Indonesian cuisine is one of the most vibrant and colourful cuisines in the world, full of intense flavour and mild aromas. Indonesia is home to a large number of mouth-watering foods; from affordable rice, noodle and soup dishes in warungs (local diners) to street-side snacks and top-dollar plates. The diversity of taste come from approximately 6,000 populated islands of the total 18,000 in the world’s largest archipelago, with more than 300 ethnic groups calling Indonesia their home. Many regional cuisines exist, often based upon indigenous culture and mixed of foreign influences as well. Indonesia has around 5,350 traditional recipes, with 30 of them considered the signature dishes on any Indonesian kitchen.
In 2011, Indonesian cuisine began to gain worldwide recognition, with three of its popular dishes make it to the list of ‘World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods (Readers’ Pick)’, a worldwide online poll by 35,000 people held by CNN International. Rendang top the list as the number one, followed closely by nasi goreng in number two, and satay in number fourteen.
Indonesian cuisine varies greatly by region and has many different influences. Sumatran cuisine, for example, often has Middle Eastern and Indian influences, featuring curried meat and vegetables such as gulai and kari, while Javanese cuisine is mostly indigenous, with some hint of Chinese influence. The cuisines of Eastern Indonesia are similar to Polynesian and Melanesian cuisine. Elements of Chinese cuisine can be seen in Indonesian cuisine: foods such as bakmi (noodles), bakso (meat or fish balls), and lumpia (spring rolls) have been completely assimilated.
Throughout its history, Indonesia has been involved in trade due to its location and natural resources. Additionally, Indonesia’s indigenous techniques and ingredients were influenced by India, the Middle East, China, and finally Europe. Spanish and Portuguese traders brought New World produce even before the Dutch came to colonise most of the archipelago. The Indonesian islands The Moluccas (Maluku), which are famed as “the Spice Islands”, also contributed to the introduction of native spices, therefore here we run through a mouth-watering array of broth-soaked noodles, fiery curries, banana-wrapped fish and vegetable salads with sweet peanut dressing. Most of the recommended restaurants are in Jakarta, a magnet for Indonesians from all over the archipelago, who naturally brought their cuisine with them. After CNNGo readers voted rendang the most delicious food in the world, we thought it was time to give Indonesia’s culinary credentials some time in the limelight. Sambal, martabak, rendang: If you can read this list without drooling you’re doing better than us
While technically more of a condiment, the chili-based sauce known as sambal is a staple at all Indonesian tables. Dishes are not complete unless they have a hearty dollop of the stuff, a combination of chilies, sharp fermented shrimp paste, tangy lime juice, sugar and salt all pounded up with mortar and pestle. So beloved is sambal, some restaurants have made it their main attraction, with options that include young mango, mushroom and durian.
These tasty meat skewers cook up over coals so hot they need fans to waft the smoke away. Whether it’s chicken, goat, mutton or rabbit, the scrappy morsels get marinated in turmeric, barbecued and then bathed in a hearty dose of peanut sauce. Other nations now lay claim to sate, but Indonesians consider it a national dish conceived by street vendors and popularized by Arab traders. Each vendor seeks distinction, but “sate madura” –- served with rice cakes (ketupat) and diced cucumber and onion -– is distinguished by its boat-shaped street carts.
A favorite among students, this savory meatball noodle soup gained international fame when U.S. President Barack Obama remembered it as one of his favorites during a visit to Jakarta last November. It takes on many forms; meatballs –- springy or rubbery, the size of golf balls or bigger -– are made from chicken, beef, pork or some amorphous combination of them all. Sold mostly from pushcarts called kaki lima, bakso comes garnished with fried shallots, boiled egg and wontons.
This traditional meat soup comprises a broth and ingredients that vary across the archipelago. Common street versions are made of a simple, clear soup flavored with chicken, goat or beef. In Jakarta, home of the indigenous Betawi, soto Betawi garners fame with its sweet, creamy, coconut-milk base. Top it with crispy shallots and fried garlic, and as much or little sambal as your taste buds can take.
