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Eating Indonesia: not just ‘nasi goreng’

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In a small restaurant down a nondescript Hong Kong street, I found myself with a group of friends discussing the merits of Indonesian cuisine. Three of us were quick to agree, but there was one dissenting voice. I looked on in horror as a friend wrinkled her nose and gave us a disapproving frown. “I think it all tastes the same.”

I felt like she had just insulted my mother’s cooking. I could think of multiple ways to skewer her erroneous verdict, but I couldn’t blame my friend for adopting that point of view. Her experience of Indonesia so far was limited to Bali, with one three-day stretch on another island. From what I knew she had subsisted on resort food, and her tight schedules gave her little chance to peruse street stalls or grab a spot at the modest eateries known as warung.

Broadly speaking, Indonesia is only famous for a handful of dishes: nasi goreng (fried rice), succulent sate (satay) in peanut sauce, mie goreng (fried noodles) and rendang – slow-cooked caramelised beef curry from West Sumatra. In 2011, CNNGo compiled a list of the world’s 50 best foods, which generated a storm of attention. Spurred on by the overwhelming response, CNNGo threw it open to readers with an online poll, and after collecting more than 35,000 votes it released a second list. The result? Rendang claimed the top spot, with nasi goreng as the runner-up.

Nasi goreng may be emblematic of Indonesian cuisine, but to reduce all its regional varieties to fried rice topped with an egg and two skewers of sate is a little deceptive. For Indonesia is a vast island chain that stretches 5,200 kilometres (3,200 miles) from end to end – more than the distance between London and Tehran.

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Kari kambing (goat curry), Pulau Weh, Aceh

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Acehnese fried noodles with squid, Banda Aceh, Aceh

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Arsik, Lake Toba, North Sumatra

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Tombur, Lake Toba, North Sumatra

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Sate Padang, Bukittinggi, West Sumatra

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Rendang and sate, outside Bukittinggi, West Sumatra

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Cinnamon (cassia) sticks, West Sumatra

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Teh talua (egg tea), West Sumatra

In the far west, at the northern tip of Sumatra, Aceh melds Indian and Arab influences with its indigenous cooking. The Acehnese eat roti canai, a kind of flatbread introduced from the Indian subcontinent, and drink strong coffee served in small glasses with a thick layer of sugar. Aceh makes some of the best fried noodles in the country, while its historic role as a centre of maritime trade is evident in the elaborate recipe for kari kambing (goat curry), with no less than 27 ingredients in the spice paste.

Southeast of Aceh, in the Batak highlands around Lake Toba, Bama and I sample arsik and tombur, two ways to dress freshwater fish. Tombur is almost creamy while arsik is tart and refreshing – cooked with slices of asam gelugur, the fruit of a towering rainforest tree, and the lemony flavour of andaliman, which brings on a tongue-numbing sensation much like its close relative, the Sichuan pepper.

The homeland of rendang is further south, over a mountain range that forms the backbone of Sumatra. Minang food is universally adored in Indonesia, and it’s the cuisine of choice to placate irate passengers facing airport delays. A hallmark is the prevalent use of gulai, a thick curry-like sauce of coconut milk and spices, to stew meat, fish, seafood or vegetables. It is in a gulai that I try jengkol for the first time. These beans are potentially dangerous: eat too much and you could get kidney poisoning. We also sip tea brewed from coffee leaves and drink foamy teh talua, ‘egg tea’ in the Minang language.

