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With its vibrant colors, wondrous fusions, and breathtakingly fresh ingredients, Indonesian food will have you in awe with every mouthful.
Southeast Asia is no stranger to world-renowned cuisines. And while the foods of Indonesia may be lesser-known, they certainly leave a lasting impression.
Strap in for mind-boggling foods with multiple layers, rich with herbs and spices, as we delve deep into the world of Indonesian cuisine and 26 of its most popular dishes.
Onde-onde is one of the most popular snacks on Java island, especially in East Java.
Go to the nearby traditional market or to a street vendor, and you can easily find these fried sesame seed balls, which are filled with sweet mung bean paste. The balls themselves are made from glutinous rice flour, and they’re chewy!
If you travel to other Asian countries, you’ll find a snack that is similar to onde-onde. It’s known as kuih bom in Malaysia, bánh cam or bánh rán in Vietnam, or butsi in the Philippines.
Originating from Palembang, a city in South Sumatra, this dish is also known as mpek-mpek or empek-empek.
This dish is essentially a fishcake, but it comes in many variants, depending on the shape and the additional ingredients. For example,
To eat pempek, first pick the variant that you want and then fry it. Once it’s ready, put it in a bowl and add the cuko, a sauce made of palm sugar, vinegar, chili pepper, ground dried shrimp, salt, and garlic.
To neutralize the sour taste of the sauce, people usually sprinkle diced cucumber and add yellow noodles.
If you’re looking for a delicious savory snack that makes you full in an instant, get a lemper. It’s available everywhere: traditional markets, modern markets, street vendors, even on an online marketplace!
People in Java, especially in the Central Java region, believe that this dish carries a strong philosophy of brotherhood and unity. So, it will always be a part of local ceremonies and events.
This dish is essentially glutinous rice filled with various delicious fillings and wrapped in banana leaves. Decades ago, people couldn’t afford meat, so they mainly used fried grated coconut as the filling. The fillings nowadays can include ground beef, shredded chicken, or fish.
Batagor is a famous street food in Bandung, West Java. The name is essentially abbreviated from three terms: bakso (meatball), tahu (tofu), and goreng (fried).
The ‘meatball’ can be made with tofu, minced tengiri (Spanish mackerel fish or wahoo), and tapioca flour.
The ‘meatball’ is then wrapped in a dumpling/wonton skin before being fried and served with peanut sauce (a little bit spicy!), kecap (sweet soy sauce), lime juice, and chili paste.
If you’ve ever tried siomay (steamed fish dumpling), then you can see batagor as the fried version of siomay. It’s also common to see a batagor seller selling siomay as well. So, you can try both of them at the same time.
Made of tempeh, fermented soybeans “cake”, this savory, crispy dish is a perfect choice for vegetarians.
It’s a typical street food snack, where the seller cuts a block of raw tempeh into thin slices, puts them in a batter (made of flour, herbs, and spring onions), then deep fries the slices one by one.
It’s so cheap (Rp1,000 or $0.071 per piece) that some sellers might sell it in a package of 5 pieces or more.
Want to spice your dish? Dip your tempe mendoan into sambal kecap, a spicy condiment made of sweet soy sauce, chili, and shallots.
In Makassar, south Sulawesi, soto (Indonesian soup) is also known as coto. So, coto makassar literally means ‘Indonesian soup from Makassar.’
But, what makes it different from other types of sotos or Indonesian soups are the main ingredients. Instead of using only chicken like soto ayam (chicken soto) or diced beef meat like soto daging (beef soup), coto makassar uses diced beef offal (liver, lung, etc.) in the soup.
Additionally, this soup can have up to 40 types of herbs (known as “ampah patang pulo”).
For the finishing touch, people add peanut powder, fried shallots, and sliced spring onions to the soup.
Normally, this dish is served with ketupat, rice packed in a diamond-shaped container made of palm leaves, or buras, rice cooked with coconut milk and packed in banana leaves, and sambal tauco, spicy fermented soy paste.
Voted as the number one dish in the World’s Best Food Reader Choice by CNN in 2017, rendang (or randang) is surely one of the best Indonesian foods and a must-eat dish during your stay in Indonesia.
Cooked for hours in a mixture of coconut milk, herbs, and spices, this traditional beef stew dish from West Sumatra will dance in your mouth.
There are three different cooking versions of rendang—damp, medium-damp, dry.
