When you eat in Indonesia you savour the essence of the country. The abundance of rice reflects Indonesia's fertile landscape, the spices recall a time of trade and invasion, and the fiery chilli echoes the passion of the people. Indonesian cuisine is really one big food swap. Chinese, Portuguese, colonists and traders have all influenced the ingredients that appear at the Indonesian table, and the cuisine has been further shaped over time by the archipelago's diverse landscape, people and culture.

The Basics

Indonesia has many eating options. Usually, you only need to reserve in advance at high-end places in the big cities or tourist destinations.

  • Restaurants Found in cities and tourist destinations.
  • Rumah makan Literally 'eating house' and less formal than restaurants.
  • Warung Simple open-air joints that often specialise in one particular dish.
  • Street vendors The locals choice for basic noodle and soup dishes.
  • Markets Fantastic for fresh fruit.

Staples & Specialities

Indonesian cooking is not complex, and its ingredients maintain their distinct flavours. Coriander, cumin, chilli, lemon grass, coconut, soy sauce and palm sugar are all important flavourings; sambal is a crucial condiment. Fish is a favourite and the seafood restaurants are often of a good standard. Indonesians traditionally eat with their fingers, hence the stickiness of the rice. Sate (skewered meat), nasi goreng (fried rice) and gado gado (vegetables with peanut sauce) are some of Indonesia's most famous dishes.

Jajanan (snacks) are sold everywhere – there are thousands of varieties of sweet and savoury snacks made from anything and everything: peanuts, coconuts, bananas, sweet potato and more.

We Dare You

Everyday eating in Indonesia can challenge your palate. Here are a few favourites.

  • In Nusa Tenggara Timor (Alor and Flores in particular) there is a scintillating, spicy, oily, mildly astringent dish called ikan kuah assam (tamarind fish soup). It is absolutely sensational. It’s basically a fish steak or half a fish (bones often included) steamed and swimming in spicy tamarind broth. It’s simple, life affirming, bliss inducing and could easily be your favourite dish of the trip.
  • The durian has a serious image problem. This fruit's spiky skin looks like a Spanish Inquisition torture tool, and opening it releases the fruit's odorous power. Most people form a lifelong passion – or aversion – on their first taste of this sulphury, custardy fruit.
  • Balinese specialities are readily available; look for warungs advertising siobak (minced pig's head, stomach, tongue and skin cooked with spices).
  • For avocado juice, take an avocado, blend with ice and condensed milk (or chocolate syrup) and serve. Indonesians don't consider this strange, as the avocado is just another sweet fruit.

Regional Variations

Just like sambal, Indonesia's flavours come in many, many forms.

Java

The cuisine of the Betawi (original inhabitants of the Jakarta region) is known for its richness. Gado gado is a Betawi original, as is ketoprak (noodles, bean sprouts and tofu with soy and peanut sauce; named after a musical style, as it resembles the sound of ingredients being chopped). Soto Betawi (beef soup) is made creamy with coconut milk. There's also nasi uduk (rice cooked in coconut milk, served with meat, tofu and/or vegetables).

In West Java, the Sundanese love their greens. Their specialities include karedok (salad of long beans, bean sprouts and cucumber with spicy sauce), soto Bandung (beef-and-vegetable soup with lemon grass) and ketupat tahu (pressed rice, bean sprouts and tofu with soy and peanut sauce). Sundanese sweet specialities include colenak (roasted cassava with coconut sauce) and ulen (roasted sticky rice with peanut sauce); both best eaten warm. Bandung's cooler hills are the place for bandrek (ginger tea with coconut and pepper) and bajigur (spiced coffee with coconut milk).

Central Javan food is sweet, including the curries such as gudeg (jackfruit curry). Yogyakarta specialities include ayam goreng (fried chicken) and kelepon (green rice-flour balls with a palm-sugar filling). In Solo, specialities include nasi liwet (rice with coconut milk, unripe papaya, garlic and shallots, served with chicken or egg) and serabi (coconut-milk pancakes topped with chocolate, banana or jackfruit).

There's a lot of crossover between Central and East Javan cuisine. Fish is popular, especially pecel lele (deep-fried catfish served with rice and pecel). The best pecel (peanut sauce) comes from the town of Madiun.

