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Indonesia: a culinary journey

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“Congratulations!” Bama smiled, his eyes lighting up as he spoke. “You’re officially Indonesian.”

But there was no revocation of passports, no oath of citizenship to a new country. I had simply confessed my newfound love of ikan asin, a humble assortment of dried fish that crackled with each bite. Served with roasted peanuts, the sweet-savoury combination was so enticing that I truthfully told Bama, “I could just have it with rice.” Through these words I had unknowingly echoed the exact sentiment shared by thousands – if not millions – of diners across his native archipelago.

Indonesia, more than any other country I’ve been to, has irrevocably changed my palate. My travels there in the past two years have taught me to embrace bold, fiery flavours but also the depth and complexity of a spice mix – known as bumbu in casual, everyday terminology.

I have already waxed lyrical about the joys of ayam taliwang in Lombok, but on my latest trip I marvelled at the grilled delight that is ikan bakar rica-rica, a new favourite I now hold in equal regard. It was a large, meaty fish, spiced with shallot, bruised lemongrass, kaffir lime, garlic, ginger, chilli peppers, and most importantly, the potent punch of cabe rawit – bird’s eye chilli. Although the dish hails from Manado in North Sulawesi, I had my first taste at a restaurant just outside Maumere, over a thousand kilometres from its place of origin.

Eating in Flores was about appreciating the rich bounty of the soil: I derived simple pleasure from passionfruit, papaya and banana, blended into one ambrosial smoothie; the intensity of a double espresso made from locally grown coffee beans in Ruteng; the tart flavour of ikan kuah asam, fish stewed with aromatic kemangi (lemon basil) leaves and the acidity of belimbing wuluh; and the sensation of slurping up translucent, silken strands of noodles known as soun kuah bayam.

In the fishing port of Labuan Bajo we sat down with our two guides for a veritable feast on the waterfront, where the air was heavy with fragrant smoke and patrons clamoured around plastic tables in hungry anticipation. We hovered over plates of freshly-caught squid, red snapper and garoupa, all grilled over an open flame and repeatedly brushed with layers of luscious, honey-thick kecap manis: soy sauce imbued with the concentrated sweetness of palm sugar.

All four of us opted to pakai tangan – using our bare hands to tear the flesh from the bone, and picking up vegetable stalks even if they were dressed in chilli and shrimp paste. I learned from Bama’s example, watching attentively as he skillfully scooped up small wads of rice, before casually brushing the food from his palm with a final flick of the thumb.

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Grilled fish for dinner

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Ikan bakar rica-rica in Maumere, Flores

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Terong goreng tempung (battered aubergine) and fish in tomato sauce, Komodo

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Soun kuah bayam noodles with chicken and spinach

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Fishermen’s bounty, Labuan Bajo, Flores

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A wider shot of the seafood stall

And how could I forget the indulgent martabak manis we happily devoured after a day trip to Bandung? I would describe it as a stuffed pancake, cooked in a deep pan, slathered in butter and chocolate sprinkles (learned from the Dutch), then liberally drizzled with condensed milk before being folded into a crescent. As the heat causes the chocolate to melt and fuse with the condensed milk, a final layer of butter is applied to the browned surface, and the martabak manis is sliced and boxed for immediate consumption.

Not all our meals were as satisfying however. Last December we dined in Bali at a restaurant overlooking a valley of rice fields and soaring palms – all with a backdrop of Mount Agung, as swollen clouds did a slow dance around the slumbering volcano. The view was impressive, but the food truly mediocre: a 100,000-rupiah buffet with a handful of usual suspects; tired containers of greasy fried noodles, overcooked miniature sate, ketchup – not chilli sambal – and a lacklustre nasi goreng.

Later Bama confided, “I really need to ask Bli Komang not to take us to fancy restaurants.” He then alluded to the small, informal family-owned businesses that are a staple of daily Indonesian life: “We should go somewhere cheap – maybe a warung.”

This time Bli Komang would accept Bama’s request without hesitation. As we tracked north to Singaraja, he grew excited about introducing us to jukut undis, a black bean soup native to the area. We stopped at a tiny warung on the main road running east west along the northern shore, opposite the floral reliefs of a temple, with low stools along a table just long enough for three diners. It was an oddly dramatic but low-key affair. The morning light gave the decorative tablecloth a turquoise sheen, and the warung had the quality of being backstage, with the debris of the production process lying around and a wall that disappeared into the darkness.

There was indeed a small bowl of jukut undis, but the star of the show was nasi campur ikan, white rice with sides of pepes ikan – spiced fish grilled in banana leaf – and a mixture of long bean and shredded coconut, easily the best lawar I had tried in Bali. And it was here, served up in this hearty Indonesian breakfast, that I found the universal appeal of ikan asin. 