The ‘damp’ rendang (also called gulai) has a lot of coconut milk.
The ‘medium-damp’ rendang (also called kalio) is cooked until it has a tiny bit of coconut milk.
The ‘dry’ version is the common rendang that we usually eat in Minangkabau.
Several variants are available although they’re not common, such as lokan rendang (made of lokan, a type of clam), pakis rendang (made of fern), chicken rendang, egg rendang, or even jengkol rendang.
Sit back, relax, get your plate and hot steamed rice, rendang, and welcome to paradise.
Wherever you are in Indonesia, you will find innumerable “Rumah Makan Padang” (Padang restaurants) where you can find the famous nasi padang.
Nasi padang is essentially steamed rice served with numerous traditional Padang side dishes.
These side dishes can include rendang, dendeng balado (thin crispy beef with chili), kalio, ayam lado (chicken with green chili sambal), and many others.
Although almost all the side dishes are spicy, you can pick some side dishes that are “safe” for your taste buds, such as fried chicken, omelet, green jackfruit gulai, boiled cassava leaves, and shrimp rempeyek.
Warning: you pay for how much you eat. In a small restaurant, you might only find less than 10 side dishes; but in a big restaurant, it’s so tempting to taste all the 30 side dishes (or more)! Remember, the more side dishes you order with your rice, the more you pay.
This one might be the friendliest Indonesian food for a foreigner. No tangy or spicy taste, strong spices, or even atypical ingredients.
You’ll only get a plate of blanched (or steamed) vegetables, fried tofu, tempeh, boiled egg (if you’re a vegan, you can ask the seller to skip the egg), served with fried shallots, savory peanut sauce dressing, and krupuk (garlic and emping crackers).
It’s quite similar to other vegetable salads such as pecel (the peanut sauce tastes a little bit spicy, with a strong lime leaves flavor), ketoprak (mostly found in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital ), or karedok (Sundanese salad, using raw vegetables as the ingredients).
The best part of gado-gado is that you can find it everywhere, from warung (tiny food stalls) to famous Indonesian restaurants and 5-star hotels!
Although there’s no significant difference in terms of taste, the price you’re charged varies depending on whether you eat it at a warung or a 5-star hotel restaurant.
It might be rare to find an Indonesian main course that tastes sweet, but gudeg is an exception.
You’ll find it mostly in Yogyakarta, and it’s vegetarian-friendly.
The main ingredient of this dish is gori or tewel (green jack fruit), cooked for hours (almost one full day) in a mixture of palm sugar, coconut milk, and various spices and herbs.
Traditionally, gudeg is cooked in a clay pot, sometimes with some green jati (teak tree) leaves, adding red-brownish color to the dish.
People usually eat gudeg with steamed warm rice and other side dishes such as chicken opor, pindang egg, tofu, tempeh bacem, or sambal goreng krecek (spicy seasoned beef skin stew).
The modern Indonesian fried rice has various toppings to add, such as seafood, meat, sausages, vegetables, or even kimchi! Some restaurants also become more creative by serving this dish with 3 or more spicy level options.
However, the classic Indonesian fried rice isn’t that fancy. It’s a simple dish with a slightly spicy flavor.
Its uniqueness lies in its flavor paste and brown look, thanks to the sweet soy sauce. In addition to garlic, shallots, and chili, some people put shrimp (or shrimp paste—terasi) to deliver a more robust savory flavor.
It’s common to have fried rice for breakfast, although there are many warung (food stalls) and street vendors that sell it at night as well.
The plating is very simple. It’s usually served with a sunny-side egg (or omelet), prawn crackers, and cucumber pickles.
Another famous Indonesian dish is bakso, a bowl of meatballs with savory beef broth. It is said that this dish originated from China, with the word “bak” meaning pork. But since many Indonesians are Muslim, people substituted pork with halal beef in Indonesia.
Whether you’re in a village or in a big city, it’s easy to find a street vendor that sells bakso because almost everyone loves it.
You can try this dish for a very affordable price (around $1 – $2 per bowl).
The best part is you can customize your bakso to match your budget.
You can buy some meatballs with the broth, or add some noodles, steamed dumplings, fried dumplings, tofu, or vegetables (sliced lettuce or cabbage).
Don’t get intimidated by its scary and unappealing color. The black color comes from keluwak (a type of nut), so it’s safe (if that’s what you’re afraid of).
