In the last few years, Indonesian cuisine has risen to prominence. The more popular ones, like chicken satay and beef rendang, have made their way to tables around the world, in either fancy restaurants or cozy household settings. Many of humble ingredients like tofu and tempeh have been adopted and used in ways that are completely different (and maybe even weird for some), like salad, curry, or even cake.
When I moved abroad for the first time, I found the western food culture was so interestingly different compared to what I was accustomed to. And that made me wonder, what do foreigners think when they’re first introduced to Indonesian cuisines and the food culture? So I thought I’d write something about this, as I remember it from living for more than 20 years in Indonesia.
Note: Given the current situation regarding COVID-19, I’m very much aware of how some of these customs and traditions might not be hygienic or safe when there’s a potentially deadly virus is everywhere. Maybe some of these will change in the future, maybe not. Who knows? Coronavirus has already started to change the way we live, travel, and eat. I’m curious to see how the Indonesian food culture evolves over time.
1. We share everything on the table
In most of the Indonesian households, you’ll find at least 3 types of food on the table: rice, vegetables (served either stir-fried, in soup, or raw), and a protein dish (could be eggs, chicken, seafood, beef, or anything). This is how we eat. Everything is placed in the center, and anyone can get anything they want. We call this ‘makan tengah’, literally translates to ‘center eating’. And like everywhere else in the world, you shouldn’t eat directly from a communal dish.
My family eats like this even when we go to a restaurant. Unlike the western dining culture where you order dishes just for yourself, we order dishes to be shared and enjoyed together. Everyone tucks in and gets to eat a little bit of everything. It’s fun, it’s amazing, and it’s intimate as well (I certainly only do this when I eat with my family and close friends).
A quick snap of the Manadonese lunch we shared at a restaurant in Jakarta.
2. Warung is the real deal, but don’t be fooled with the fancy ones
If you’re looking for an authentic experience of Indonesian dining, find a warung nearby. Warung is usually a modest, family-run business that can either be a small convenience shop or a cafe. While there are fancier restaurants using ‘warung’ in their names, the one you’d want to look for is the small ones, usually found on the side of the street. This is where you can find home-style, everyday dishes that Indonesians eat.
Warung comes in lots of varieties. There’s warteg (short for warung tegal), which typically sells Javanese home meals, and warung Padang which sells Padang food. You’ll also find a plethora of warung tenda (tent warung), a portable warung roofed with a tarp.
3. Get used to the browse-and-point method when you see a window display
In a warung, all the dishes for the day are usually displayed on the window. With each dish stored in a tray, customers get the liberty to browse and point to the things they would like to have.
As there’s no menu card here, it’s tricky to know the price for each dish. But not to worry, meals here are affordable (which is why warungs are often frequented by nearby workers and alike). You usually pay after you’re done — walk to the seller and list all the individual dishes and any drink you’ve had, and they will give you the total amount.
A slightly different way of serving can be found in Padang restaurants. Unless you eat alone (in which case you can use the browse-and-point method above), they will bring out all the dishes they have, each served on a small plate. If you take anything, no matter how small, they will charge you for the entire plate. In the end, a waiter/waitress will come to list all the things you’ve eaten simply by looking at the empty plates you have. They’ll sum it up and give you the total amount you need to pay.
Illustration by Silvya Sherly for Her Little Journal.
4. Breakfast is a feast in itself
What can I say, Indonesian breakfast is… extra. And usually heavy. Nasi goreng or fried rice is the common homemade breakfast, but if you go out, you’ll find a plethora of street food vendors selling a variety of dishes. Here are just some examples of the very common things sold for breakfast:
- bubur ayam (chicken congee)
- lontong sayur (a curry dish with rice cake, jackfruit, green beans, and boiled egg)
- nasi uduk (rice cooked in coconut milk, served with eggs, fried noodles, chicken, tofu or tempeh)
- nasi kuning (yellow rice, served similarly with nasi uduk)
- soto (soup with broth, meat, and vegetables, usually served with rice or rice cake. There’s a lot of varieties of soto, depending on the region)
- ketoprak (sort of a salad with rice cake, vegetables, tofu, and vermicelli with peanut sauce dressing)
- nasi pecel (rice served with boiled vegetables and peanut sauce)
They’re gloriously good. And better yet, they’re so ubiquitous that you’re guaranteed to find them anywhere.
Illustration by Silvya Sherly for Her Little Journal.
5. We like to eat with our hands
…when we’re not eating with spoons and forks (never knives!). When westerners hear we eat with our hands, their eyes bulge. “With your hands???” I have to explain that no, we don’t use the entire palm, just the tip of the fingers (and use only the right hand, unless you need both to eat seafood or something like that).
Because of this, it’s common to find a small bowl placed by the plate. This bowl, filled with water and usually with a slice of lime, is not for consumption, but to rinse your hand before and after eating. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s common to see Indonesians wash their hands in the bowl without batting an eyelid. We like to joke that our bellies are made to steel, but maybe eating with hands is something that will change after this pandemic as people are becoming more aware of hygiene and the risk of catching virus and bacteria.
Spotted in the picture: two small metal bowls for rinsing hands.
6. Eat with sambal if you can take it
Sambal (chili paste) is such an integral part of Indonesian cuisine, not just because we like things spicy, but because it compliments the flavor. Certain dishes especially are not complete without it, for example soto or gudeg. There’s a lot of different types of sambal and each is unique, but if there’s sambal for the dish, the cook usually serves the kind that goes best with the dish. Eating with and without sambal is two completely different experiences, trust me.
7. Different region has different flavors
Indonesia is a big country, so it’s no surprise that the cuisine varies widely. Each region has its own characteristics and distinct flavors. Just a few examples:
- West Sumatra: heavy blend of various spices that creates rich and intense flavors. Dishes are often cooked in lots of oil and/or coconut milk, and the mix with the spice blend creates heavenly fragrant dishes. Examples: rendang, gulai ayam
- West Java: clean taste that favors the freshness of the hero ingredients. Lots of use of raw vegetables in the cuisine. Examples: karedok, kupat tahu, nasi jamblang
- Central Java: mild taste in terms of spiciness, often tends to be on the sweet side. Examples: gudeg, pecel, opor ayam
- East Java: not as sweet as Central Java cuisines but spicier, although still milder compared to West Sumatra. Examples: rawon, pecel lele, soto madura
- Bali and Nusa Tenggara Barat: spicy and fresh. Coconut and lemongrass is used a lot, as are shallots and chilli. Examples: ayam betutu, sate lilit, babi guling
- North Sulawesi: Fresh and spicy flavors, thanks to the generous use of herbs like chili, shallots, lime, basil — either cooked with the main ingredients (seafood, pork, etc.) or eaten raw as sambal. Examples: pampis, ikan woku, ayam tuturuga
The regions mentioned above are only 6 out of 34 provinces in Indonesia, so you can imagine the great variety of options we’re spoiled with.
A lot of Indonesian dishes are not fine-dining fancy. At least, the food that I grew up with wasn’t like that. They were made in big batches, to be shared with the whole family. Everyone tucks in, there will be a mess here and there, and the atmosphere is always warm and cozy. In Indonesia, eating is not just about consuming the food, but sharing the food, story, and love on the table.
And that is the ultimate Indonesian dining.