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Nasi campur ikan (mixed rice and fish) with jukut undis (black bean soup), Bali

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Bakmi (Hokkien noodles) and bakso (meat or fish dumplings), Bandung

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Batagor (fish and tofu cakes) with peanut sauce

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Lalapan (raw Sundanese salad) with sambal oncom (made from fermented soybean cake) and sambal matah, Bandung

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Tempe mendoan (battered soybean cake), paru goreng (fried beef lung), and pepes jamur (mushroom steamed in banana leaf)

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A Sundanese feast – with iga bakar (beef ribs) and ikan gurame pesmol (spiced giant gourami fish)

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‘Gerobak’ food carts outside a mosque in South Jakarta

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Martabak manis – a guilty pleasure

44 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’m glad I read this after having dinner. What a mouthwatering post, James! Both your vivid description and colorful photos of the dishes bring me back to almost one months ago when we were traveling Flores. I wonder what other dishes you will add in your list of favorites the next time you come to Indonesia. The list seems to keep growing! 🙂

    July 21, 2014
    • Makasih banyak, Bama! I purposefully timed this post so that it would be published after buka puasa. Of course, it goes without saying that you have been instrumental in showing me the wonders of Indonesia, culinary or otherwise! So I must really thank you in return. 🙂

      July 21, 2014
    • Seriously mouth watering. This reminds me that it’s been awhile and I need to ‘pulang kampung’ soon. I really wish that eating with your hand were more acceptable here in the US – I swear it makes food taste 10x better!

      July 23, 2014
  2. That looks yummy!! I need to find another place in Los Angeles that prepares authentic food…Now, I’m hungry lol

    July 22, 2014
    • It was, Doreen! And extremely affordable too. I hope the Indonesian food in LA isn’t as expensive as it is here in Hong Kong!

      July 22, 2014
  3. Great post, lovely photos! Indonesian cuisine is arguably my favourite from Asia…Cakalang Fufu from Sulawesi was my favourite, but bebek betutu and of course nasi goreng (and kueh) are high on my list! Balinese cuisine is especially nice, but Masakan Padang is the most interesting! 😀

    July 22, 2014
    • Thanks Lee! I haven’t tried Cakalang Fufu so far… hopefully when I make it to Sulawesi next year. 🙂 Everyone loves masakan Padang, for domestic airlines it’s the cuisine of choice to calm angry passengers when their flights get delayed!

      July 22, 2014
      • Cant wait to see your pics from there. Hope you can overnight in Tangkoko!

        July 24, 2014
  4. The food looks amazing. I have 2 Indonesian cousins, perhaps I need to visit them.

    July 22, 2014
    • You would love it, Debra – those dishes were wonderfully fresh and full of complex flavours.

      July 22, 2014
  5. Wow, you’ve tried best of the best Indonesian cuisines. Sambal ikan asin, that’s Borneo Island specialty, have it best with hot rice and ‘lalapan’. 🙂 🙂

    Looks like you really enjoy Indonesian food. 😀

    July 22, 2014
    • Maybe I have, Yuna, but there’s still so many regional dishes I still have to try! Sambal ikan asin sounds delicious… I will have to look out for it when I go to Kalimantan. 🙂

      July 22, 2014
      • You have to. 😀
        Ask from local.

        July 23, 2014
  6. As a fan of Indonesian food, I find this a great read! I think to sample their cuisine is already a reason to visit Indonesia. Just looking at the photos made me hungry.

    July 22, 2014
    • I agree completely, Jay. Many of my favourite Indonesian dishes are not found outside the country, so that’s one more reason to keep going back for more!

      July 22, 2014
  7. Halim Santoso #

    Woww you tried so many traditional food while in Bali, Flores and Bandung. Good job, James 🙂
    Did you try tempe penyet in your last visit? And yeah I must say you’re Indonesian now hahaha

    July 22, 2014
    • Makasih, Halim. 🙂 I tried ayam penyet in Jakarta, but not tempe penyet – it was quite spicy!

      July 22, 2014
  8. Looks delicious even though I know very little of Indonesian cuisine. So where is the biggest ex-pat community of Indonesians outside of Indonesia? 🙂 Go for the greatest concentration with likelihood of some decent restaurants. I know Vancouver has some ..

    I learned more about the cuisine in your blog post than elsewhere so far..

    July 23, 2014
    • Thanks for the thoughtful compliment, Jean. 🙂 The biggest numbers of overseas Indonesians are in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands; sadly there are comparatively few in the US and Canada. We have a sizeable community here in Hong Kong, although none of my favourite regional dishes are served in the restaurants!