Rawon is a simple beef soup, originating from Surabaya, East Java, served with steamed rice and prawn crackers.
Usually, there are several side dishes that you can add to your rawon, such as fried tempeh, boiled salted egg, or even pecel (mixed vegetable salad with peanut sauce dressing).
Prepare Rp15,000 (around $1) if you want to buy it at a warung (food stall), or up to Rp75,000 ($5) if you buy this Indonesian food at a big restaurant. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find this dish outside the East Java province.
It is said that the term “betutu” comes from the word “be” (Balinese word for “meat”) and “tunu” (Balinese word for “to burn”). This dish is so popular in Bali, not only for its spicy and rich herbs taste but also for its cooking method.
Although today we can find it in every region of Bali, decades ago Ayam Betutu was one of the luxury dishes that were served only in cultural ceremonies.
It took almost 10 hours to cook one whole chicken (or duck), and the cooking method was complicated! First, the seasoned chicken (or duck) needed to be wrapped in palm leaves, then it was “buried” in the ground with burning husk and charcoal for hours.
Nowadays, we don’t need to wait that long now as this is now cooked in the oven.
To level up your Balinese cuisine experience, add daun gonde (gonde leaves) dish and sambal matah.
When you’re in Bali, you’ll notice that sate lilit looks differently than satay in other areas in Indonesia.
In English, “lilit” means “to wrap”. So, sate lilit is made by wrapping the seasoned minced pork/fish (the “normal” satay uses diced meat) around a flat bamboo or lemongrass (the “normal” satay uses bamboo skewers).
Another difference is the sauce. Typically, chicken or lamb satay is served with peanut sauce. Still, there’s no specific condiment for sate lilit although people usually have this dish with sambal matah.
There is an old superstition, saying that this dish is a symbol of manliness. In the past, it was made only by men, and if there was a man who couldn’t make this dish, people would doubt his masculinity.
This one is a simple side dish from Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara. When you have a plate of steamed rice and ayam taliwang (signature grilled chicken from Lombok), having a plate of plecing kangkung will balance your meal set.
It might be a little challenging to find it outside Nusa Tenggara region, but making this dish at home by yourself is easy!
You only need to boil the kangkung (water spinach or water morning glory), set it aside, prepare the sambal plecing (spicy sauce made of chili, garlic, shallots, lime, shrimp paste, and candlenut), then pour the sambal on the cooked kangkong. Fresh, spicy, and healthy!
Every area in Indonesia has its own version of soto (chicken soup). For example, soto padang uses coconut milk to enrich the taste and soto lamongan uses koya (cracker powder) as a topping.
In Banjar, West Java, soto has a clear broth, with perkedel (fried mashed potato) and chicken satay as its side dishes.
The local people usually don’t eat this dish with rice; they have it with lontong (rice cake wrapped in banana leaves).
And if you pour soto banjar into a plate of rice, that’s called nasi sop (rice and soup) instead of soto banjar.
Manado, a city in North Sulawesi, is known for its strong and spicy dishes. Woku is one of the spiciest sauce in Indonesia. The name is inspired by the woka leaves that were used to wrap steamed rice a long time ago.
It doesn’t only bring a spicy flavor, but also fresh, tasty, sweet, and sour flavors at once.
Fish, crab, shrimp, and squid are some of the main ingredients that are usually cooked in woku sauce.
But you can also try ayam woku belanga, which is a type of chicken stew, mixed with tomato, basil leaves, and woku sauce (with a yellowish-orange color) and cooked in a belanga (clay pot).
The best way to eat it is with warm steamed rice.
Tinutuan or bubur manado is a popular breakfast menu from Manado. It’s been an official iconic food of the city since 1970.
Basically, it’s a simple rice porridge mixed with a lot of vegetables, such as corn, pumpkin, and cassava leaves. Plus, turmeric leaves and fresh basil leaves are added for a strong scent and flavor in this porridge.
For a vegetarian, it’s one of the must-try foods on your list.
If you’re not vegetarian, you can eat it with cakalang fufu (smoked skipjack tuna) and sambal terasi (shrimp paste chili sauce).
Although it’s not a dish that you could easily find in other cities outside Sulawesi, all Manadonese restaurants in big cities such as Jakarta, Denpasar, Yogyakarta, or Surabaya have tinutuan on their menus.
