Indonesian Food: A Memorable Southeast Asian Cuisine

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Home » Practical Information » Dining Out » Indonesian Customs and Culture

Have you ever tasted Indonesian food? Some expatriates never

go beyond the usual nasi goreng (fried rice), bakmi goreng (fried noodles)

or sate (charbroiled meat or chicken on skewers), but for the more adventurous

there Indonesia Food is a wonderful variety of tasty treats right here in Jakarta.

Food Etiquette

Indonesians love to eat, not only meals, which they may consume at any

hour of the day whenever they feel hungry, but also snacks of many kinds.

Eating is also a social activity and meals are often shared with others

who happen to drop in. The meals lend themselves to easily extending

the amount of food available by the addition of another hastily prepared

dish such as dadar telor (omelet). It is considered impolite not to provide

some sort of drinks and snacks to a guest, whether invited or unexpected.

Normal Mealtimes

A normal Indonesian-style family meal consists of white rice served with

three or four accompanying dishes. When guests are present, and on special

occasions, the number of dishes served is much greater and in more abundant

quantities. In keeping with Indonesian hospitality, a wide variety and

choice of dishes should be provided to honor a guest. Whatever is not

eaten is never wasted. Guests may be encouraged to take home some of the

leftover food and plastic bags or containers are always on hand for this

purpose. The remainder goes back to the kitchen, to be eaten by domestic

staff or to be reheated and served again the next day. Indonesians are

honored if foreigners like their food and are adventurous to try new dishes.

Generally all of the dishes are placed on the table together and guests

are asked to help themselves. This “family style” serving

practice is the origin of the Dutch expression rijstafel. Unlike a formal

Western style dinner, courses are not served separately. It is becoming

more common for Indonesians to serve a soup that may be eaten before the

main meal, but traditionally Indonesian soups are served and eaten together

with the rice and other dishes, though some prefer to take their

soup after eating their rice. You can sample the dishes one at a time if you like, but it is more common

to take some of each dish together on your plate, placing them around

your mound of rice. It is a complement to the hostess if you take second

or third helpings. You do not need to empty your plate before you add

another helping of a dish you particularly like.

Eating on the Floor and With Your Fingers

Sometimes Indonesian food is served and eaten not at a table, but on

woven mats covering a low platform or the ground. This style of eating

is called lesehan and is common in Yogyakarta and Central Java as well

as West Java. Traditionally food is eaten with the fingers of the right

hand, and many Indonesians insist that certain dishes taste much better

this way. Finger bowls, often with a slice of lime floating in the water

to cut the grease on your fingers, are usually provided for cleansing

your fingers after such meals. Note that only the right hand is used to eat the food, never the left.

These days Indonesian food is generally

eaten with a spoon and fork, the spoon in the right hand and fork in the

left (or vice versa for lefthanders). The fork holds food steady while

breaking off portions with the spoon, and is used to assist in loading

up the spoon by pushing food into it. Most food is cut up into relatively

small pieces before it is cooked, although chicken and duck are usually

served on the bone, and fish is often served whole.

When you are finished eating, you turn your spoon and fork over and lay

them crossed in your plate. This signals the hostess that you are full

and doesn’t lead to an urging to take more food!

Indonesian food is usually cooked in advance and served at room temperature,

although there are some dishes that should be consumed hot and fresh from

the stove or barbecue. Indonesian food has been greatly influenced by

other cuisines, including Chinese, Indian and Dutch, but has been adapted

and modified to suit the local palate.

The Importance of Rice in an Indonesian meal

Rice is the staple food of Indonesians and they are happy to consume

it two to three times a day. In fact there is an expression: “Kalau

belum makan nasi, belum makan” (if you haven’t eaten rice,

you haven’t eaten), which implies that no matter what snacks you

have consumed, you have not had a proper meal until you have filled your

tummy with rice in some form or another. White rice is preferred, rather

than unpolished brown rice, even by those who are aware of the loss of

nutritional value in the processing.

Ideally rice should be boiled then steamed, but most modern Indonesians

find it very convenient to use an electric rice cooker. Nasi goreng, fried

rice using the leftover rice from the previous day, or bubur (rice porridge)

are often served for breakfast.


For special celebrations or ritual meals called selamatan, nasi kuning (yellow rice) is traditionally served, usually in the form of a tumpeng,

a cone shaped mound of yellow colored rice served on a large platter elaborately

garnished and accompanied by side dishes. The rice is cooked in santan (coconut milk) flavored with spices including turmeric, which gives the

yellow color. Other special rice dishes include nasi uduk (rice cooked

in santan but without turmeric). This is a richer, more aromatic form

of white rice and is served with accompanying side dishes. In West Java

the Sundanese people serve cooked white rice wrapped up in cylindrical

shape in banana leaf. This is called nasi timbel, and after opening the

rice parcel the banana leaf becomes the “plate” on which to

put selections of accompanying dishes such as grilled or fried fish, chicken,

cooked or raw vegetables and sambal (chili paste).

Rice can also be cooked in banana leaf or woven coconut leaf containers

to create a solid mass of compressed rice, which when cold is cut into

mouthful sized chunks. Lontong, cooked in banana leaf, often accompanies

sate, gado-gado (cooked vegetable salad with spicy peanut sauce) or curries,

while ketupat is the special compressed rice cooked in rhomboid shaped

coconut leaf containers that is served at Lebaran to celebrate the end of the Islamic fasting month. Ketupat is usually

served with opor ayam (chicken in mild white curry sauce) and sambal goreng (vegetables, meat or liver cooked in santan with chili and spices). The

Sumatran equivalent of lontong or ketupat is lemang, which is glutinous

or sticky rice cooked in bamboo and traditionally accompanied by rendang

(beef cooked in santan with chili and spices until liquid is absorbed).

Another rice dish that you may find on the menu in Indonesian restaurants

is nasi rames. This is a meal in itself, a plate of ordinary white rice

topped with generous spoonfuls of various meat, chicken and vegetable

side dishes. Nasi kebuli is an Arab-influenced dish of aromatically speced rice cooked together

with chicken or meat and spices.

Regional Food Specialties

Each region of Indonesia has its own specialties and there is great variety

in the cuisine available. One of the most famous is West Sumatran or Padang food,

which uses a lot of chili, spices and santan. Padang dishes include rendang, kalio (similar to rendang but the sauce is not reduced and thickened), gulai (a spicy curry), kari (curry), dendeng balado (thin sliced and crisp

fried beef with red chilies). Padang food is Indonesia’s version

of fast food. All the food is cooked in advance and displayed on dishes

stacked up in the window of the often distinctively decorated restaurants.

When you come in and sit down at a table, waiters will immediately appear

bearing 10 or 12 small plates of different dishes along their arms and

a huge variety of food will be set down on your table, along with a plate

of rice and a glass of hot tea for each person. You may choose whatever

you like and at the end of the meal the headwaiter will check all of the

dishes to count what has been consumed. Needless to say you pay only for

what you have eaten. Some recommended Padang restaurants are those in

the Sederhana chain, Natrabu, Nasi Kapau and Sari Bundo.