“What do Indonesians eat?” This is a question I oft fielded after disclosing that I had accepted a Peace Corps assignment, and would be living in Indonesia for two years. Well, the short answer: rice. Indonesians eat rice. Lots and lots of rice.
To be clear, classifying anything as “Indonesian food” is a vague descriptor. It would be like referring to the vast culinary diversity throughout Europe under the blanket term “European food.” Technically true, and there may be similarities, but there are many different types of food, cooking styles, and culinary traditions which fall under such a broad category. Still being unfamiliar with all Indonesian foods I will have to make due by referring to the foods I’ve eaten as “Indonesian food,” since I struggle to differentiate between Sundanese, Javanese, or other kinds of food; though there are clear differences.
“If you haven’t eaten rice, you haven’t eaten,” is a common adage in Indonesia. I have yet to encounter an Indonesian meal served without rice. It is considered strange how Americans do not eat rice every day and absurd that we may even go weeks without it. Some people believe that if you don’t eat rice you’ll get sick. Rice is always the main course of any dish and it is commonly the white variety. The prevalence of rice in Indonesian food has been a challenge for some volunteers. I suppose, as far as hardships go, having to eat a lot of rice isn’t too bad.
Fortunately, I have had no issues with a rice-centered diet. I have actually found it to be quite nice (quite rice, eh? Sorry). The convenience of rice makes a lot of sense. The ibu of the house will throw a couple handfuls of rice and some water into the rice cooker and a couple hours later there’s rice all day! The simplicity is quite appealing and, I imagine, if I don’t succumb to a hatred for those little white oblong ovals, upon returning to the States I’ll continue the habit of eating my meals with lots of rice.
The fact that many helpings of rice are available at pretty much anytime throughout the day aids itself to another, somewhat unique, Indonesian eating habit. Indonesians don’t really have set times to eat. The words for lunch and dinner are makan siang and makan malam, which literally mean day eating and night eating.
Indonesians will eat when it is convenient and when they are hungry. Because of this, food is often prepared in the early morning then left out all day for people to consume at their leisure. I’m not thrilled about eating food which has been out and exposed to the elements for several hours, but I have yet to have any issues with this system. To help protect and preserve the food a basket is placed over it to keep off flies.
Now to the good stuff.
Sate is grilled meat on a skewer. It’s generally covered in a sweet and spicy sauce and is a perennial favorite among Indonesians and foreigners alike. I wouldn’t list it as my favorite Indonesian food, but it’s a reliable and safe bet when choosing a food in Indonesia.
A hit among Indonesians, and somewhat famous in its own right. Bakso is meatball soup. I’ve only had this dish twice and on both occasions it was underwhelming. Each time was exactly what the name would suggest: meatballs in soup. The meat isn’t even spiced, or if it was, I couldn’t tell. Considering how Indonesian cuisine is normally flavorful, this was a surprise and disappointing.
Bakso is famous because, as I have been told by no fewer than two dozen Indonesians, president Obama likes bakso. Now, I try not to be critical of our president, but I seriously question his judgment, at least his tastebuds’ judgement, when he says bakso is “enak,” delicious. As you may be aware, Mr. Obama lived in Indonesia in his youth. He must have lived here after there was some terrible accident with his tongue that caused him to lose all ability to taste things (made that up, but it explains his poor choice of Indonesian food).
Nasi pecel [nah-see puh-chull]
By far my favorite food to have eaten here so far. Of Javanese origin, but can be found throughout the island of Java in varying forms. It’s a rice salad with peanut sauce. Hard to explain because there is so much variation, but the vegetables are always delicious and pair excellently with the peanut sauce. If you have an opportunity to try Indonesian food I would suggest starting with nasi pecel.
Another Obama favorite, though this one is actually delicious. Nasi goreng is fried rice. Fairly standard and always very tasty. But it’s not prepared as frequently as one might expect. I have only had nasi goreng one time since arriving in Indonesia but it’s perhaps the most popular Indonesian food.
“Anda suka makanan peda?” Do you like spicy food? Yes, I do. And Indonesians always think it’s fascinating when I tell them so. Many Indonesians think Americans don’t like, or simply can’t eat, spicy foods. Unfortunately, whenever I display any physiological response to eating spicy food they think it’s hilarious. If I so much as take a sip of water after eating a bit of something particularly spicy I’ll be asked if it’s too spicy for me, to which I’ll respond in the negative, and then my questioner will burst out laughing.
The first food I really liked in Indonesia. It’s nothing fancy, essentially just a fried vegetable fritter. Commonly comprised of cabbage, carrots, and beansprouts all held together with egg. Sometimes there will be peppers thrown in as well which make the bakwan experience all the more delectable.
These things are ubiquitous across the archipelago. In Kediri there was a krupuk factory which I guess made it convenient enough to ensure every meal was accompanied by plenty of krupuk. They’re made out of rice starch and sometimes with fish and/or prawn for flavoring. Light and crispy, krupuk come in many different shapes and sizes with variety matching the cultural diversity of Indonesia. If there is one truly “Indonesian food,” it’s krupuk.
Tempe, or as it’s called in English: tempeh, is another Indonesian staple. Fermented soy cakes that have been fried. Unlike most soy products, this one hails exclusively from Indonesia. It’s a very versatile and nutritious food that is used in many Indonesian dishes or can be consumed by itself.
Iced fruit soup. Very tasty and full of many exciting and exotic (to me) fruits. Often served at gatherings, this punch-like treat is another favorite of mine. The “broth” of this soup is typically condensed milk. One thing which might be surprising to Americans is how Indonesians treat the avocado as a fruit. Finding avocado in sweet dishes is very common. One of the better street smoothies I’ve had was a chocolate-avocado mix.
Indonesians do not drink a lot of milk and they do not think of milk as something to be drank in the morning. My PST host family let me know they thought it was weird I drank milk after breakfast, yet they still provided me with a glass each morning despite the fact that I never asked for one—this was one of the things that endeared them to me. Apparently, milk is an evening drink.
Indonesians do not eat much bread. They eat rice. There is bread, but I can’t think of anyone who buys it. During my first two weeks of PST there was a loaf of bread on the table at every meal. As the days went by I watched mold slowly consume that loaf (rest in peace, bread). I didn’t realize until several weeks later the bread had been bought specifically for me because my host family was worried I wouldn’t like their food.
Ants aren’t on the menu but they are on the plate. Due to food being left out for hours, and eating on the floor, occasionally some ants will wander onto a plate of food, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll take a bite of something covered in ants. This has only happened to me twice, but that’s still two more times than it ever happened to me in America. More often than not, if there are ants, it’s just a few of them. I tend to think of them more as omens than anything else now. Neither good nor bad, but omens which quietly remind me, “You are in the Peace Corps.”
Indonesians eat less meat than Americans. And nowhere near as much beef. The most common animal protein found on the Indonesian dinner table is poultry, either chicken or duck. Fish is also very common, particularly in Sundanese food. Beef is expensive due to the amount of land required to raise cattle, something hard to come by on the world’s most populated island. Goat and water buffalo meat can also be found in markets. Pork is extremely rare in Indonesia because Muslims are not allowed to eat pig meat.
Indonesians do not eat dogs, though I bet that header had you thinking they do. Well, not many Indonesians eat dogs. Dogs, like pigs, are considered unclean in Islam so eating one would be very bad. Since Java is mostly Muslim finding a place to eat a dog is difficult. Thankfully.