Indonesian cuisine grew on us during our 1.5 months in the country. It’s easy to judge it on first impression as quite plain, as it sometimes lacks the spice and zest of other Asian cuisines, and it’s quite heavy on small plates of barbecued meats, fried snacks and lots of white rice. However, on closer inspection (and with the right inside info) you can order some really delicious meals – it’s just worth knowing what the names are (if you’re eating local), or getting to know what dishes crop up on lunchtime buffets so you can opt for the tastiest dishes. Here are some of our faves:
1. Ketoprak / Gado Gado
This is a dish that I discovered far too late, and I got obsessed with it as it’s super tasty and also pretty healthy too. The two different names crop up on different islands (and vary slightly) but essentially this is a dish of fried vegetables and vermicelli dressed in a really sumptuous spicy peanut sauce. Usually includes the addition of a boiled egg, tofu, beansprouts and crackers, but sometimes just a mix of lots of different crunchy veggies. Cheap, and available everywhere. Keeps you going for hours thanks to the slow release energy of peanuts!
On arrival in Bali we were surprised to find a restaurant dedicated to meatball noodle soup, but then we saw this everywhere, on every island. It’s weirdly addictive and is served in various forms from simple, processed meatballs and instant noodles on the road side, to fancy Bakso with different kinds of fresh herby meatballs (pork and beef), ground mince, freshly made noodles, coriander, beefy broth and crackers. We ate it as a reliable staple, and it’s usually served with soy and chilli so you can turn up the heat as you see fit.
3. Nasi Gudeg
Jackfruit curry, a speciality on Java, is super tasty. Gudeg is made from young unripe jackfruit boiled with coconut milk and palm sugar, with additions of garlic, coriander, and leaves that dye it reddish brown. Served with white rice, boiled egg, and usually chicken or beef. Kind of like a sweet stew, it’s quite novel, and we ate it quite a bit on the markets of Yogyakarta.
4. Susu Soda
Me and my mates discovered this when we asked a local what the luminous pink drink was that they were drinking, and it became a bit of a favourite! A bizarre mix of strawberry cordial, fizzy water and condensed milk – it’s basically a SUPER sugary fizzy strawberry milkshake served in huge glasses! Probably a good idea to share, unless you want to be bouncing off the walls.
On the Togean islands, we happened to be on the islands at coconut harvesting time, so we were allowed to eat as many ‘young coconuts’ as we could handle before they were sold on to the mainland. I’d never eaten young coconut before – so soft, sweet, and juicy – totally different from the old coconuts that reach us in the Western world. Kelapa is everywhere in Indonesia, from coconut juice to snacks. Mmm.
6. Nasi / mee goreng
Fried rice and noodle, coming in various forms – with chicken, vegetables, pork, shrimp etc. This is what Indonesians will try and sell you as you’re a Westerner and they’ll assume your palette can only handle bland food! Stir fried with various herbs and spices, this can actually be a pretty tasty dish when done well, sometimes served with the addition of a fried egg or crackers, or tempeh.
7. Nasi Campur
As seen in neighbouring Malaysia, Indonesians love a lunch time buffet, where you just go and point and what you want. Normally Indonesians’ English is pretty good, so they’ll be able to talk you through your options – normally consisting of curries, fried tofu, noodle dishes, pieces of fried fish or chicken, some spicier dishes, egg, omelette and – of course! – white rice. Normally good bang for your buck.
8. Bebek Goreng
This is a seasoned, fried, tiny duck that’s served with sambal hot and spicy chili sauce and rice, with a side salad. It’s a speciality of Java and whilst we liked it, it wasn’t amazing. The duck was really small, there wasn’t much meat and it was pretty fatty. But worth a try if you’re in the region and you like a fatty piece of meat!
9. Ayam / Ikan Goreng
Fried chicken or fish, done well, is a beautiful thing. And luckily, Indonesians are really good at frying chicken and fish! We had some really great fried chicken – crispy, spicy, and really big portions – as chickens here are almost always free range, so the quality of meat is really high. Similarly, as Indonesia is a country of islands, the quality of fish here is excellent and on some of the smaller islands this might be all you eat (with rice, noodles and veggies) for some days in a row. Whacked on the barbeque with sambal and herbs, and served up whole. I ate Snapper every day for 10 days on the Togeans (included in the price of our room rate!) and it was delicious every time.
10. Es Campur
Similar to the ice shaving desserts found in neighbouring Malaysia, Es Campur is a mix of fruits, condensed milk and ice that melts into a big soup of deliciousness. You can normally choose what fruit you’d like, even including things like avocado – I’d recommend avoiding durian which has a really strong cheesy flavour!- and it’s combined with little jellies and beans. Super sweet, sometimes with the addition of artificial syrups. Guaranteed to put a spring in your step!
Somewhere between a stuffed pancake and a panfried giant bread cake, murtabak is heaven for carb lovers. It can be sweet or savoury, and it’s normally piled up in two layers filled with something great like cheese or chocolate spread. We had some great flavours like bananas and chocolate or cheese and chocolate together (weirdly addictive!) but you can also get it with chicken or other savoury toppings if you don’t have a sweet tooth. It’s super filling so you can share it as a meal with someone else. Better eaten whilst still hot!
12. Indonesian coffee
Indonesian coffee is bizarre. Normally served hot, it comes in a little cup and saucer with loose coffee floating at the bottom. No matter how much you stir, it doesn’t dissolve – as this is pure coffee, rather than granules. So you end up with lots of little bits in your mouth! I think the key is not to drink the ends. They serve it with condensed milk (like much of Asia) so it’s still tasty, but a bit odd!