Indonesia is a huge country, with 17,000 islands or more. Some of these islands, like Java, are densely populated and dotted with numerous volcanic peaks. Others are relatively uninhabited, or are inhabited by numerous tribes separated by mountains and forests. In the case of Papua in Eastern Indonesia, the gigantic Mount Carstensz (which stands 4,884m tall) acts as a wall!
Given the geography, it’s unsurprising there’s no definitive Indonesian cuisine. Rather, Indonesian cuisine is made up of thousands of regional cuisines, from the westernmost island of Sumatra to the easternmost province of Papua. It has taken some time for Indonesians to interpret “foreign food” to be non-Indonesian, rather than Makassarese or Buginese!
It’s impossible to name and describe all the regional cuisines, but here are some popular ones. You can try them at restaurants in Jakarta or around the world — or cook for yourself at home, following our recipes!
Padang is the capital city of the province of West Sumatra. However, Padang cuisine really refers to the food of the Minangkabau people native to the region. The region has had a long history of trade, especially with India, China and the Middle East. Along with trade comes culinary diversity.
Padang cuisine is rich and spicy, with thick, creamy gravies like gulai, and an assortment of deep-fried dishes. Like most of Indonesia, many of these dishes are eaten with steamed white rice, although there are specific dishes to be had with rice cakes or glutinous rice.
Coconut milk is used heavily in Padang cooking. Sometimes it is cooked in meat or vegetable curries, giving a consistency similar to Thai green curry. Other times it is reduced to form a thick paste, like in the famous rendang.
Chillies are also crucial to Padang cuisine, and are a big part of many spice pastes used in cooking. Most Padang dishes are moderately spicy, but for those who prefer more chilli, sambals are served with every meal. A hot favourite is sambal balado, a cooked sambal which contains onions, tomatoes, lime leaves and other ingredients. It’s is enjoyed as a condiment, but also cooked in fried dishes such as balado ayam (fried chicken topped with balado sauce).
The food of the island of Java is varied, with a marked difference between West, Central, and East Javanese cuisines. Generally, though, Javanese cuisine is lighter than Padang cuisine, with fewer thick and rich stews and an abundance of light, refreshing soups. Although chilli is often used, dishes in Java are generally less spicy compared to Padang food. Of course, very spicy sambal is also a staple. Salads are also a big part of Javanese cuisine, with dishes like urap and trancam.
Javanese cooking sometimes incorporats sweet soy sauce and palm sugar, giving the dishes a slightly sweet flavour. Various types of deep fried foods, such as ayam goreng and tempe bacem are also popular, as are stir-fried dishes.
As with most other cuisines, each region or city in Java boasts its own specialty. Rawon, for example, comes from East Java, while soto bandung originates in the city of Bandung in West Java. On the streets of Java, you’ll also find many culinary experiments that have become hits – from instant noodle desserts, to the popular drink soda gembira (happy soda), which is a crazily sweet mix of Cherry-ade and condensed milk guaranteed to give you a sugar high.
While most other parts of Indonesia are largely Muslim, especially in Sumatra and Java, Bali stands out as being the only Hindu-majority island in Indonesia. The blend of Hinduism and native Balinese traditions practised there has influenced the cuisine. For instance, the people of Bali consume pork, which is forbidden to Muslims. Babi guling (roasted suckling pig) is one of Bali’s most famous dishes. I’ve personally known Singaporeans who travel to Bali just to eat it!
Balinese food tends to be very complex, with a taste that’s sharper than Javanese cuisine. There are also many dry dishes, which are smoked, grilled, or fried, many of which contain pork. Many of these are cooked in extremely complex spice pastes, usually pre-made. For example, Bebek betutu (spiced duck), another of Bali’s most famous dishes, is cooked using a specific type of paste known as betutu. On the other hand, base genep, for example, is a one-size-fits-all paste that can be used for many dishes.
Like most of Indonesia, the Balinese love sambal and have their own varieties. Sambal matah, a refreshing sambal with lemongrass, shallots and lime, is served almost everywhere in Bali.
Lombok is an island situated right next to Bali, and travellers often visit both islands in a single trip. With only about 200 km of water between them, these two popular beach destinations are geographically close to each other but culturally far apart, especially since Lombok is predominantly Muslim. Interestingly, Bali and Lombok are also separated by the Wallace Line, a faunal boundary line drawn in 1859 by the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. This basically means that the flora, fauna and wildlife on Lombok are dramatically different from those on Bali, and almost every other island west of Lombok.
Cuisine-wise, Lombok’s claim to fame is its ayam taliwang, a delicious grilled chicken that famous vlogger Mark Wiens said was his No. 1 dish of 2017. Extremely spicy with an intense smoky flavour, ayam taliwang has been exported all over Indonesia and has even made its way to Singapore. Taliwang Restaurant, on Kandahar Street, is named after it and is the only restaurant here that serves Lombok cuisine.
Other must-try Lombok dishes include a variety of sate (satays), as well as ares (young banana stem stewed in coconut milk) and nasi balap puyung (steamed rice served with soybeans, shredded chicken similar to be siap mesitsit, and other sides).
From Lombok, we move much further up north to the island of Sulawesi, which is one of Indonesia’s northernmost territories. There are six administrative provinces on this large island, with diverse ethnic groups with different cultural norms. Culinarily-speaking, Sulawesi is represented by two major cuisines: Manadonese, and Makassar.
Manadonese cuisine, or the cuisine of North Sulawesi, is named after its capital city Manado. A few years ago, Manadonese cuisine began to gain popularity in Jakarta, with spice-crazed Indonesians lapping up Manadonese food for its extreme chilli content. Ayam rica-rica, our very own recipe for Cook Me Indonesian, is a classic example.
Like the Balinese, Manadonese people also consume pork (due to its large Christian population), but seafood and chicken seem to be the most popular forms of meat. Additionally, wild game and exotic meats are common, including the fruit bat, which I doubt anybody is eating these days. Other unique dishes include cakalang fufu, or skipjack tuna that’s cured and smoked — a cooking technique fairly uncommon to Western Indonesia.
Makassar cuisine, on the other hand, specializes in hearty soups and stews. The cuisine is similarly named after a city – Makassar – which is the capital of South Sulawesi. The region is predominantly Muslim, so unlike Manado, Makassar cuisine precludes pork and exotic meats. Makassar’s most famous dish is Soto Makassar (a beef offal stew), and the city offers a variety of other beef stews and soups such as beef rib stew. Ikan bolu bakar, or grilled milk fish, is also delicious, as is ayam goreng Sulawesi (fried chicken marinated with soy sauce).