12 Top Indonesian Dishes Travelers Should Try

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(CNN) — As the world’s largest archipelago nation, Indonesia is filled with diverse cultures and influences spread across 1,904,569 square kilometers (735,358 square miles).

That makes it a huge challenge to summarize the flavors of the country in a few paragraphs.

“Indonesian food culture is based on the regional cuisine of 17,500 islands, 38 provinces and 700 dialects,” says Indonesian cookbook author William Wongso.

“Flavours of Indonesia are very diverse. From Aceh (Indonesia’s westernmost province) to West Sumatra (also a western province), it’s only about a 1.5 hour flight, but their food and flavor profiles are completely different.”

The 75-year-old author of “Flavours of Indonesia: William Wongso’s Culinary Wonders.” says that although he has been traveling and eating around Indonesia for decades, he still hasn’t tasted every local dish.

For example, chefs in eastern Indonesia’s Moluccas, once nicknamed the “Spice Islands,” prefer to use fresh spices like cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Aceh, on the other hand, often contains dried spices thanks to the influence of India, Arabia and China.

Padang (or Minangkabau) cuisine in West Sumatra uses a lot of coconut cream, chillies, shallots and some curry spices, as well as ginger and galangal with aromatic spices such as turmeric leaves, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass.

Javanese are experts in using the three colored spice pastes – red (made from chili peppers, shallots and garlic), white (candlenuts, shallots and garlic) and yellow (candlenuts, shallots, garlic and turmeric).

“The flavor profile of Central Java is sweeter than East Java,” Wongso adds.

Ready to enjoy the overwhelming diversity of Indonesian cuisine? Here are a few dishes that offer a taste of the many delicious flavors on offer.

Beef rendang

Beef rendang is incredibly tender. The beef is coated in dry curry that has been simmered for hours.

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It’s no exaggeration to say that beef rendang is one of the world’s most flavorful foods.

A dry curry dish linked to the Minangkabau ethnic group, which is native to West Sumatra, rendang is a great way to preserve meat – essential for the Minangkabau people on their travels.

There is no single recipe for rendang. “In West Sumatra, there are about 900 districts and each has its own style of rendang,” says Wongso.

But one of the most common types of meat in rendang is beef. It is simmered for hours in coconut milk and spices, including lemongrass, galangal, garlic, turmeric, ginger and chillies, until the meat is incredibly tender and the curry mixture has reduced to a relatively dry coating around the meat.

Tempeh

Tempeh, a rising star in plant-based diets around the world, has in fact been a constant in Javanese culture for over four centuries.

The low-fat, high-protein meat substitute is made from soybeans that have been fermented in banana leaves — and sometimes other leaves — for two to three days before turning into a white, moldy, and thick block.

The taste is often described as nutty and mushroomy with a slight sweet soy smell.

It can be cooked in the same way as any other meat: baked, fried, grilled or cooked in a variety of dishes. In Indonesia it is often fried and served as a tasty snack.

Satay

A staple in Southeast Asian restaurants around the world, satay – or satay in the local parlance – is said to have originated in Java.

The preparation of these skewers varies from region to region, often with different meats or vegetables, spices, sauces and marinades.

One of the most loved versions in Indonesia is chicken satay served with a sweet peanut sauce that has just a hint of spice.

fried rice

Nasi goreng: So much more than just fried rice.

Nasi goreng: So much more than just fried rice.

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If there’s one staple that represents Indonesia’s multifaceted culture, it’s nasi goreng – literally translated as fried rice.

Every household has made a different recipe with different ingredients and side dishes, but the use of terasi (shrimp paste) and kecap manis (a sweet and thick Indonesian soy sauce) unites most – if not all – versions.

These spices create the unique taste of Indonesian fried rice.

Topped with a perfect sunny-side up egg and a side of crispy prawn crackers (or kerupuk), nasi goreng is a versatile meal consumed throughout the day.

Nasi goreng, a dish influenced by Chinese cuisine, is as popular in Singapore and Malaysia as it is in Indonesia.

Kerupuk

While prawn crackers are common in the diets of several countries – especially Indonesia and Malaysia – it was thanks to Indonesia that the snack was introduced to the Dutch and then brought to Europe.

Undoubtedly the best helper for any dish, a piece of kerupuk can also serve as an edible spoon for scooping up extra sauce or sambal.

