10 dishes you must try in Indonesia

You need to go to Indonesia with an empty stomach and a big appetite. Source: Shutterstock.

UNLIKE British, French or Spanish cuisine which can be summarized in a few dishes, Indonesia’s food culture is diverse and complex, taking its flavors from centuries of cultural influences.

We’re not saying British, French or Spanish cuisine isn’t diverse or complex, but unlike Indonesian dishes, fish and chips, coq au vin, or authentic paella don’t have many variations.

But in Indonesia, something as simple as satay (sate) can be dished up dozens of different ways using different meat, spices and sauces, and still be called satay. This is because each region in Indonesia has its own version of dishes which reflect the locally-grown ingredients and tastes.

Indonesian cuisine derives many of its flavors from Chinese cooking, influenced by the many waves of Chinese migrants that began settling in Indonesia as far back as the 13th century.

Along with regional and international influences, Indonesia grows many of the world’s favorite spices including Christmas essentials nutmeg and clove, along with galangal, pandan leaves, cardamom, and ginger.

In the 16th century, parts of Indonesia were known as the “Spice Islands” for their tapestry of native spices. Today, Indonesia’s cuisine has grown in flavor and diversity, so anyone who is heading to this tropical archipelago should prepare for a culinary adventure.

Here are 10 absolutely unmissable dishes you must try:

Rendang

Remember MasterChef UK judges Gregg Wallace and John Torode whipping up a storm of criticism after eliminating a contestant because her chicken rendang wasn’t crispy enough?

That wasn’t the first time this Indonesian dish made international headlines.

Back in 2011, 35,000 people named rendang number one on the “World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods” poll.

The dish originated in the western part of Sumatra from the Minangkabau people and to this day plays a significant role in their culture.

It often contains beef but can also be made with chicken. The marinade contains cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, chilies, garlic, and shallots, to name a few.

It’s normally served with rice and can be found at almost any nasi padang (cuisine of the Minangkabau people) restaurant across Asia.

Satay

Satay (sate) is in abundance in Indonesia and possibly the best in the whole of Asia.

The three main styles of satay are padang satay which are meat skewers consisting of beef or beef tongue, tossed in spices and grilled over hot charcoal.

They’re then served over ketupat (rice cakes), drenched in a thick sauce, and sprinkled with crispy shallots.

Other common types of satay originated in the Indonesian capital city of Jakarta uses chicken or goat meat.

Siomay

There’s a whole lot going on in these little fish dumplings.

They originated from China but have been adopted by Indonesians and developed to suit locals’ tastes.

Across Indonesia, siomay can be found at street vendor stalls catering to those looking for a quick snack. They’re best served with peanut or chili sauce.

Sambal

Sambal is to Indonesians like ketchup is to Westerners.

It’s served with almost everything and if it’s not already on your plate, there’ll undoubtedly be a pot of it on the table.

Sambal is the fiery chili sauce/paste made from shrimp paste, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, shallot, scallions, palm sugar, lime juice, and rice vinegar.

If it’s your first time trying sambal, spoon it sparingly as it’s likely to blow your head off.

Tempeh

Using a base of soy beans, tempeh (tempe) is made into a cake-like form as the soy product naturally cultures and ferments.

Tempeh is high in fiber, protein, and vitamins, and often used as a meat substitute.

It can be eaten as on its own as an earthy-tasting snack but it’s more commonly enjoyed as part of a meal.

Nasi uduk

Not too unlike Malaysia’s national dish, nasi lemak, the Indonesia version has a base of coconut milk-cooked rice and a side of sambal, just like its neighbor’s dish.

But Indonesians have added fried chicken, tempeh, shredded omelet, and fried onions to create a feast.

It’s often eaten at lunchtime, but we recommend saving it for dinner unless you’ve got a free afternoon to slip into a food coma.

Babi guling

Indonesia has the highest population of Muslims in the world, so it may seem odd that babi guling (suckling pig) is renowned as a favorite dish.

But it’s almost only found on the predominantly Hindu island of Bali.

The dish is created by stuffing a whole hog with spices including turmeric, coriander seeds, lemongrass, and garlic, then spit-roasting it until it’s crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside.

It’s served with vegetables and steamed rice, and often leaves diners asking for more.

Gorengan

Gorengan literally translates to “fried” and forms one of Indonesia’s favorite snacks.

Street vendors are the place to sample the widest variety of gorengan, including fried bananas, fried stuffed tofu, and fried cassava.

Martabak

If you’ve been to the Middle East, you may have already come across this moreish folded pancake snack as it has origins in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

A form of it has made its way over to Southeast Asia and Indonesians have once again worked their magic to create savoury and sweet versions of the martabak.

Martabak telur contains beaten egg and meat whereas martabak manis usually has a chocolate filling.

Durian

Durian is not for the easily repulsed person.

While it may be regarded as the “King of Fruit” across Southeast Asia, its pong often puts people off before it even touches their lips.

If you’re daring enough, it’s definitely worth a try as you might be pleasantly surprised by its custardy taste with hints of almond, as British explorer Alfred Russel Wallace once described it.

For many others though, it resembles wet, gone-off cheese with an unsavory lingering taste.