An archipelago country that includes over 18,000 islands and 300 ethnic groups, Indonesia is a diverse land of jungle-covered volcanoes, hidden waterfalls and black sand beaches with sparkling turquoise waters. Islands like Java, Bali, Sumatra and Lombok have been located on a global trade route for centuries, and as a result, Indonesian cuisine has been influenced by flavors and produce from the Middle East, China, India, Polynesia, Europe and even the New World, by way of early Spanish and Portuguese explorers.
Drive along the back roads of any Indonesian island and it is likely that you will come across cloves and nutmeg (both native to Indonesia) drying in the sun, along with spicy red peppers and fish. Ducks and chickens scurry about the countryside, showing up later in market stalls and on dinner plates. Some countries have food trucks, but in Indonesia there are food scooters, quick little vehicles equipped with a tureen of soup or noodles on the back that is served by the side of the road.
As in all of Asia, rice is the dominant starch in Indonesia cuisine, a staple that shows up at every meal. Often served in a cone-shaped pile, the long grain white rice is still painstakingly planted, harvested and processed by hand, much as it has been for the last several centuries. Indonesia is covered in rice fields, from wet patties with little green seedlings to vast meadows of the mature grain.
Nasi Goreng might be the official dish of Indonesia. Translated as fried rice, Nasi Goreng is now familiar to most of the world: rice fried with garlic, chilies and vegetables such as carrots, green beans and shallots. Topped with a fried egg, Nasi Goreng often features chicken, shrimp or other seafood mixed in, and is usually served with a whole plate of treats: sticks of chicken or seafood sate, krupuk (crispy shrimp crackers), cooling slices of tomato and cucumber, spicy chili sauce plus a small piece of fried chicken.
Inspired by Chinese cuisine, Nasi Goreng is stronger and spicier than your usual fried rice, and is often served with a topping of fried shallots. To create a healthier version of this satisfying dish, fry cooked long grain brown rice mixed with black rice in a small amount of olive oil, increase the amount and variety of vegetables, and skip the fried chicken and shrimp chips.
Being the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesian cuisine has little to no pork, but the fresh fish and seafood that surround the islands more than make up for it. Fresh grilled tuna is a favorite; served off the grill and on the bone, it puts canned tuna to absolute shame. Other popular sea treats include fresh shrimp, mackerel, crab and red snapper.
Tofu is also a common ingredient in Indonesian cuisine. It makes an appearance in curries, or is stuffed with spicy bean sprouts and fried. Tofu’s cousin tempeh shows up at nearly every meal, a Javanese adaptation of soy that takes on a rich, nutty flavor when roasted. Peanut sauce is abundant, and side dishes of water spinach, long green beans, sweet potato cakes, jackfruit, cucumber and tomato round out any meal.
Dessert in Indonesia couldn’t be simpler: fresh tropical fruits, picked at the height of ripeness, including tiny bananas, tart pineapple, huge papayas and sweet pink watermelon. Blended with ice and a touch of honey, these fruits become a frothy “juice” that is ideal for breakfast, dessert or an afternoon snack in the hot sun.
Try your hand at creating an Indonesian meal, and bring the flavors of this incredible Southeast Asian country to your dinner table.
Image: Kirti Poddar