Finding this dish in Indonesia is hard, but if you go to Bali, babi guling is the easiest (and the most famous) dish to find.
It’s a bit spicy, but various spices and herbs that are stuffed inside the whole pig before it is roasted create a mouth-watering dish.
The pig is then served in chunks, along with lawar (vegetable salad with minced meat) and steamed rice.
Since locals can’t seem to get enough of this dish, it’s a good idea to go a little earlier to avoid a big crowd during lunchtime.
Besides, some restaurants have an open kitchen that will allow you to see the roasting process in the morning (before the restaurant is open).
In Padang (West Sumatra) or Malaysia, people might call this cute snack onde-onde. Just like onde-onde, klepon is also made of glutinous rice and has a chewy texture.
However, klepon has a green color, which comes from pandan leaves extract, and it’s coated with grated coconut.
It tastes sweet, thanks to the liquid palm sugar filling. Due to its tiny size, klepon sellers usually sell this dessert in a pack of five.
Indonesia is a hot country, so don’t be surprised to see many iced desserts, such as es cendol (also known as es dawet in the Central Java region).
Other Asian countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam have their own version of “cendol”, but in Indonesia, the serving is pretty simple. It’s only a glass of chewy green droplets (the shape looks like worms), served with palm sugar syrup, coconut milk, and ice cubes. The flours that are usually used to make cendol droplets are rice flour or mung bean flour.
The green color comes from pandan leaves.
We believe that this dessert originally came from villages in West Java. However, now you can find it everywhere (even in a 5-star hotel).
This dessert usually costs only about Rp10.000 (less than $1), and it’s very popular during Ramadhan.
Usually, you’ll find sliced plantain bananas and cassavas in sweet palm sugar and coconut milk soup. Sometimes, people also add sweet potatoes, pumpkin, or jackfruit.
Served hot or cold with ice cubes, this dessert is perfect for all occasions.
Simple, sweet and tasty might be best described this dessert. After removing the banana leaves wrapper, you’ll find a beautiful dish, as white as shiny pearl. But when you have one bite or one slice, you’ll find a banana inside.
This dessert generally costs only Rp1,000 ($0.07) per piece, and you can easily find it in traditional markets and street vendors.
This dessert is categorized as “kue basah” (wet dessert), which means that it spoils easily (within 24 hours or so). So make sure you finish it straight away.
In Banjar (one of the native tribes in South Kalimantan) culture, 41 desserts have to be served on special events like a wedding ceremony. One of them is bingka, a sweet, delicate dessert made from flour, sugar, coconut milk, and egg.
Nowadays, there are many variants of bingka, such as bingka ubi kayu. The difference lies in the main ingredients; instead of flour, ubi kayu (cassava) is used.
This simple dessert from Makassar is perfect for those with a sweet tooth and for those looking for a filling dessert.
Perfect for a sunny day, you’ll find one ripe plantain banana wrapped in a green sweet dough, served with white flour porridge, coconut milk, and banana syrup (which is usually red).
There is another Makassar dessert that looks similar to es pisang ijo, and it’s called es palu butung. The difference between the two lies in the green banana “skin”—es palu butung only uses banana, without wrapping it in the green dough.
When it comes to Indonesian food, variety is the order of the day. And it’s no surprise, considering 6000 populated islands have contributed to this unique cuisine through the centuries.
Indonesian food starts out simple. Southeast Asian staples, like rice and noodles, form a flavorsome base on which to build upon.
From there, the diversity is mind-blowing. Exotic fruits, bright colors, and rich meats all find their way into various dishes.
Throw into the mix the love and passion Indonesians have for their food, and you truly have a cuisine fit for all purposes.
When in Indonesia, always try to eat at local warungs and family-run restaurants. The tourist-serving cafes and restaurants don’t come close to the freshness and authenticity.
Cuisines like Thai and Japanese may be the superstars of Asian cuisine, but Indonesian is very much one of its underrated darlings.
So, one last time before we go, here is the full list of all Indonesian foods covered in this article.
Be sure to have this list of Indonesian food handy when you visit so that you can try one or more of these popular and traditional foods.
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Contributor: Sari Rachmatika is an English-Indonesian translator and writer, with a deep passion for sharing Indonesian cooking and culture with the rest of the world.
Images licensed via Shutterstock
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