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Pa’piong ayam (chicken steamed in bamboo), Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi

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Pamarrasan babi (pork with keluak nut), Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi

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Konro bakar (grilled beef ribs), Makassar, South Sulawesi

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Es pisang ijo (shaved ice with banana wrapped in pandan rice flour), Makassar, South Sulawesi

I have already written about Javanese food – my favourite regional Indonesian cuisine – and a selection of culinary delights from Bali and Lombok. But what about the other islands? Hailing from North Sulawesi, Minahasan cuisine is known for its exotic meats, although you can eat just as well without resorting to fruit bat or dog. Ikan bakar rica-rica (grilled fish in spicy rica-rica sauce) is one of my favourite Indonesian dishes, while banana fritters make a delicious counterpart to sambal roa, a hot chilli relish mixed with ground, dried fish (usually red-tipped halfbeak). At a Minahasa restaurant in Ambon, Bama and I come across the best mie goreng we’ve ever tasted: fragrant, savoury-sweet and yielding shreds of cakalang, skipjack tuna.

In Indonesia’s far east, where sago palms grow in abundance, rice was never a traditional staple. Maluku and Papua are known for papeda, a sago congee with the consistency of glue. On its own, papeda is almost tasteless, but it makes for a perfect pairing when mixed into fish stew infused with turmeric and lime.

Ternate, one of Maluku’s fabled ‘clove islands’, is the birthplace of gohu ikan: chunks of skipjack tuna tossed with lemon basil, chopped bird’s eye chillies and slices of shallot. Although the original dish is served completely raw, many patrons prefer it with hot oil poured over the tuna. Another Ternate delicacy is ikan masak kering kayu, tuna fillets in a richly spiced sauce that proves even tastier than rendang. Ingredients include cloves, ground nutmeg, cardamom and star anise, not to mention lemongrass, Indonesian bay leaf (daun salam) and cinnamon.

The diversity of Indonesia’s cooking is not just a product of its geographical spread; it also stems from differences in religious belief. Muslim communities shy away from eating pork, whereas Hindu Bali prides itself on babi guling, spit-roasted suckling pig whose skin crackles with every bite. In the highlands of South Sulawesi, the largely Christian Torajans cook pamarrasan babi, pork in a thick black gravy, flavoured with the depth and earthiness of fermented keluak nut. The seeds contain hydrogen cyanide and are deadly poisonous in their raw form. But that hasn’t stopped cooks all over Indonesia from stocking up on keluak in their kitchens; the seed is a key ingredient of rawon, an East Javanese beef stew.

From spices to sago congee, bush meat to toxic seeds, Indonesian food is never boring. My friend can eat her words.

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Gohu ikan (skipjack tuna with lemon basil, shallot and chilli), Ternate, North Maluku

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Assorted side dishes for papeda (sago congee), Ternate, North Maluku

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Sauteed banana flower, Ternate, North Maluku

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Cassava rubbed with coconut milk, Ternate, North Maluku

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Ikan masak kering kayu (skipjack tuna in a richly spiced sauce), Ternate, North Maluku

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A bowl of glue-like papeda (sago congee), Ambon, Maluku

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Scooping the papeda with wooden forks called ‘gata-gata’

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Shredded coconut and vegetable salad, Ambon, Maluku

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Grilled eggplant with kenari sauce, Banda Neira, Maluku

75 Comments Post a comment
  1. Maybe your friend has a taste disorder and doesn’t know it. For instance, hypogeusia, a taste disorder where people experience a reduced ability to taste sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. What’s umami?

    April 12, 2016
    • Well Lloyd, you are a fount of information! I knew of the existence of ‘super-tasters’ but not taste disorders. That’s news to me. My friend seems to have no trouble enjoying Thai food… her attitude towards Indonesian is most likely down to ignorance and a lack of exposure.

      April 12, 2016
  2. Lucky me to have already had my dinner before reading this post. I think the fact that Indonesian food is less popular compared to Thai or Vietnamese dishes owes to the lack of Indonesian diaspora around the world, except in the Netherlands. Of all the dishes you mentioned here, I miss gohu ikan the most. Oh and you took some really great shots, James!

    April 12, 2016
    • Makasih, Bama! I guess celebrity chefs like Will Meyrick have been promoting Indonesian cooking to audiences who might know very little about it. I find it strange how such a diverse and exciting cuisine remains so under-appreciated outside its home country.

