From spending my entire life so far in Indonesia, I’ve grown so accustomed to having Indonesian food that I sometimes take them for granted. But after shooting a video with my friends of people from outside the country tasting and reacting to them, I realized one thing: there is so much diversity and a lot of spices in Indonesian food.
With that being said, I thought I’d give my own little summary of the food anyone coming to Indonesia should at least taste when they get here (because no one can cook Indonesian food like Indonesians living in Indonesia do) to give you a little peek of what the Indonesian taste is all about.
With all the diversity in Indonesia, I think there’s one thing that unites everyone in the country regardless of their background or culinary preferences and that is Indomie – the number one instant noodle in Indonesia. Basically, it’s just your average instant noodle with seasoning powder, some fried shallots, and if you want to splurge on the exclusive mie kriting version of the pack (which costs only about IDR3K more than the regular one), you’ll get some dehydrated vegetables in there too.
Thing is, there’s something about the seasoning powder that is oh-so good and makes it a kitchen staple for a lot of households in Indonesia. Whether you’re a broke university student trying to survive the end of the month or someone who has just returned from a trip abroad, something about Indomie is so comforting. Heck, this is even my go-to meal when I’m super sick and can’t manage to cook anything.
Okay, I’m a bit subjective about this one because most of my dad’s family came from Padang and I practically grew up with this, but it deserves being voted as the best dish in the world. Rendang is basically beef marinated with coconut milk and spices and cooked to tenderness for about 6 hours straight (throughout which it needs to be stirred every couple of times) until the marinade evaporates completely.
I think the slow cooking process is ultimately what makes this dish so crazy good. Depending on which Padang restaurant you go to, the spiciness level can vary. Also, rendang is best eaten with some warm rice, cassava-leaf curry, and some perkedel or potato patties.
Soto is basically the Indonesian version of your average comforting chicken noodle soup. What’s so unique about this dish is that literally every area in Indonesia has its own soto! The only difference between each area’s soto is the broth – some are thick while others are more clear and light. However, almost every soto in Indonesia contains more or less the same ingredients with a couple of alternations here and there: some form of meat, rice noodles, green onion, and eggs.
My personal favorite soto would probably be the ones from Padang and Jakarta. Soto Padang has this clear, savory broth with lemongrass in it and usually adds flour crackers into the soup. Plus, it always contains this crunchy beef that is super salty and nice along with some potato fritter for extra carbs. Soto Betawi from Jakarta is kind of the opposite: its broth is really dense since it contains coconut milk and it has that zest of tomatoes with some tender beef in it. I honestly love how the contrast of both basically reflects the whole contradictions going on in Indonesian cuisine which makes it so special.
This right here is one of the best healthy-ish dishes in the country and my favorite food during Lent.
Gado-gado is an Indonesian version of salad and it usually contains some green leaves (usually water spinach), cabbages, bean sprouts, tofu, tempeh, and crackers. Some gado-gado sellers add their extras to the dish, such as corn or cucumbers, but every gado-gado seller usually offers some optional rice cakes with the dish. What makes this salad so Indonesian is the condiment which is some spicy peanut sauce. Now when I say spicy here, I mean it can get really spicy – especially if you have this dish in Bali. The gado-gado in Bali literally made me cry even though I asked for a less spicy one.
The dish is completely vegetarian and I think it’s one of the healthiest things you can eat in Indonesia. However, some people have said that the peanut condiment can actually cause health problems if you have too much of it (well, with the amount of chili some people put in it, I can see why) so ask for the sauce to be separated if you want to control how much you have on the salad.
Not to be confused with Indomie, there are various noodle-based dishes to try when you’re in Indonesia. Really, if there’s one skill that is spread all over the country, it’s how to make some damn good noodles.
Here, noodles are usually boiled and then marinated with some fish sauce or sesame oil, salt and pepper and served with broth, green vegetables, and some meat. Some areas like Medan have their own twist on it and serve it with a super thick broth and seafood. Another way to cook noodle in Indonesia is to stir-fry it with some green vegetables, meat, and soy sauce. Regardless of the way you cook it, every noodle dish in Indonesia is usually more on the savory side in terms of flavor.
I’m a huge noodle fan – really, you give me any noodle dish and I’ll like it instantly. But out of all the noodle dishes in Indonesia, my personal favorites are e mie or mie siram from Medan with its super thick broth, shrimp, and potatoes and mie Aceh from the westernmost part of the country which is in between fried and boiled and tastes like curry noodles.
