Indonesian cuisine (the good, the bad and the ugly)

It was quite easy to familiarize ourselves with the Indonesian language, at least as far as the culinary art is concerned. Several simple words, such as nasi (rice), mie (noodles), goreng (fried), rebus (cooked), bakar (grilled), sambal (paste, sauce), telur (egg), ikan (fish), udang (prawn), ayam (chicken), sayur (vegetables), etc. were enough to achieve an introductory level of knowledge. Combine one with another and you get the names of popular dishes: ayam goreng, udang rebus or ikan bakar, to name just a few. Gula means sugar and gula-gula are sweets and so we’ve reached desserts… As there is no inflection (that we know of), we felt encouraged to build simple sentences during our lazy time at the seaside, commenting on the reality around us (in this case mostly kambing makan ikan aka “goat eats fish”). On the other hand, Indonesian cuisine abounds in innumerable rice dishes with additions on the side (nasi this, nasi that). Most of them, despite our (not so) earnest efforts, we were not able to tell apart.

indonesian food yogyakarta restaurant-
nasi…campur?

Obviously, taste is an individual thing, so this is our subjective take on the best and worst Indonesian dishes. We encourage you to go and check by yourself. Let’s start with complaints so we can finish in ecstasy!

THE BAD

BUTTERED AND FRIED EVERYTHING PLUS FRIED CHICKEN

It seems there is no such food item in Indonesia that seems inappropriate to be breaded in batter and deep fried. Eggs, meats, offal, bananas, cassava, tofu… everything tastes almost the same and is usually made in advance. Coated stuff soaked in oil served at room temperature? No, thank you. As far as chicken is concerned, it is the least favorite kind of meat for both of us, so we won’t tell you much about ayam goreng – maybe the most popular dish of all.

indonesian food fried snacks-
This nice lady finds her fried snacks delicious

PADANG CUISINE

The famous cuisine from West Sumatra, which became popular around the entire country and beyond. Behind the restaurants’ front windows you can see pyramids of plates presenting available dishes. I will forever remember the picture of empty, dark streets illuminated by the windows full of piled up pottery, I’ve seen when were riding through Padang at night. When you sit down, lots of small plates with several dishes arrive on the table. You only pay for what you’ve touched. The dishes are prepared in the morning, stay all day without refrigeration and are usually served without heating. Often, in this kind of restaurants, we were very disappointed – both with taste and freshness. There is one dish though – called beef rendang – that saved the honor of Padang cuisine for us (more on this later).

indonesian food padang restaurant-
Padang restaurant (source: Wikipedia: http://commons.wikimedia.org//wiki/File:Hidangan_restoran_Padang_di_Sukabumi.JPG#mediaviewer//File:Hidangan_restoran_Padang_di_Sukabumi.JPG)

GADO-GADO (THE UGLY)

Learning about the ingredients of this salad I was sure I’m gonna love it. Sauce made of peanuts which I adore. Cooked vegetables that I love. Hard-boiled eggs I won’t say no to. Add some sprouts, raw veggies, and krupuk crisps (resembling shrimp crisps) and voila! The whole is one of the least attractive-looking dishes in the world, though for us it was not really the main complaint. What’s worse, it’s that the taste is also one big con-fusion. I apologize to Indonesians, but this national pride is hard for me to swallow. We didn’t try many gado-gados, so I decided to recreate the recipe at home, thinking I will find a way for this combination of ingredients to finally click together. It didn’t.

indonesian food gado gado-7561
Usually it looks worse

ABC – CRUSHED ICE IS WHAT’S FOR DESSERT

Ais kacang is usually called ABC (an abbreviation of Air Batu Campur, meaning “mixed ice”). Heaps of crushed ice drenched in technicolor syrups with some fresh or preserved fruit. End of story. Long time ago, it was only ice with red beans which evolved over time into more varied forms.

indonesian food ABC ais kacang dessert semarang-
An elegant version of ABC in an elegant restaurant in Semarang

THE GOOD

FRIED RICE aka NASI GORENG

The simplest comfort food. Driven by the vegetable oil phobia, I was steering clear of this dish for some time. Finally I gave in, because, damn, it’s just that good! Heap of rice fried with eggs, finely chopped vegetables, possibly some meat, sweet soy sauce called kecap manis. Trivial, greasy and yummy. The greasiness is balanced by the addition of some fresh greens. On the top of that some of that delicious fried shallots sprinkle…

indonesian food nasi goreng
Hot hot heat in the kitchen

NASI LEMAK, NASI UDUK

We’ve been writing about nasi lemak while in Malaysia. Simple pleasures. Rice cooked in coconut milk with spices, some fried anchovies called ikan bilis, peanuts, sambal. In a loaded version you can also get hard-boiled eggs, cucumber slices and meat. Often wrapped up in banana leaf. A must!