Two very popular Madurese dishes are soto Madura (beef soup with lime, pepper, peanuts, chilli and ginger) and sate Madura (skewered meat with sweet soy sauce).

Bali

Balinese specialities are easy to find, as visitor-friendly warungs offer high-quality Balinese dishes, with several options of spiciness. Many restaurants offer the hugely popular Balinese dish, babi guling (spit-roast pig stuffed with chilli, turmeric, garlic and ginger) on a day's notice, but look out for the many warungs that specialise in it. Look for the pig's head drawn on the sign or a real one in a display case. Also popular is bebek betutu (duck stuffed with spices, wrapped in banana leaves and coconut husks, and cooked in embers).

The local sate, sate lilit, is made with minced, spiced meat pressed on to skewers. Look for spicy dishes such as lawar (salad of chopped coconut, garlic and chilli with pork or chicken meat and blood).

Sumatra

In West Sumatra, beef is used in rendang (beef coconut curry). The region is the home of spicy Padang food, among the most famous of Indonesian cuisines. The market in Bukittinggi is a great place to sample nasi Kapau (cuisine from the village of Kapau) – it's similar to Padang food but uses more vegetables. There's also bubur kampiun (mung-bean porridge with banana and rice yoghurt).

In North Sumatra, the Acehnese love their kare or gulai (curry). The Bataks have a taste for pig and, to a lesser extent, dog. Pork features in babi panggang (pork boiled in vinegar and pig blood, and then roasted).

The culinary capital of South Sumatra is Palembang, famous for pempek (deep-fried fish and sago dumpling; also called empek-empek). South Sumatra is also home to pindang (spicy fish soup with soy and tamarind) and ikan brengkes (fish in a spicy, durian-based sauce). Palembang's sweetie is srikaya (green custard made from sticky rice, sugar, coconut milk and egg).

Nusa Tenggara

In dry east Nusa Tenggara you'll eat less rice (although much is imported) and more sago, corn, cassava and taro. Fish is popular and one local dish is Sumbawa's sepat (shredded fish in coconut and mango sauce).

The Sasak people of Lombok (and visitors!) like spicy ayam Taliwang (roasted chicken served with a peanut, tomato, chilli and lime dip) and pelecing sauce (made with chilli, shrimp paste and tomato). Also recommended is sate pusut (minced meat or fish satay, mixed with coconut, and grilled on sugar-cane skewers). Nonmeat dishes include kelor (soup with vegetables) and timun urap (cucumber with coconut, onion and garlic).

Kalimantan

Dayak food varies, but you may sample rembang, a sour fruit that's made into sayur asem rembang (sour vegetable soup). In Banjarmasin, the Banjar make pepes ikan (spiced fish cooked in banana leaves with tamarind and lemon grass). Kandangan town is famous for ketupat Kandangan (fish and pressed rice with lime-infused coconut sauce). The regional soup, soto Banjar, is a chicken broth made creamy by mashing boiled eggs into the stock. Chicken also goes into ayam masak habang, cooked with large red chillies.

There is a large Chinese population, and restaurants usually have specialities such as bird's-nest soup and jellyfish on the menus.

Sulawesi

South Sulawesi locals love seafood, especially ikan bakar (grilled fish). Another popular local dish is coto Makassar (soup of beef innards, pepper, cumin and lemon grass). For sugar cravers, there's es pallubutun (coconut custard and banana in coconut milk and syrup).

The Toraja people have their own distinct cuisine with a heavy emphasis on indigenous ingredients, many of them odd to Western palates. You can easily find pa’piong, which is meat or fish cooked in bamboo tubes with spices. Also look for pamarasan, a spicy black sauce used to cook meat.

If a North Sulawesi dish has the name rica-rica, it's prepared with a paste of chilli, shallots, ginger and lime. Fish and chicken are two versions (also look out for dog). Things get very fishy with bakasang (flavouring paste made with fermented fish), sometimes used in bubur tinotuan (porridge made with corn, cassava, rice, pumpkin, fish paste and chilli).

Maluku

A typical Maluku meal is tuna and dabu-dabu (raw vegetables with a chilli and fish-paste sauce). Sometimes fish is made into kohu-kohu (fish salad with citrus fruit and chilli). Sago pith is used to make porridge, bread and mutiara (small, jelly-like 'beans' that are added to desserts and sweet drinks). Boiled cassava (kasbi) is a staple in Maluku homes as it's cheaper than rice.

