A Glossary of Indonesian Ingredients, Cooking Techniques, and Flavour Profiles

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Deyana Goh
Deyana was born in Singapore and lives there. She is half-Chinese, half-Arab, with a grandmother who was born to an Arab family in Bogor, Indonesia. Deyana grew up eating Indonesian food as it is cooked in Arab-Indonesian households, and has fond memories of the festive whole chicken stuffed with lamb.

As in most other cuisines, the names of many Indonesian dishes are simply short descriptions of what the dish is. Ayam goreng is to Indonesian what “fried chicken” is to English – literally, chicken that is fried. This straightforward method of encapsulating what a dish is extends even to fancy-sounding French dishes like crème brûlée (burnt cream) or soufflé (to bake until it puffs up).

There are other ways of naming dishes, of course — such as by its place of origin (Ayam Goreng Kalasan) or, by its taste or colour (sambal ijo, or green sambal), or by assigning an exclusive name to a specific dish (rendang). But in general, many dishes are named by merely listing the main ingredient and the cooking technique, like tumis sardines (sauteed sardines) or sop ayam (chicken soup). Knowing the names of ingredients in Indonesian, along with the names of cooking techniques, can usually give you a good idea of the dish. 

If you feel like experimenting, you can refer to our list below, our recipes and then mix-and-match as you please. For example, instead of oseng-oseng tempe, you can create your own oseng-oseng tahu. This might be a fun exercise, although in Indonesia, the recipe will generally be tweaked to complement the main ingredient. Or, you can create your own Indonesian dish, such as tomat goreng pedas (spicy fried tomatoes) or pisang bumbu manis (bananas cooked in sweet spice paste).

Here’s a basic list for a start, but there are hundreds more! We’ve also included a short list of flavour profiles, as some dishes are named as such, as with ikan asin, or salted fish.

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Main ingredients

Ayam – chicken

Bebek – duck

Bihun – rice vermicelli

Buntut – tail, usually oxtail

Cumi – squid or calamari

Daging – the general term for meat, usually referring to red meat

Iga – ribs, usually beef ribs

Ikan – fish.

Kambing – lamb or mutton

Kepiting – crab

Mie – yellow noodles

Nasi – rice

Petis – seasoning paste made of fish or shrimp, processed with salt and palm sugar

Pisang – banana

Sambal – freshly made chilli paste or sauce

Santan – coconut milk

Sapi – beef

Sayur – the general term for vegetables. Specific types of vegetables include bayam (spinach), kangkung (morning glory), buncis (green beans), labu siam (chayote), and numerous others.

Tahu – tofu

Tauco – preserved fermented yellow soybean paste

Telor (or telur) – egg

Tempeh – fermented soy cake

Terasi – shrimp paste

Tomat – tomato

Udang – prawn or shrimp

Glossary of Cooking Methods

Bacem – a Javanese term, meaning to cook in a specific spice paste, and then deep-fry.

Bakar – to barbeque or grill

Bobor – a Javanese term, meaning to braise in diluted coconut milk.

Bumbu – spice paste

Goreng – to fry, usually meaning “to deep fry”

Kukus – to steam

Oseng-oseng – a Javanese term, meaning to saute.

Penyet – to smash

Tumis – to saute until fragrant. 

Saus – sauce

Sop – soup, usually not of Indonesian origin

Soto – Indonesian soups containing meat and vegetables

Suwir – shredded, as in “shredded chicken”

Basic flavour profiles

Asem (also spelled Asam) – sour, but also refers to fruit of the tamarind tree

Asin – salty

Manis – sweet

Pahit – bitter

Pedas – spicy

Gurih – savoury

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