      July 23, 2014
  9. Nice list you have James. But, there’s a lot more delicious food to try, I believe. Next time you’re in Jakarta, I’d be glad to show you around. 🙂

    July 23, 2014
    • Yes, you’re absolutely right – I know there are countless dishes that I haven’t even seen or tried yet. Makasih for the kind offer. 🙂

      July 23, 2014
  10. Wow James, this is making me hungry!! 🙂 you describe things so well, I can almost taste these fantastic dishes, or I hope I could, even if I’m vegan :p

    July 23, 2014
    • Thank you, Sophie! I think the vegan varieties of these dishes would taste amazing – you’d still be using all the same spices, coconut milk and chillies. 🙂

      July 23, 2014
  11. Ari Vanuaranu #

    Glad to know that you have taken a liking to Thai food. I have a question, though. How come everything in this post revolves around fish and chicken? What about mutton, pork, venison etc? 🙂

    August 28, 2014
  12. Ari Vanuaranu #

    Oh damn, why did I type ‘Thai food’ in my previous comment? Please ignore that one. My question still stands: How come everything in this post revolves around fish and chicken? There’s so much more to Indonesian cuisine than just those two. What about mutton, pork, venison etc? If you got stuck with the same stuff over and over again, maybe it’s time to change something about the way you travel. Maybe someday you will get to try bats and rats, too 🙂

    August 28, 2014
    • I hope you weren’t expecting too much from the title – rather than being a study of regional cuisines across the archipelago, this post covers what I ate on my most recent trip to Flores, Bali and Bandung. Funny how you pointed out the emphasis on fish and chicken; that was unintentional as they happened to be the staples of the places I visited.

      Fish/seafood was the obvious choice in Flores (given the quality and affordability, plus the limited options available), and there was a well-known pork dish I wanted to try at a place in Ruteng, but sadly it had run out by the time we arrived.

      That said, I did have babi guling and bebek betutu on a previous trip, although I haven’t yet had the chance to visit Sumatra, Kalimantan or Sulawesi… which explains the lack of more “exotic” meats in my Indonesian posts so far. 🙂

      August 28, 2014
  13. There is no pempek on the list. It’s that mean, u must visit Palembang 🙂

    September 25, 2014
    • I did try pempek in Jakarta – although I forgot to take a photo! But people tell me how much better it is in Palembang. Makasih for the recommendation. 🙂

      September 25, 2014
  14. Love your blog!!! Hope you’ll love mine too! 🙂 Please find time visiting and viewing my blog! Thanks! 🙂

    October 5, 2014
  15. Even though it’s 7am, I’m already craving these dishes. Wonderfully written!

    October 21, 2014
    • Sorry about making you hungry… I’m glad you enjoyed it though!

      October 21, 2014
  16. So you have to spend your time to try the (real taste of) ikan rica-rica or ayam rica-rica in Manado 🙂

    October 23, 2014
    • Yes, I am curious about how the “real thing” will compare! Sulut is on my wish list, and not just for the food. 🙂

      October 24, 2014
      • I’ve been there and I still want to spend my time to go there. Didn’t dive into the Bunaken has made me pretty disappointed 🙂

        October 24, 2014
  17. Those photos bring back memories, and make me very hungry! I am pretty sure I had the ikan biker rica-rica. It was a Sulawesi dish from Manado and it was the single hottest thing I’ve ever eaten. I had sweat pouring down my face, and it was delicious!

    December 20, 2014
    • Bama tells me the version we had was pretty authentic, although the spiciness was toned down somewhat! I can’t wait to try the real deal in Manado someday – it is one of my favourite Indonesian dishes. 🙂

      December 21, 2014
  18. I love Indonesian food too. When I arrived in Bali after a trek from one end of Java to the other, my daughter was elated to see a KFC. I was furious! But in the end I let her indulge in what she could eat any time back home and then went for a nazi goreng for myself afterwards.

    January 8, 2015
    • I think there should always be a little room for guilty home pleasures whenever we travel – so long as we don’t indulge ourselves too often!

      January 8, 2015
  19. I want to try this food! I like how you describe the flavors.

    March 31, 2015
    • Thanks! Indonesian food is strangely underrated outside its home country…

      March 31, 2015
  20. Kau membuatku lapar mas James. Be prepare for “lebaran dishes” yaaa 🙂

    June 2, 2015
    • That’s funny Bart, I hope you saw this on a full stomach! I’m looking forward to Lebaran – can’t wait to try all those snacks and sweet treats. 🙂

      June 2, 2015

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