      April 12, 2016
    • This so true! I have a sneaky suspiscion that this is because most Indonesian likes to live in Indonesia instead of being abroad, because of the wonderful food. 🙂

      April 17, 2016
  3. I wish I could try this. Visit my blog to see indonesian food review. Thank you 🙂

    April 12, 2016
    • Looks good. Thanks for dropping by. 🙂

      April 12, 2016
  4. Beautiful food photos!

    April 12, 2016
    • Much appreciated, Katherine. I hope this post didn’t make you too hungry!

      April 12, 2016
  5. I loved Indonesian food and was horrified when my daughter wanted to eat KFC once we arrived in Bali after Java. Oh well, she was only nine back then. I did get her to eat roti canai in Singapore every morning for breakfast which we still rave about. There was also a sweet we loved from Solo that I wish I knew the name of. Thanks for a great post – just makes me wish there was an Indonesian restaurant near me.

    April 12, 2016
    • You’re welcome, Mallee. I had a lot of fun putting this post together. As for that sweet from Solo… what did it look like? And do you remember the filling, if it had one?

      April 13, 2016
  6. James, another tantalisingly fabulous mouth-watering post – what a selection of dishes. Going off to research Indonesia recipe books 🙂

    April 13, 2016
    • Thanks Liz! Hopefully the ingredients aren’t too hard to find in supermarkets and specialty stores… there should be some overlap with Cape Malay cuisine. 🙂

      April 13, 2016
      • Reread your post, so enticing I guess as for a time i lived in Malaysia and my taste buds went through a revolution! Luckily nowadays we get quite a few Indonesian spices/ condiments, but of course it’s nothing like experiencing the real location. I did get to see a bit of Java, but as you describe the dishes, i hanker for discovering those tastes and unusual spices. Maybe there’s a niche for an eBook – your descriptive travel writing and recipes?

        April 14, 2016
      • You’re onto something there – I have been scribbling notes from my latest travels and collecting recipes wherever I can… we will see if it’s enough material to fill a book!

        April 14, 2016
      • Will be watching this space 😊

        April 14, 2016
  7. What a great post! The goat curry looks so good! Thanks for the inspiration to get back into the kitchen and experiment with all of these amazing spices and ingredients!

    April 13, 2016
    • That’s exactly what I did after returning from my latest trip… I even tried out the recipe for my favourite Indonesian curry from Bama’s mom!

      April 13, 2016
  8. Okay, now I’m hungry. And I want to go to Indonesia even more. What a wonderful mouth-watering post James.

    April 13, 2016
    • Thank you, Alison. I think you’d enjoy the vast majority of the dishes here – most do not use copious amounts of chilli and I found them fresh, aromatic and full of flavour.

      April 13, 2016
  9. Your friend doesn’t have enough experiences to say that, “They’re taste the same.” Poor her. Thank you for introducing our beloved Indonesian food to your readers, James.

    Nasi Goreng has been my favorite ever since, and Indonesian Nasi Goreng is the best, compared that I had in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Cambodia. Everybody loves Minang (West Sumatera) food that Rumah Makan Padang spread everywhere in Indonesia 😀

    I do love Mie Aceh and Nasi Goreng Aceh, too. The ingredients they use are different, have a middle east taste. Did you try the Bataknese Babi Saksang, Babi Rica, or Babi Tinoransak? Oh, and by the way, people in Sulawesi eat dog for their daily food.

    April 13, 2016
    • Sami-sami, Nugie. I feel like Thai and Vietnamese get a lot of attention but Indonesian is truly underrated.

      Speaking of nasi goreng, I made my own Javanese-inspired version last night. I fried kemiri, bawang merah, sereh and bubuk kunyit before adding sambal terasi and kecap manis. Enak banget! 😀

      I didn’t get to try babi saksang, babi rica or babi tinoransak when I was in North Sumatra… those are on my list for the next time I go. I’m sure I will love saksang as I enjoyed a similar dish from the Philippines called Dinuguan.