Indonesian kerupuk is also used as a topping for soto – a type of Indonesian soup. (See below)

Soto ayam

Like many dishes in Indonesia, soto or soup tastes different depending on which part of the archipelago you are in.

One of the most common soto on Indonesian menus is the comforting soto ayam (chicken soup) – but that too comes in countless variations.

Of all chicken sotos, those from East Java – such as soto ayam Madura or Ambengan – are some of the most popular. They have a clear broth and contain a generous amount of garlic, shallots, turmeric and chicken pieces.

Koya powder, a unique blend of ground prawn crackers and fried garlic, is sometimes added to give an already rich soup – such as soto ayam Lamongan – an extra umami boost.

Gado gado

A classic gado-gado is served with chopped vegetables, an egg, and sometimes slices of tofu or tempeh.  It is often dressed up with roasted peanut sauce.

A classic gado-gado is served with chopped vegetables, an egg, and sometimes slices of tofu or tempeh. It is often dressed up with roasted peanut sauce.

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Chop blanched vegetables, hard-boiled eggs and add a ladle of peanut sauce and you have the simple yet tasty Indonesian national salad – gado gado.

A classic Indonesian peanut sauce for gado gado is made with ground roasted peanuts, chili peppers, shrimp paste, tamarind pulp or juice, and some sugar and salt.

Translated as mix mix, this ubiquitous salad dish sometimes includes slices of fried tofu or tempeh, as well as fried fishcakes.

Sambal

Sambal may not be one of Indonesia’s five official national dishes – alongside nasi goreng, rendang, soto, sate and gado gado – but for many Indonesians, no meal is complete without it.

It is a condiment made by mixing chili peppers with a wide variety of ingredients, such as shrimp paste, sugar, salt and lime juice.

Today you can find it in many renowned Indonesian dishes – from nasi goreng to gado gado.

According to legend, Portuguese and Spanish sailors brought a variety of chili peppers to Indonesia, but it was in Java that they were first pounded into sambals.

It is believed that more than 100 types of sambal are served all over Indonesia. One of the most common is sambal terasi, made with chili peppers, garlic, tomatoes, shrimp paste, limes, salt and sugar.

Indomia

Not technically a dish, but it is arguably the most famous food brand in the country.

Indomie’s flavorful and convenient packaged noodles have been impressing the market since 1972 and have garnered a huge following worldwide.

If you’re an Indomie newbie, start with a pack of Indomie mi goreng (barbecue chicken) and you’ll probably be converted too.

Jamu

Jamu is a concentrated herbal drink made with ginger and turmeric.

Jamu is a concentrated herbal drink made with ginger and turmeric.

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When Indonesian President Joko Widodo was asked about the secret to his good health during the Covid-19 pandemic, he quoted jamu.

A traditional Indonesian herbal drink made from various combinations of plants and spices – ginger and turmeric are two common ingredients – jamu is said to boost the immune system.

There are many ways to make jamu.

The plants and herbs are mixed into a concentrated juice and it is often served hot.

The president also said he has been drinking it daily for the past two decades and increased his daily jamu consumption to three times a day during the pandemic.

In recent years, jamu-inspired juice brands have been popping up all over the world.

Baby guling

There are a few things that make us dream of Bali — the pristine beaches, the endless rice paddies and, for some, babi guling, the resort island’s famous roast suckling pig.

The animal is rubbed with turmeric and filled with a spice paste consisting of coriander seeds, lemongrass, Asian lime and salam leaves, chilies, black pepper, garlic, red shallots, ginger and kencur. Then it is roasted on a spit.

Every part of the pig – meat for satay, succulent pork steaks, crispy cracklings and the richly flavored intestines – will be enjoyed.

It is usually served with rice, spicy soup and an array of spices.

The dish is rarely seen in the rest of Indonesia, where a majority of the population is Muslim and considers pork consumption haram or forbidden. In Bali, most people identify as Hindu.

Rice table

And finally, one can not forget rice tableor Rijsttafel, in Dutch.

It is an extensive offering of Indonesian small plates with different flavors and levels of spiciness in one meal.

Rijsttafel is not technically part of traditional Indonesian food culture. It was first introduced during Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia, when the Europeans served small plates of sumptuous Indonesian dishes – from sweet to spicy – to their visitors.

It is still a common offering in Indonesian restaurants in the Netherlands and in the country of origin.

According to Wongso, the rice table culture is one of the reasons why many traditional Indonesian dishes became popular outside of Asia.

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