indonesian food ikan bilis anchovis sumatra-
Evening anchovies catch

GRILLED FISH, SAMBAL AND RICE

Ikan bakar! At the seaside, freshly caught, covered in sweet and spicy marinade and put on a barbecue. Served with spicy sambal. Any sambal, for that matter, is great in Indonesia!

indonesian food barbecued fish ikan bakar-

indonesian food sambal-

FISH IN BANANA LEAVES

Fish, herbs and spices. Wrapped up and steamed. Wonderful. We’ve also tried a similar dish with small poultry (a pigeon???) served the same way and it was also delicious. A must!

indonesian food fish in banana leaves semarang-

BEEF RENDANG

The most famous representative of the un-favorite Padang cuisine. Popular also in Malaysia and Singapore, it originated from Western Sumatra and the Mingkabau ethnic group (which we’ve mentioned before). Beef cooked for hours on end in coconut milk and spices. Dry but delicious. I have to finally cook my own.

indonesian food padang cuisine-
Beef rendang – third from the left,  first row

TEMPEH

We like fermented soy. Slices of fried tempeh appeared in almost any rice-and-toppings dish on Java. At home I soak them in soy sauce with powdered ginger and garlic and fry. So good!

LIQUID FRUIT AKA SHAKE

Nowhere in Southeast Asia was the choice of fruit shakes as wide as in Indonesia. I loved the sweet and sour pineapple shakes the most, they are especially tasty, juicy and ripe here… Marcin, on the other hand, was a devoted fan of mango. Perfect!

indonesian food fruit shakes-
Melon and orange

6 Comments

  1. Tasha G. April 10, 2017 at 8:51 pm

    You need to go with a true local who you can truly trust to eat Indonesian food you’ll be dreaming about for years to come. Like any place in the world there are eateries that serve bad food. My jaw dropped when you said padang was the worst. It was one of my favorites when I lived there for 12 years. As with the food sitting out all day, it’s all cooked in many spices that are naturally antimicrobial which is how they were able to keep food for days without refrigeration back in the day. A lot of the meat is also dried and/salted, another way of preserving food. Unfortunately if I listed all the places for you to go and eat good Indonesian food, I would have to write an entire book. I hope you’ll give it another chance as I have met many foreigners like myself who have lived/traveled there and raved about Indonesian food being their favorite and one of the best foods in the world.

    Reply
    1. Ania Krasnodebska April 17, 2017 at 9:43 pm

      Hey Tasha, it’s definitely a subjective opinion and as such, it will cause disagreement. We’ve loved many Indonesian dishes as you can see on the blog. The Padang cuisine we tried 5 times in different places and just didn’t enjoy it that much so didn’t feel compelled to try any more. Maybe next time we’ll give it another go!

      Reply
  2. Andreas July 3, 2017 at 6:50 am

    We’ve done a bit of travelling around Asia and we were really disturbed to find that when you go to a restaurant in a somewhat touristy area sometimes the Indonesian menu was half a page long and then there were 5 pages of sandwiches, burgers, pizzas, wraps, Greek salads etc. What are they hiding? Other countries in Asia we would not dream of ordering pizza or burgers but here it seemed we didn’t have many options. Also what is it with the lack of decent seafood?? It seems that they have very little interest in catching stuff from the sea here, again compared to other Asian countries we’ve been to where even the most touristy places have a thriving fishing industry.

    Reply
    1. Ania Krasnodebska July 3, 2017 at 11:29 am

      Hi Andreas, maybe with restaurants this is the case as I think most Indonesians don’t eat there. We found one beautiful and quite elegant place with traditional food, it may be an exception. With the simple eateries there was no problem to find local fare. The seafood we liked on Karimunjava, picked from freshly caught batch and done on the spot outside. There are also some places known for seafood, like Cirebon, where we tried lots of big shrimp. Nothing beats Vietnam though 🙂

      Reply
  3. Anna N. July 26, 2017 at 2:25 am

    It was really a shame that you did not like ayam goreng! I’ve been away from Indonesia for almost 1 year and ayam goreng is the first food that I missed (also the most). I won’t recommend buying them at a side-of-the-road stalls unless you really know them though. It is better to try them at somewhere with a fixed place such as a house or small specialty restaurant. They are more fresh, served hot, and definitely way more cleaner. The fried stuff (tempe, banana, tofu, vegetable) are usually better on a small “gerobak” or moveable stalls around the side of the road, but you should always ask for the newer ones, where they are still warm and crispy. Do not buy the ones that were already soggy as you will definitely be dissapointed.

    Reply
    1. Ania Krasnodebska July 26, 2017 at 1:39 pm

      Hi Anna! We generally don’t like chicken much so we’re not blaming the Indonesians 😉

      Reply

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