      April 13, 2016
      • You’re right. Indonesian cuisines are underrated. Thanks God, now more travelers know more about Indonesian food because of your lovely post 🙂

        Whoa, I have to taste your Nasi Goreng someday! You must be a good chef, James.
        Babi Saksang is pork mixed with the blood. It’s good for me. Tinoransak is like Rica, only smoother.

        April 13, 2016
      • It means a lot to me that you and Wien love this post, Nugie. 🙂 I like to experiment in the kitchen… and cooking is so much fun! Guess I am good at some things but terrible at others.

        April 13, 2016
      • Many people do. We all have some good and some bad 🙂

        Keep up your cooking!

        April 14, 2016
    • Dog??? With peanut sauce?

      April 21, 2016
  10. One question: what do you do with the papeda?! Eat it right off the gata-gata or put it on something? (Great photos and food descriptions!)

    April 13, 2016
    • Ah, I should have explained that in the text! So once you scoop the papeda you drop it into a bowl with a serving of fish stew – the stew must go in first otherwise the papeda will stick. Then you mix them up and eat with a spoon and fork; the gata-gata is only used for serving.

      April 13, 2016
      • Oh, OK! That sounds better than lapping up that glue-y mixture by itself!

        April 15, 2016
  11. Great shots James. I’m hungry now 😀

    April 13, 2016
    • Makasih, Wien. I really miss eating these dishes!

      April 13, 2016
      • Indeed! Thank you for promote our country and its entities, James. You’re doing so well until now 🙂

        April 13, 2016
      • It’s my pleasure, Wien. As you know I’m totally obsessed with Indonesia – can’t wait to come back! 🙂

        April 13, 2016
      • Good to know that you’ll come back again 🙂

        April 14, 2016
  12. Loved this post on the tremendous variety! And now am desperately hungry and dying to get back to Indonesia!! 😉

    April 13, 2016
    • I wonder if Mumbai has any decent Indonesian restaurants… if not you’ll just have to plan a trip to Java and/or Bali. 😉

      April 13, 2016
      • I have yet to find one!! Sure some pan Asian restaurants have dishes that pretend to be Indonesian, but simply not the same…

        April 14, 2016
  13. Iriz Chan #

    Oooh. I’m drooling. Great post and photo! 🙂

    April 15, 2016
  14. karthiksubbiah #

    Thank You for this post. It really gave me a sense of direction to start my travel blog.

    April 15, 2016
    • You’re welcome. Good luck with the new blog!

      April 15, 2016
      • Thanks James. I started it today. It is called the Karthik Chronicles. Look it up if you like.

        April 15, 2016
  15. I just discovered your blog and read a few entries. I enjoy both the pictures (what kind of camera do you use?) and your writing. Your entry about your grandfather was touching too.

    April 15, 2016
    • Thanks for taking the time to read and write me a comment. I’ve been using a Nikon D5100 for the past 4 years or so. The pictures from my earlier posts were taken with a smaller Nikon camera… though I forget the specific model.

      April 15, 2016
  16. Very interesting. I know so little of Indonesian cuisine. I guess in Vancouver there might be 1-3 restaurants. I doubt here in Calgary. Is the gelatinous sago be savoury or sweet? If it’s savory then what it is supposed to be, a carb?

    April 15, 2016
    • The sago congee is savoury, although there is a slight sweetness in the taste. It’s meant as a carb – so you’ll have sago with fish and vegetables in place of rice.

      April 18, 2016
      • Thx for this answer. Very some sort of um..smooth congee.

        April 18, 2016
  17. Wow! Seems delicious!!!

    April 15, 2016
    • Delicious is an understatement!

      April 18, 2016
  18. I have to confess, my knowledge of Indonesian dishes was limited to the four ubiquitous suspects! 🙂 This delicious compilation is a revelation James. Wish I could find halfway decent options here.