In the Banda Islands you'll find nutmeg jelly on bread and pancakes, which is fitting as these were the original Spice Islands, where nutmeg was first cultivated.

Papua

Little rice is grown here: indigenous Papuans get their carbs from other sources, and the rice eaten by migrants from elsewhere in Indonesia is mostly imported. In the highlands of Papua the sweet potato is king. The Dani people grow around 60 varieties, some of which can only be eaten by the elders.

In the lowlands the sago palm provides the starchy staple food: its pulped-up pith is turned into hard, moist sago cakes, to which water is added to make papeda, a kind of gluey paste usually eaten with fish in a yellow turmeric-and-lime sauce. You may find the fish tastier than the papeda. Some lowlanders also eat the sago beetle grubs found in rotting sago palms.

Fruity Delights

It's worth making a trip to Indonesia just to sample the tropical fruits.

  • Belimbing (star fruit) is cool and crisp; slice one to see how it gets its name.
  • Durian is the spiky, smelly fruit people either love or hate.
  • Jambu air (water apple) is a pink bell-shaped fruit with crisp and refreshing flesh.
  • Manggis (mangosteen) is a small purple fruit with white fleshy segments and fantastic flavour.
  • Nangka (jackfruit) is an enormous, spiky fruit that can weigh over 20kg. Inside are segments of yellow, moist, sweet flesh with a slightly rubbery texture. The flesh can be eaten fresh or cooked in a curry.
  • Rambutan is a bright-red fruit covered in soft spines; the name means 'hairy'. Break it open to reveal a delicious white fruit similar to lychee.
  • Salak is recognisable by its brown 'snakeskin' covering. Peel it off to reveal segments that resemble something between an apple and a walnut.
  • Sirsak (soursop or zurzak) is a warty, green-skinned fruit with a white, pulpy interior that has a slightly lemonish taste.

Cooking Courses

If you want to carry on enjoying the tastes of Indonesia after you go home, Bali has several cooking schools where you can learn everything from how to shop in the markets and the basics of Indonesian cuisine to advanced cooking techniques. Best of all, though, is that you get to eat what you make! The following are two of the best.

  • Bumbu Bali Cooking School Long-time resident and cookbook author Heinz von Holzen runs a cooking school from his excellent South Bali restaurant.
  • Casa Luna Cooking School Half-day courses cover cooking techniques, ingredients and the cultural background of the Balinese kitchen.

No Wimpy Sambal!

Sambal, the spicy condiment, comes in myriad forms and can be the best part of a meal, but all too often, servers will assume you are a timid tourist who wants the tame ketchup-like stuff from a bottle. Insist on the real stuff (try saying 'sambal lokal?' – 'local sambal?'), which will have been prepared fresh in the kitchen from some combination of ingredients that can include garlic, shallots, chilli peppers in many forms, fish sauce, tomatoes and more.

Celebrations

Whether a marriage, funeral or party with friends, food – and lots of it – is essential. Celebratory meals can include any combination of dishes, but for special occasions a tumpeng is the centrepiece: a pyramid of yellow rice, the tip of which is cut off and offered to the VIP.

Muslims

For Muslims, the largest celebrations are Ramadan and Idul Adha. Each day of Ramadan, Muslims rise before sunrise to eat the only meal before sunset. It might sound like a bad time to be in Indonesia – you may have to plan meals and go without lunch – but when sunset comes, the locals' appreciation of a good meal is contagious.

The first thing Indonesians eat after fasting is kolak (fruit in coconut milk) as a gentle way to reacquaint the body with food. Then, after prayers, the evening meal begins with aplomb. In some areas, such as in Bukittinggi, cooks set out food on the street. People gather to savour and enjoy their food as a community. Foreign guests are always made welcome.

After Ramadan, much of the nation seems to hit the road to go home to their families and celebrate Idul Fitri (Lebaran) with their families. During this time, ketupat (rice steamed in packets of woven coconut fronds) are hung everywhere, like seasonal ornaments.

