Indonesia’s archipelago country of 18,110 islands can be surprisingly diverse from place to place. While similarities exist between them, the cuisine runs by the same guidelines. Based on what is best locally, dishes may have the same name yet the flavours can differ greatly. I was jumping into Indonesian cuisine blindfolded with only an assumption that there must be similarities to its neighbouring countries. It may be better this way with no preconceived notions of what to expect or previous advice on dishes to try.
I simply followed my stomach and without doubt came across some delicious eats:
Bakso – My first memorable meal on my second night. Walking the half lit streets of the market in Bajawa, Flores we spotted a dingy hole in the wall nearly full with about a dozen seats total. At this point I merely knew it was a soup. In time this became my favorite light meal from a street vendor. A light broth with a duo of noodles (rice/egg), beef balls and a hard-boiled egg. Simplicity right? Seasoned yourself with kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) and sambal ulek to taste, it is one of those feel good soups.
Fresh Seafood – With over 50,000 km of coastline it is inevitable that fresh seafood is in abundance. It would be craziness not to indulge in some of the local catch at least a few times. From restaurants with BBQ’s on the beach to my preference, a local fish market like the one in Labuan Bajo, Flores. A dozen stalls slinging the freshest catch. Pick a fish and watch it get scaled and cleaned in front of you. Then the smells of charcoal and grilling fish waft your way before its set in front of you accompanied by rice, cucumber/cabbage/beans, and the ubiquitous sambal ulek. The market may differ from place to place, but the essence is always the same.
Pisang Goreng (fried banana) – The street dessert that is synonymous with much of South East Asia holds true in Indonesia. Found all over, quite often with a bit of a line in front of the stall as they are quite popular with everyone.
Tip: Watch for a vendor currently frying some and purchase them warm and fresh from the fryer.
Babi Guling – A thing of edible beauty. Something so good it should be a sin. Balinese style suckling pig in my opinion isn’t just a must try, but you can’t leave the island without eating… twice, kind of food. The juicy roasted meat, the succulent, unctuous fat and crisp toffee-like skin is a holy trinity. The most popular place to get a portion all to yourself would be Ibu Oka in Ubud. Just go early as they tend to run out of the good bits (skin and blood sausage) quickly. By no means is this the only place, but a guaranteed delicious serving.
For more information on Babi Guling and Warung Ibu Oka… click here.
Nasi Goreng – Literally meaning ‘fried rice’, it is a simple dish initially made to avoid throwing away precious leftover rice in pre-refrigeration days. For some it is considered the national dish of Indonesia. Although it is not official, it can be found in nearly every restaurant, buffet and on the street. Seasoned with kecap manis and ground shrimp paste lends its uniqueness from other fried rice staples.
Nasi Campur – A dish of plenty, a dish of choices and most importantly a dish for people like myself who can never decide on one thing. Meaning ‘mixed rice’, that’s more or less what it is. Found in nearly every restaurant, the best places to get it are the places with their options on display in the window to draw in customers. Based around rice, as per usual in Asia, you can then choose any number of dishes from their selection. Small portions of each assembled around the rice and you have a palate of flavours.
Tip: A great way to try a dish you are unsure about as it is inexpensive and given in smaller portions.
For more on Nasi Campur… click here.
Gado Gado – This dish is a vegetarian dream… well almost. Take away the prawn crackers on the side and it’s green. This became one of my most consumed dishes throughout Indonesia, making it odd I’m still lacking a picture. Simple, fresh, healthy and delicious. Boiled mixed vegetables, greens and bean sprouts with fried tofu, tempeh and fiery peanut sauce ladled over the top. Always amazing and surprisingly filling.
Sate – The first thing that comes to the minds of many when Indonesian food is the topic of conversation is the sate dipped in nothing but peanut sauce. I mean, grilled meat on a stick really doesn’t need much explanation. Once the smell of flame kissed meat hits your nose, the decision is made subconsciously and you’re walking towards it.
Urap – Another dish of utter simplicity. An ongoing theme I’ve noticed throughout Indonesia. Urap is any selection of steamed vegetables commonly consisting of cabbage, beans, beansprouts and water spinach mixed with a fragrant spiced grated coconut. The fresh coconut is not only a game changer for the flavour, but it is what makes it an Urap. A perfect addition to nasi campur or as a light snack.
Tempeh – Actually originating in Indonesia, it is the only soy based product not from Greater China cuisine. A natural fermentation of soy beans binds them into a pressed cake that can then be used in a similar fashion to tofu. It is found all over, making life for vegetarians that much easier. With its earthiness, unique texture and versatility, it is a common staple throughout the islands.
Sambal Ulek (Oelek) – A condiment rather than a dish, but nevertheless something that should be tried at each establishment. Nearly always on the table it is almost unavoidable, but each one is a little different. Some smoky, fragrant or just plain ‘mouth on fire’ spicy. Sambal Ulek is the most common ‘sambal’, but there are some 300 variations so try them whenever a new one is spotted.
What are some other must tries throughout Indonesia that I may have missed? Let me know below in the comments!