5. Nasi goreng
Considered Indonesia’s national dish, this take on Asian fried rice is often made with sweet, thick soy sauce called kecap (pronounced ketchup) and garnished with acar, pickled cucumber and carrots. To add an element of fun to your dining experience, try nasi gila (literally :crazy rice”) and see how many different kinds of meat you can find buried among the grains –- yes, those are hot dog slices.
Literally “mix-mix,” the term gado-gado is often used to describe situations that are all mixed up -– Jakarta, for instance, is a gado-gado city. As a food, however, it is one of Indonesia’s best-known dishes, essentially a vegetable salad bathed in the country’s classic peanut sauce. At its base are boiled long beans, spinach, potato, corn, egg and bean sprouts coupled with cucumber, tofu and tempe.
7. Nasi uduk
A perennial favorite among native Betawi, the meal revolves around rice cooked in coconut milk and includes a pinwheel of various meat and vegetable accoutrements. It almost always includes fried chicken, boiled eggs and tempe(soybean cake) with anchovies and is topped with emping (melinjo nut crackers). It’s cheap, fast and popular among lunchtime crowds.
8. Nasi padang
Singaporeans may say they can’t live without it, but nasi padang, named after its birth city in Sumatra, is 100 percent Indonesian. Chose from among more than a dozen dishes — goopy curries with floating fish heads or rubbery cow’s feet — stacked up on your table. “It always looks sodead,” a friend once said. Indeed, otak (brain) leaves little to the imagination. Chuck away the cutlery and dig in with your hands then wash the spice away with a sweet iced tea.
9. Ayam goreng
The key to Indonesian fried chicken is the use of small village birds, whose freedom to run around the yard makes them tastier than the big chunks of meat at KFC. Variations on that chain have cropped up across the country — rumor has it that Wong Solo was founded by a polygamist, so franchisees must have multiple wives.
10. Bakmie goreng
Noodles compete with rice for carbohydrate of choice in Indonesia, ranging from broad and flat (kwetiau) to scrawny vermicelli (bihun). The best are bakmie — pencil-thin and, in this case, fried with egg, meat and vegetables. Vendors add their own special spices for distinction, but the iconic Bakmie Gajah Mada garners a cult following. More modern outlets now make noodles from spinach and beets.
Fit for a sultan it may not be, but gudeg is certainly the signature of the royal city of Yogyakarta. The sweet jackfruit stew is boiled for hours in coconut milk and palm sugar, making the fruit so soft and tender it falls apart with little chewing. Other spices are thrown into the mix but teak leaves give it a brown coloring. Like nasi uduk, it is served with rice, boiled egg, chicken and crispy, fried beef skin.
A beef stew from East Java that goes heavy on the keluak nut to give it a nutty flavor and a deep, black color. The soup base also mingles with garlic, shallots, ginger, turmeric and red chili to make it nice and spicy.
13. Pecel lele
The sight of fried catfish may surprise first-time diners since it looks almost the same as it does living — eyeballs and all. Served with rice and red and green sambal, this is simple street fare that fills the belly, which may be why it’s a standout across Jakarta.
14. Opor ayam
Small diners, called warungs, now sell this traditional dish of braised chicken in coconut milk on a daily basis. Still, it remains a staple on tables around the end of Ramadan, when it’s served with packed rice cakes (ketupat). A little like a mild, slightly chalky curry with less prep time required, it’s filled with Indonesia’s signature spices — garlic, ginger, cumin and coriander.
15. Mie ayam
For this dish, bakmie is boiled in stock and topped with succulent slices of gravy-braised chicken. Chives and sambal add extra flavor — but if it’s done right little else is needed. Unlike most Indonesian cuisine, where the secret is in the sauce, the clue to a good mie ayam is the perfect al dente noodle.
16. Babi guling
Pork is uncommon in this Muslim majority nation, but we had to include roast suckling pig given the near hysteria it generates on the Hindu island of Bali. The Balinese respect their food and lavish attention on its preparation. Before spit-roasting the pig they bath it in coconut water and rub it with chili, turmeric, garlic and ginger to ensure succulence.