Seventy days after Lebaran is Idul Adha, marked by the sight of goats tethered to posts on both city streets and rural pathways throughout the archipelago. Individuals or community groups buy these unfortunate animals to sacrifice in commemoration of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son at divine command. This is one of Indonesia's most anticipated festivals, as the sacrificial meat is distributed to the poor in each community.

Balinese

The Balinese calendar is peppered with festivals, and such celebrations are always observed with a communal meal, sometimes eaten together from one massive banana leaf piled with dishes.

Festivals aside, every day in Bali you'll see food used to symbolise devotion: rice in woven banana-leaf pockets are placed in doorways, beside rice fields, at bus terminals – wherever a god or spirit may reside. Larger offerings studded with whole chickens and produce are made to mark special occasions such as odalan (anniversary of a temple). You'll see processions of women gracefully balancing offerings on their heads as they make their way to the temple.

Where to Eat

Outside larger cities and tourist areas, there are limited choices for dining out in Indonesia. Warungs are simple, open-air eateries that provide a small range of dishes. Often their success comes from cooking one dish better than anyone else. Rumah makan (eating house) or restoran refers to anything that is a step above a warung. Offerings may be as simple as those from a warung but usually include a wider selection of meat and vegetable dishes, and spicy accompaniments.

As Indonesia's middle class grows, the warung is also going upmarket. In urban areas, a restaurant by any other name advertises itself as a 'warung', and serves good local dishes to customers who become more demanding by the year.

Indonesia's markets are wonderful examples of how food feeds both the soul and the stomach. There's no refrigeration, so freshness is dependent on quick turnover. You'll also find a huge range of sweet and savoury snacks. Supermarkets and convenience stores are common in cities and tourist areas.

Quick Eats

As many Indonesians can't afford fine service and surroundings, the most authentic food is found at street level. Even high rollers know this, so everyone dines at stalls or gets their noodle fix from roving vendors who carry their victuals in two bundles connected by a stick over their shoulders: a stove and wok on one side, and ready-to-fry ingredients on the other.

Then there's kaki lima (roving vendors) whose carts hold a work bench, stove and cabinet. 'Kaki lima' means 'five legs': two for the wheels of the cart, one for the stand and two for the legs of the vendor. You'll find any and every type of dish, drink and snack sold from a kaki lima. Some have a permanent spot; others roam the streets, calling out what they are selling or making a signature sound, such as the 'tock' of a wooden bakso bell. In some places, sate sellers operate from a boat-shaped cart, with bells jingling to attract the hungry.

Vegetarians & Vegans

Vegetarians will be pleased to know that tempeh and tahu (tofu) are available in abundance, sold as chunky slabs of tempe penyet (deep-fried tempeh), tempe kering (diced tempeh stir-fried with sweet soy sauce) and tahu isi (deep-fried stuffed tofu). Finding fresh veggies requires more effort. Look for Chinese establishments; they can whip up cap cai (mixed vegetables). Vegetarian fried rice or noodles can be found at many other eateries. And there's always the iconic gado gado.

A huge number of places, including Padang restaurants, offer what's essentially the national dish: nasi campur (rice with a variety of side dishes). Here you can skip meat options and go for things such as tofu, tempeh, jackfruit dishes, egg dishes and leafy veggies.

And there's always fantastic fruit available at the local market.

Eating with Kids

There's always the fear that a hidden chilli is going to make your child explode, but proprietors will often warn you if a dish is spicy. In any case, you can always ask 'Pedas tidak?' ('Is it spicy?') or 'Makanan tidak pedas ada?' ('Are there nonspicy dishes?').

Children may enjoy nasi goreng, mie goreng (fried noodles), bakso (meatball soup), mie rebus (noodle soup), perkedel (fritters), pisang goreng (banana fritters), sate, bubur (rice porridge), fruit and fruit drinks. Indonesia's sugar-rich iced drinks are useful secret weapons for when energy levels are low. All of these are available at street stalls and restaurants. Not available, however, are highchairs and kiddie menus. That's not to say children aren't welcome; in fact, they'll probably get more attention than they can handle.

In touristy areas and cities you'll find plenty of familiar fast-food joints and convenience stores selling international snacks. A Magnum bar can quell the worst tantrum.

Habits & Customs

With a population of over 260 million, you'd expect a little variety in Indonesia's culinary customs. There will be no surprises if you are eating at a restaurant, apart from the lack of a menu. However, if eating at someone's house, there are ways of fitting in – or at least not offending – especially if someone invites you into their home for a meal.

