Compared to other Southeast Asian cuisines, Indonesian meals lack variety. Coconut milk and aromatic spices at first add intriguing tastes to the meats, vegetables and fruits, but after a while everything starts to taste the same – spiced, fried and served with rice. Be particularly careful about food hygiene in rural Indonesia, avoiding poorly cooked fish or meat.
Rice (nasi) is the favoured staple across much of the country, an essential, three-times-a-day fuel. Noodles are also widely popular. The seafood is often superb, and chicken, goat and beef are the main meats in this predominantly Muslim country. Vegetarians can eat well in Indonesia, though restaurant selections can be limited to cap cay – fried mixed vegetables. There’s also plenty of tofu and the popular tempe, a fermented soya-bean cake.
The backbone of all Indonesian cooking, spices are ground and chopped together, then fried to form a paste, which is either used as the flavour-base for curries, or rubbed over ingredients prior to frying or grilling. Chillies always feature, along with terasi (also known as belacan), a fermented shrimp paste. Meals are often served with sambal, a blisteringly hot blend of chillies and spices.
Light meals and snacks include various rice dishes such as nasi goreng, a plate of fried rice with shreds of meat and vegetables and topped with a fried egg, and nasi campur, boiled rice served with a small range of side dishes. Noodle equivalents are also commonly available, as are gado-gado, steamed vegetables dressed in a peanut sauce, and sate, small kebabs of meat or fish, barbecued over a fire and again served with spicy peanut sauce. Indonesian bread (roti) is made from sweetened dough, and usually accompanies a morning cup of coffee.
Sumatran Padang restaurants are found right across Indonesia, the typically fiery food pre-cooked – not the healthiest way to eat – and displayed cold on platters piled up in a pyramid shape inside a glass-fronted cabinet. There are no menus; you either select your composite meal by pointing, or wait for the staff to bring you a selection and pay just for what you consume. You may encounter boiled kangkung (water spinach); tempe; egg, vegetable, meat or seafood curry; fried whole fish; potato cakes; and fried cow’s lung.
The cheapest places to eat in Indonesia are at the mobile stalls (kaki lima, or “five legs”), which ply their wares around the streets and bus stations during the day, and congregate at night markets after dark. You simply place your order and they cook it up on the spot. Warung are the bottom line in Indonesian restaurants, usually just a few tables, and offering much the same food as kaki lima for under a dollar a dish. Rumah makan are bigger, offer a wider range of dishes and comfort, and may even have a menu. Outside of major cities, most eateries labelled as restaurants are likely to cater to foreigners, with fully-fledged service and possibly international food. Most warung, rumah makan and restaurants are open from around 11am until 10pm. Tourist restaurants will charge at least three times as much for the same dish you’d get in a warung. In addition, many of the moderate and all of the expensive establishments will add up to 21 percent service tax to the bill.
Most water that comes out of taps in Indonesia has had very little treatment, and can contain a whole range of bacteria and viruses. Drink only bottled, boiled or sterilized water. Boiled water (air putih) can be requested at accommodation and restaurants, and dozens of brands of bottled water (air minum) are sold throughout the islands. Indonesian coffee is among the best in the world, and drunk with copious amounts of sugar and, occasionally, condensed milk.
Alcohol can be a touchy subject in parts of Indonesia, where public drunkenness may incur serious trouble. There’s no need to be paranoid about this in cities, however, and the locally produced beers, Anker and Bintang Pilsners, are good, and widely available at Chinese restaurants and bigger hotels. In non-Islamic regions, even small warung sell beer. Spirits are less publicly consumed, and may be technically illegal, so indulge with caution. Nonetheless, home-produced brews are often sold openly in villages. Tuak (also known as balok) or palm wine, made by tapping a suitable tree for its sap, comes in plain milky white or pale red varieties, and varies in strength. Far more potent are rice wine (variously known as arak or brem), and sopi, a distillation of tuak, either of which can leave you incapacitated after a heavy session.
Top image: Nasi goreng © Bvlena/Shutterstock