Gulai is the common name for curry dishes, namely those from north Sumatra. Indonesian curries have regional variations that depend on the types of meat and fish available — though gulai almost always incorporates cinnamon. Opor and rendang can be considered gulais, but better to try out the rainbow of other options.
18. Bubur ayam
From blue-collar workers to government ministers, almost everyone starts their day with this rice gruel, a savory porridge served with soy sauce, fried shallots, shredded chicken, beans and crackers. Outside Java variations can include corn, cassava and fish, while a sweeter version — for those who prefer not to start their day with a blast of chili — is made with mung beans.
Jakarta gridlock may be a blessing for the bakpao market. Vendors often line busy roads during rush hour to offer these fluffy meat-filled buns to hungry passersby in need of a snack. Sweet offerings include chocolate and green bean, indicated by a colored dot on top. No need to go in search of them, they’ll find you.
20. Asinan sayur
When palates crave the opposite of Javanese sweetness, this pickled vegetable salad offers reprieve. The secret is in the dressing, a thin peanut sauce swirled with palm sugar to offset the salty snap of preserved mustard leaf, carrot, cabbage and cucumber. The krupuk cracker crunch comes from a yellow disc made with egg noodles.
21. Cah kangkung
Otherwise known as water spinach, a common river weed, kangkung gets stir fried with sweet soybean sauce, huge slices of garlic, bird’s-eye chili and shrimp paste to take it from a poor man’s food to something with a kick. Because it grows well in any kind of soil, it is a common ingredient in dishes throughout Asia. Here the cah indicates its Chinese origins.
22. Pepes ikan
Pepes signifies the steaming of food in banana leaves, which gives it an earthy flavor that works well with the rich Manadonese spices (woku) it’s coupled with. When matched with tuna the result is a dense, fiery dish that holds its distinct flavors, but should be eaten gingerly.
According to lore, the name pempek refers to the old Chinese man who first produced these fish and tapioca cakes from Palembang in South Sumatra. Now a Palembang specialty, pempek or empek-empek comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. The most famed, kapal selam, literally submarine, contains a chicken egg and is rumored to be the most nutritious form of the spongy dough balls, which are sprinkled with shrimp powder and served withcuka, a dark dipping sauce made from vinegar, chili and sugar.
A distant relative of Dutch minced-meat frikandel, these croquettes are either potato based and filled with beef or made from corn (perkadel jagung).So simple it’s often overlooked, Perkadel’s unassuming appearance belies its flavorful punch. In Bandung, crowds line up late night in seedy alleyways to snack on potato fritters made soft from frying in hot oil.
Think of a spongy, thick crepe made with 10 times the lard and you’ll be somewhat close to imaging martabak. The sweet version looks more like a pancake filled with gooey chocolate, peanuts or cheese, while the savory one is made from crispy pulled pastry like filo that is flattened in a wok as egg and minced meats are rapidly folded in. Served with pickled cucumber and a sweet and sour vinegar.
26. Sayur asem
This clear, refreshing soup derived from tamarind pairs well with fried food since it’s stocked with vegetables and some of Indonesia’s most interesting ingredients: melinjo, bilimbi, chayote. A very close relative called sayur lodeh is made with coconut milk and has a sweeter flavor.
27. Sop buntut
Revitalized by the chef at Hotel Borabodor in 1973 after a food and beverage staffer saw a government minister eating a bowl on the street, oxtail soup is loved by Indonesians from all classes. The high-end version — now the domain of Indonesia’s diplomatic corps — uses imported Australian beef, 7,000 kilograms a month to be precise, and comes complete with steamed rice, pickles, lime and sambal.
Not to be confused with the theatrical drama of the same name that re-enacts Javanese legends, this Ketoprak is made from vermicelli, tofu, packed rice cake and bean sprouts. It rounds out the quintet of pestle-and-mortar-based dishes that include gado-gado and pecel, and is a simple street dish that tastes mostly of peanuts and spice but is chockfull of carbohydrates.