    April 17, 2016
    • Well, in lieu of the lack of good Indonesian fare in Chennai (or really elsewhere in India), it’s best to start lining up a trip for the future. I am sure you and R would find Indonesia a fascinating country – the deep-rooted cultural links with India only add to the charm. 🙂

      April 18, 2016

    April 17, 2016
    • Yes, it is a great little snapshot of diversity within one country and one part of Asia. Thanks for reading!

      April 18, 2016
  20. 😍😍😍😍

    April 18, 2016
  21. I have to admit that after my first few weeks in Indonesia I would have agreed with your friend. I was uninspired by the food at first. But as I tried more dishes I really began to like the food, especially, the fresh fish which was everywhere. I can’t remember the name, but I ate something in Sulawesi which as a fish in a chili lime sauce that was as delicious as it was spicy. I’m still partial to Thai and Indian food, but Indonesian as you show is varied and delicious.

    April 18, 2016
    • I can see why you started off with those feelings, because a lot of places that cater to backpackers tend to have the same things on their menu – nasi goreng, mie goreng, banana pancake, bintang etc. While on Flores, I overheard a European traveller tell her guide, “I’m sick of having nasi goreng every day.” The language barrier doesn’t help either… especially when you want to try eating at a warung but have no idea what is actually available.

      I think the fish you had in Sulawesi might have been Ikan rica-rica – I remember you mentioning it in one of my earlier posts. That is also one of my favourites.

      April 19, 2016
  22. I am currently based in Indonesia and I love nasi goreng and mie goreng!

    April 18, 2016
    • Lucky you! I wish I was based there. Hope you get to try some of the other dishes in this post.

      April 19, 2016
  23. Luckily I soon will have my dinner! Haha. Great compilation of the Indonesian food that you during your journey here! I would love to taste that Gohu ikan :9

    April 18, 2016
    • Makasih Timothy! The gohu ikan was fabulous… though it would be even better 100% raw! 🙂

      April 19, 2016
  24. This is so funny, James, because on my last trip I was photographing all the food I was eating. And I didn’t get one good shot! I like to read about food like this. And I wanted to write a post about it. But my photos look like crap! I’m just no good at food shots, for some reason. Your shots…are just awesome! Some are artsy even, like the curry, the cinnamon, the teh.

    April 19, 2016
    • Thanks so much, Badfish! Well, it takes a lot of practice… and in some cases the right lens! The trick is finding a place with ample natural light. The vast majority of pictures here were taken in outdoor or semi-outdoor settings. Most of my nighttime food shots are unusable because they are either too dark, too yellow or too pale.

      April 19, 2016
  25. I would love to add some photos to your collection (don’t know how). I had a great experience in Bali last month ago. That was very memorable.

    April 21, 2016
    • I wonder if you had duck/chicken betutu and roasted suckling pig… those two Balinese dishes were standouts.

      April 24, 2016
      • Roasted suckling pig – yes and chicken betutu too, but not duck. I think, the best was a fish, I’ve tried it on the island

        April 24, 2016
  26. Yummy..and mouth watering 🙂

    April 22, 2016
    • Thanks for reading. 🙂

      April 24, 2016
  27. The Sate Padang looks so good!

    April 30, 2016
    • It was delicious! And something different as previously I’d only tried sate with peanut sauce.

      April 30, 2016
      • Same here! You can usually only find the peanut sauce variation in the Netherlands.

        April 30, 2016
  28. I like Mie Aceh….
    Nikmat apalagi yang di rebus,

    August 17, 2016
    • Me too, although I prefer it goreng rather than rebus. 🙂

      August 19, 2016
  29. you really are captured the food in a beautiful way! btw, in toraja, they not only have pa’piong, but also piong. i write about in in here

    September 17, 2016
    • Thanks for the kind words! I loved pa’piong, and I also enjoyed eating it with sticky rice while in Tana Toraja. I guess piong will have to wait for my next visit – it looks very interesting. 🙂

      September 19, 2016

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