut sauce). From Semarang, there is gimbal tahu, fried tofu in tempura-like batter and served with chopped green chilies and sweet soya sauce. Soto Pekalongan is well known in the area and also fried chicken kalasan, cooked with coconut water and spices and then fried.
East Java, Here one can enjoy exciting dishes with unusual ingredients such as keluwak or black nut, one of the important ingredients in Rawon – a rich beef soup, black in colour with many layers delicious taste. Many different soto dishes are available in this region, with chicken or beef as the main ingredient. Sate Ponorogo is also well known as are bakwan Malang and cwi mi, a noodle soup served with fried dumpling.
Jakarta, The capital of Indonesia has its own unique cuisine, known as makanan Betawi – the food originating with this ethnic group indigenous to Jakarta. Betawi food offer much of interest. There is ketoprak, a bean sprout, tofu, rice noodles and rice cake with peanut sauce and soto Betawi, delicious beef soup with coconut milk (personally I prefer it without the offal and tripe).
Food is very important in the island of Gods, the number one tourist destination in Indonesia – not only for everyday meals but also religious rituals.
Since most Balinese are Hindu one can easily find pork alongside duck, chicken and seafood, but not beef. The character of Bali food has strong and complex taste of spices and herbs, again influenced from India. There is a delicious sate lilit, minced mixed seafood or chicken on lemon grass skewers, duck or chicken betutu cooked using unique slow heat method, in a clay pot covered with padi, rice hay for 10-12 hours.
West and East Nusa Tenggara
Divided into two regions, this archipelago within an archipelago is a growing destination for both local and international visitors. Kupang is the capital of West Nusa Tenggara surrounded by 566 islands, the largest being Flores and Sumba. Other well-known islands are Komodo, Alor, Rincah, Bidadari and Kanawa, a true paradise. Mataram is the capital of West Nusa Tenggara with Lombok and the Gili islands very well known and travelled.
Although the scenery is distinctive from nearby Bali there are not surprisingly a number of influences from both Bali and Java on local menus in Nusa Tenggara with sate pusut minced beef sate in bamboo skewer, pelecing kangkung (morning glory), and Taliwang chicken standing out.
Formerly known as Celebes it has separate provinces in North and South Sulawesi. Manado, capital of North Sulawesi offers food of amazing character, spice and fragrance. There are similarities to Thai cooking while the Spanish influence from spice trading days is evident in widespread use of tomatoes. A number of Dutch recipes have been localized and ties to the Netherlands are still quite strong, give its influence over this region in the past. Among the mainly Christian people of the north of the island, pork is a favourite, with chilies and ginger or cooked in bamboo with herbs and spices to name two local delights. And it is with delight I look at Manado as a special place for me, the place when I was born. Seafood and fresh water fish dishes are predominant and include Nike fish cakes and cakalang woku blanga, braised bonito or carp (goldfish) in 13 different herbs and spices. Manadonese porridge feature many different vegetables. For more details on Manadonese cooking, dip into my book, Papaya Flower.
This region provides a completely contrast to the North. Arabic influences of cuisine is strong in the form of ingredients such as coriander seeds and cumin, and Islam is the predominant faith. The famous Soto Makassar, beef soup with spice paste and freshly ground peanuts is famous for a very good reason – its delicious! Here it is traditionally served with rice cake known as buras, while Lontong or ketupat is the preferred accompaniment in Java. South Sulawesi has a massive wealth of seafood, so barbequed seafood and crab dishes are well worth a try. Curry dishes include nasi kebuli.
Torajaland is located in the central are of Sulawesi. The city of Rantepao is a major tourist destination known for ritualistic religious rites of the local Toraja tribal people. Pork cooked in bamboo and beef are favoured, with local sacrificial ceremonies providing an experience few will forget.
Coffee and cocoa are the major crops in the southwest peninsula area of Sulawesi.
The famous spice islands, Banda, Ternate, Tidore and Halmahera are together part of the Molucca islands, where it will not surprise you to discover a superb range of fresh seafood. Various local fishes cooked in banana leaves are an absolute must. What will surprise are the generous servings not of rice but glutinous sago, sweet potatoes and cassava. Although rice has become a staple across Indonesia, a visit here reminds one that rice has been a relative newcomer in Indonesia’s long culinary history. Similarities with Manadonese cuisine abound, for example colo colo fish served with dabu-dabu, a spicy tomato salsa with a touch of sweet or salted soya sauce and also ikan kuah asam, clear sour fish soup.