29. Balado terong
The color of this dish is enough to set taste buds going. Nothing more than grilled purple eggplant topped with heaps of chili sauce made from dried shrimp paste (balacan), it calls for a substantial portion of rice to even out the fire-engine flavor.
30. Lontong sayur
Boiled for hours in coconut leaf casings,the glutinous packed rice cake known as lontong is one of the best vehicles for pairing with thick peanut sauces and curries. It serves as the base for this savory morning favorite, a coconut-milk curry made with young papaya, soy-braised tofu and hard-boiled eggs. Crushed up krupuk add a little crunch to get you going.
Perhaps Padang’s most famed curry, rendang is not an everyday food since it takes time and skill to make. Its secret is in the gravy, which wraps around the beef for hours until, ideally, it’s splendidly tender. A dried version, which can be kept for months (like jerky) is reserved for honored guests and important celebrations.
32. Tahu gejrot
These clouds of golden, fried tofu look like little packages behind the windows of the boxes from which they are sold. Tofu is a poor man’s snack, but that also makes it prevalent. Keep an eye out for the vendors who cart stacks of the fluffy fried tofufrom devices slung across their shoulders.
33. Sop kambing
If Indonesia ever got cold enough to necessitate a winter stew sop kambing would be even more popular. A robust soup with a yellow broth full of celery, tomato, and great chunks of goat meat, this dish could make the Campbell’s soup man quiver. Be warned if you have high blood pressure since the dish will heat you up. Ginger, lime leaf, candlenut and spring onion give it peppery smell that adds to its refreshingly earthy flavor.
Think of it as Indonesia’s version of dim sum — traditional steamed fish dumplings known in China as shaomai. A complete portion comes with a steamed potato, cabbage, egg, and bitter gourd, and is served with a boiled peanut sauce similar to gado-gado. Perhaps Indonesia’s most ubiquitous traveling street food, the best way to dine on siomay is from a bicycle vendor, who carts his large steamer around on the back of his bike. For the less health-inclined, an alternative to siomay is batagor, which is fried instead of steamed.
35. Ikan bakar
Grilled fish, plain and simple. But in a country with more than 17,000 islands, fish is bound to feature prominently. While squid and prawns have a place in Indonesian cuisine, ikan bakar gets a far better showing for a fleshy texture that is great for dipping. It is usually marinated in the typical trove of spices and served with a soy and chili-based sauce.
36. Daun papaya
Papaya is one of the fastest growing trees in Southeast Asia, and its bitter leaves are great for sautéing. This dish is common in Manado, but regional variations have made it popular among the leaf-and-seed-eating crowd, a big bunch in Indonesia.
Another famed fish cake from Palembang, otak-otak has a more charming appearance, since it’s wrapped in banana leaves before being grilled over charcoal. Indigenous Sumatrans eat it with red chili mixed with fermented soy sauce, but in Jakarta it is served with Java’s ubiquitous peanut sauce.
38. Bebek goreng
Ducks are common companions to rice fields around Indonesia, but they can be difficult to prepare for consumption. Too often fried duck comes as a mass of tiny bones and overly fried oily meat. That doesn’t make it any less worthy of the top 40, though.
Literally “fried foods,”gorengan are the most prolific snacks in all of Indonesia. Street carts typically offer crispy golden nuggets of tempe, cassava and tofu, as well as fried bananas, sweet potatoes, vegetables fritters made from shredded carrot, cabbage and bean sprouts and fermented soybean cakes. You can stop by any kaki lima and walk away with an oil-stained news-wrapping topped with a handful of green chili.
If you had to name one food Indonesians couldn’t live without, it would have to be one that is easy to transport, since they’re often on the go. That makes instant-noodle Indomie beloved by all. Sold at grocery stores, village mom and pop shops and even from the basket of bicycles, Indomie calls for nothing more than hot water and a packet of chemical-induced flavoring before it’s ready to fill one’s tummy. Found: everywhere. Taste: unforgettable.