Ah yes. Martabak. The holy grail of Indonesian cuisine which literally makes everyone’s mouths water just visualizing it.
Martabak is basically kind of like a stacked pancake/sandwich kind of thing with some pastry on the top and bottom and the stuffing in between. There are two kinds of stuffings: savory and sweet. The savory one or martabak telur is usually a scramble of eggs, ground chicken, and green onion. The sweet one or martabak manis is more experimental. Traditional toppings are chocolate sprinkles, cheese, and peanut butter, but lately there’s been this fusion movement of putting things like Nutella, M&Ms, Oreo, even a whole Toblerone bar between the thicker pastry of the sweet martabak.
I personally like martabak telur better simply because I don’t have a sweet tooth. But my friends who love sweet stuff usually prefer martabak manis since the amount of butter and sugar in that thing is oh-so high but worth it. If you’re planning to try it, make sure to get the traditional version first before moving on to try the experimental ones because nothing beats the classic.
These little balls of joy may fool you as chocolate or the traditional Chinese dessert of mochi. However, this is actually a traditional dessert with a traditional filling.
Klepon is basically a sort of rice cake turned green with pandan leaves, coated with grated coconut and filled with palm sugar. If you eat it while it’s warm, it will give you the weirdest sensation of chewing and suddenly having the rice cake coating burst and caramelized palm sugar melt in your mouth. If you want to try a dessert but don’t want it to be too sweet, this is the something you should try. Originating from Java where most of the food is already really sweet, klepon sort of evens the sweetness out by not containing too much sugar.
Even though it’s one of the simplest Indonesian dishes to make (believe me, I’ve tried!) and the serving size is usually pretty small, it’s that one Indonesian dessert that will keep you coming back for more.
8. Pempek Palembang
This one is for my friends who wants some pop of acidity in their food. You’re going to love pempek.
Originating from Palembang which has one of the largest rivers in Indonesia, pempek is basically fish cake. Some of it is stuffed with eggs while others are plain and savory. Some of the fish cakes are also shaped like a submarine and are named such (pempek kapal selam). Although they’re usually already savory without the sauce, the cuko or vinegar sauce is what gives it an extra kick since it has that bit of acid taste and in some cases, a bit spicy since some people like to slice up chili real small and put the slices in the sauces.
If you were to ask me which Indonesian snack is my favorite one, this would be it.
Although it has Chinese roots, lumpia or spring rolls has been adapted to the Indonesian taste buds by adding more spices. The crepe pastry is usually stuffed with marinated carrots, radishes, and some bengkoang or Mexican yam and then deep fried instead of steamed. In Semarang, the lumpia is especially distinct since it contains bamboo shoots instead of the usual roots mix and tastes more like fish.
Lumpia is best served with its sauce, which I can’t really define for you but I’ll try to describe. The sauce is usually really good, regardless of where you get the lumpia from. It’s a bit on the spicy side with hints of crushed peanuts in the flavor. But unlike the peanut condiment for gado-gado, it’s a lot thinner in consistency and has a bit of acidity in there – probably from some lime. The sauce is kind of the thing that ties the stuffing and crepe pastry together so make sure you have it with you when you try it.
10. Ayam Betutu
If you think you can handle the heat, challenge yourself with ayam betutu.
Originating from Bali and Lombok, this dish is basically roasted chicken which has been marinated with raw onion, coconut oil, and lots and lots of chili. The heat usually doesn’t kick at the first bite, but after a while, you’ll start to feel the spicy flavors taking over. By the third bite, I’ve usually reached for some iced drink. But this dish with rice and a little bit of sweet soy sauce to balance out the flavors is seriously one of the best food combinations I’ve ever tried.
There’s really a lot more to Indonesian cuisine than my little list here and it honestly does not do Indonesian food justice. With over 1.000 subcultures coexisting in the country and every subculture having 10 of its own traditional dishes, there’s so much to eat in Indonesia. But I hope this little list gives you a place to start to understand what the food in Indonesia is all about.
And if you’re wondering what people from outside the country think about some of the dishes on the list, do give my team’s YouTube video a watch. (And if you have a YouTube account, please give it a thumbs-up since likes are part of our final grades and we need all the help we can get #unistudentprobs). It was honestly a super fun video to shoot and drove me to write this post after finding out how much the food in Indonesia is actually adored. Plus, there are some dishes here that are not on the list, so do check it out!