Dining Etiquette

In Indonesia hospitality is highly regarded. If you're invited to someone's home for a meal, you'll be treated warmly and social hiccups will be ignored. Nevertheless, here are some tips to make the experience more enjoyable for everyone.

  • When food or drink is presented, wait until your host invites you to eat.
  • Indonesians rarely eat at the table, preferring to sit on a mat or around the lounge room.
  • Don't be surprised if, when invited to a home, you're the only one eating. This is your host's way of showing you're special, and you should have choice pickings. But don't eat huge amounts, as these dishes will feed others later. Fill up on rice and take a spoonful from each dish served.
  • While chopsticks are available at Chinese-Indonesian eateries, and a fork and spoon in restaurants, most Indonesians prefer to eat with their hands. In a warung, it is acceptable to rinse your fingers with drinking water, letting the drops fall to the ground. Use only your right hand. If left-handed, ask for a spoon.
  • In Islamic areas, be sure not to eat and drink in public during Ramadan. Restaurants do stay open, though they usually cover the door so as not to cause offence.
  • Though antismoking regulations are becoming common, smoking remains acceptable almost anywhere, anytime.

Food Glossary

acarpickle; cucumber or other vegetables in a mixture of vinegar, salt, sugar and water
airwater
arakspirits distilled from palm sap or rice
ayamchicken
ayam gorengfried chicken
babipork; since most Indonesians are Muslim, pork is generally only found in market stalls and restaurants run by the Chinese, and in areas where there are non-Muslim populations, such as Bali, Papua and Tana Toraja on Sulawesi
bakarbarbecued, roasted
bakso/ba'someatball soup
bandrekginger tea with coconut and pepper
bremrice wine
buburrice porridge
cassavaknown as tapioca in English; a long, thin, dark-brown root that looks something like a shrivelled turnip
colenakroasted cassava with coconut sauce
daging kambinggoat
daging sapibeef
es buahcombination of crushed ice, condensed milk, shaved coconut, syrup, jelly and fruit
gado gadovery popular dish of steamed bean sprouts and various vegetables, served with a spicy peanut sauce
gudegjackfruit curry
ikanfish
jajanansnacks
karedoksalad of long beans, bean sprouts and cucumber with spicy sauce
kelepongreen rice-flour balls with a palm-sugar filling
ketopraknoodles, bean sprouts and tofu with soy and peanut sauce
ketupat tahupressed rice, bean sprouts and tofu with soy and peanut sauce
kopicoffee
krupukshrimp with cassava flour, or fish flakes with rice dough, cut into slices and fried to a crisp
lombokchilli
lontongrice steamed in a banana leaf
martabaka pancake-like dish stuffed with meat, egg and vegetables
mie gorengfried wheat-flour noodles, served with vegetables or meat
nasirice
nasi campursteamed rice topped with a little bit of everything (some vegetables, some meat, a bit of fish, a krupuk or two; usually a tasty and filling meal)
nasi gorengfried rice
nasi liwetrice with coconut milk, unripe papaya, garlic and shallots, served with chicken or egg
nasi putihwhite (putih) rice, usually steamed
nasi udukrice cooked in coconut milk, served with meat, tofu and/or vegetables
pecelpeanut sauce
pecel leledeep-fried catfish served with rice and pecel
pempek (empek-empek)deep-fried/grilled fish and sago balls (from Palembang)
pisang gorengfried banana fritters
rica-ricaspice and pepper condiment added to meat or fish
rintek wuukdog meat
rotibread; nearly always white and sweet
sambala hot, spicy chilli sauce served as an accompaniment with most meals
satesmall pieces of various types of meat grilled on a skewer and served with peanut sauce
sayurvegetables
serabicoconut-milk pancakes topped with chocolate, banana or jackfruit
sotomeat and vegetable broth; soup
soto Bandungbeef-and-vegetable soup with lemon grass
soto Betawibeef soup
soto Madurabeef soup with lime, pepper, peanuts, chilli and ginger
tahutofu or soybean curd
tehtea
teh pahittea without sugar
teluregg
tuakpalm-sap wine
udangprawns or shrimps
ulenroasted sticky rice with peanut sauce