To eat and drink in Indonesia is a never-ending adventure. Hungry or not you’ll be tempted by strange foods, waylaid by exotic aromas and entranced by new flavours. And then there are the people, all 200 million of them, delighted to see you venturing beyond the world of bread and milk. “You can eat spicy food”, they’ll say surprised. “You like durian”, they’ll say amazed. “You’re ordering another avocado juice”, they’ll say perplexed. As it is everywhere, food here is a conversation starter. Dining out on Indonesian streets is a social affair and you’ll share bench space with families, soldiers, students and solicitors all bound in the hunt for good food.
Bakul (Streetside Traders)
Let’s start with the basics. There may be no place to sit, no kitchen in sight, yet a full meal appears in front of you like an epiphany. This scenario is played out every day across Indonesia as the nation’s cooks take to the streets looking for stomachs to fill. In early morning Central Java you’ll see old women in sarongs selling regional dishes like pecel (peanut sauce with spinach and beansprouts) to office workers and becak drivers. Once beckoned she’ll spread out her bundled goods on a bamboo tray and put together a meal from her collection of small bags and baskets. Her food is cheap – she doesn’t pay rent or wages – and is most often a taste of the region.
Pikulan (Stick Sellers)
Now here’s where the stereotypes really come to life. You know the classic image of someone carrying goods in two bundles connected by a stick over their shoulders? Well, that’s a pikulan and in Indonesia they’re used to carry food to sell. The pikulan can be an impressive contraption with a gas stove and wok on one side and ready-to-fry ingredients on the other. Some sell bakso (meatball soup), with stock on the boil at one end, ingredients and bowls at the other.
Kaki-Lima (Roving Vendors)
Kaki-lima are an essential part of the Indonesian culinary landscape; roving vendors; their carts usually consist of a work bench, a portable stove and a glass display cabinet for ingredients and for advertising their speciality dish or drink. Kaki-lima means ‘five legs’, for the three wheels on the cart and the two legs on the vendor. You’ll find any and every type of dish, drink and snack sold from a kaki-lima, but two favourites are sate and bakso. Some kaki-lima have a permanent location that they set up at every day until their stocks are depleted. Others roam the streets, tempting the hungry from their homes or places of work.
Warung (Food Stalls)
Although restaurants call themselves warung (similar to restaurants in the west calling themselves ‘the home-bake pantry cottage’), we define a warung as any eatery that offers a place to eat and shelter, but is disassembled after closure. As a result some of the best food will not be there when you want it, nevertheless a warung usually has a set time when it’s open for business. The classic warung consists of a long table sheltered by a tarpaulin roof and a screen hung to separate the diners from the streetside cacophony. Written on the screen is what is sold within – often no more than one or two dishes, so a warung will become famous for a specific dish. Although there’ll be a warung around at anytime of the day, they really come to life at night when more are set up along streets and in vacant lots to cater to the post-work hungry. Indonesia’s warung sell everything from regional dishes like Yogyakarta’s gudeg (jackfruit curry) to national favourites such as pecel lele (fried catfish).
One exception to the warung impermanency rule is the warteg (short for warung Tegal), which is a simple yet permanent restaurant that sells a wide range of dishes at cheap prices. Tegal is a town in Java and, although the owner will probably be from there, the food available isn’t necessarily specific to the region. The warteg eateries are a good bet for vegetarians because meatless dishes, especially ones that are tofu or tempe based, are in abundance.
Lesehan refers more to seating arrangements than food. If you’re eating while sitting on a grass mat then you’re eating at a lesehan. The most famous place for lesehan are in Yogyakarta, where they are set up along Jalan Malioboro to cater to evening crowds (some open all day). Some restaurants have lesehan-style areas set up with low tables and mats for you to sloth on after stuffing your face.
Rumah Makan (Restaurants)
Sometimes the only difference between street stall and restaurant is that one closes for business by locking the door and the other folds up the roof. The most common restaurant meal, often called nasi campur or nasi rames (both meaning ‘mixed rice’), is the one you make with plain rice and a selection of other dishes. Where there’s food set out for all to see, you can be certain you’ll be choosing a selection yourself. This also gives you the chance to peruse the selection before committing yourself. The fact that the food is sitting out may send your hygiene warning system haywire, but this is how much restaurant and home-cooked Indonesian food is prepared, to be eaten that day at room temperature.
For truly authentic flavours, try to find restaurants that serve dishes from the region you are in. This will be easy in Padang, as Padang restaurants are everywhere, but you may only get a chance to try Banjar food in Banjarmasin. Nevertheless in bigger towns there’ll be a smattering of eateries serving food from other areas, so you won’t have to go to Manado to try North Sulawesi cuisine.
Rumah Makan Padang (Padang Restaurants)
There’s at least one Padang restaurant, serving West Sumatran cuisine in every town in Indonesia. For a first-timer, a meal at a Padang restaurant can be a confusing affair. Firstly, all that food left in the window can’t be good for hygiene, and some of the dishes look like they were cooked with a blowtorch. Indeed Padang cuisine isn’t very photogenic, but it’s cooked to withstand a refrigerator-less environment. In fact some dishes, such as rendang (beef or buffalo coconut curry) are said to improve with age. The next stumbling block for the Padang virgin will be the fact that there isn’t a menu in sight. In a Padang restaurant they cut out the task of going through the ordering process – take a seat at any table and before you can say 'I’ll have a side order of hokey-pokey ice cream' one of the fellas will have scurried over and piled up your table with a selection of umpteen small dishes and rice. No need to shout 'Waiter! I can’t eat this much!' as here at a Padang restaurant you pay for what you eat. If you don’t touch the ikan bakar (grilled fish) you won’t pay for it, it’ll go back into the window display. Even if you taste the sauce that the gulai ayam (chicken in coconut curry) is served in and decide that it’s too spicy, it won’t be on the bill.
Although you’ll find many Chinese-influenced dishes in other restaurants, there are plenty of restaurants that serve specifically Chinese cuisine. Here you’ll no doubt get a decent nasi goreng, but you’ll also get a multitude of stirfries, steamed dishes, seafood, pork, cap cai (mixed vegetables), dishes in saus tiram (oyster sauce), asam manis (sweet & sour dishes) and noodles by the wok-load. Some Chinese restaurants are simple affairs offering clean, fresh noodle soups such as mie pangsit (wonton noodle soup). As with Chinese restaurants anywhere, the menu can be as long as the Palembang telephone directory.
More guides to eateries in other countries here.