Southeast Asia has some of the finest cuisine in the world. It is remarkably varied, with each of the countries having their own distinctive dishes and their own takes on others that seem to crop up everywhere. Much of it is world renown. It is always difficult to pick the best food in Indonesia or anywhere else, but these personal favourites, I feel, would serve any first time visitor to the country’s shores.
This is probably considered the national dish of Indonesia, although there are others, and is found just about everywhere, its name means simply fried rice. It is certainly the most well known of Indonesian dishes and is pretty much ubiquitous throughout the archipelago. The rice is cooked in a similar style to Chinese fried rice, though the blend of spices are particular to Indonesia. It is more often than not accompanied by a fried egg. It has often been voted one of the most popular dishes in world cuisine.
Babi Panggang is Indonesian grilled pork, ‘Babi’ meaning pig or pork, and ‘Panggang’ means grilled or roasted in Malay. Babi Panggang Karo and Babi Panggang Toba are two similar dishes made by the Batak Toba and Batak Karo peoples of North Sumatra. Pigs are slaughtered, roasted and used in their entirety in order to make Babi Panggang. This delicious dish is normally served with a piquant sauce and has become a favourite on the Indonesian Rijstafels in the Netherlands, where it is called “Babi Panggang Speciaal. Classed the best food in Indonesia, it has travelled all over the world.
The literal translation of this means simply, dry curry. It is an extremely popular dish throughout Indonesia, though it originated from Padang (also called Minangkabau) in West Sumatra, where it is normally a dry beef stew. That is why it is either called Rendang Padang or Rendang Minangkabau. Rendang is just meat, normally beef, though sometimes goat, liver, chicken, or other meats, cooked in coconut milk and spices until dry. This results in an intense mixture of flavours and textures. It really is a superb dish and comes highly recommended. It is surely the best food in Indonesia for curry lovers. A dried version, resembling Jamaican Beef Jerky, can be kept for months. It is often given out to honoured guests and at important celebrations.
Quite often, the simpler the dish the more exquisite the flavour. Sate Ayam is one of those dishes. The chicken is skewered, marinated in white pepper, salt, glazed and sunflower oil and simply barbecued. It is served with a superb peanut sauce. In Java this is considered just as much a national dish as Nasi Goring. Very often served as a starter it is delicious. Many nations try to claim sate as their dish, but Indonesians consider it to be a national dish conceived by street vendors. It was probably popularised by Arab traders of old.
On the streets, vendors seek to be different. “Sate Madura” is served with rice cakes called Ketupat, and diced cucumber and onion. It is distinguished on the streets by the boat-shaped carts from which it is sold.
Popular throughout many parts of Southeast Asia, it is known to Singaporeans and Malaysians as Rojak. In Indonesia it is the favourite fruit snack and makes for a very healthy dessert. The types of fruit used and the sauces that accompany it vary region to region. They are though, all incredibly fresh and tasty. On Bali for example they have their own version called Rujak Cuka. It is a vinegar based fruit salad. The people of Bali prefer a thin vinegar based liquid with a sugar sauce, whereas on Java, the sauce is a ground, thick peanut sauce. A fermented version, the strong smelling ‘Rujak Kuah Pindang’ uses fermented fish & prawn paste, it is an acquired taste. The favourite fruit for this dish is young raw mango.
Ayam Goreng Sambal Mangga
This is Fried chicken with a mango Sambal. The unique flavour of the dish is created by the contrast between the savoury friend chicken and the sourness of the grated green mango. Similar to Som Tam in Thailand it has many variants. The level of spiciness can be tempered to suit your palate. The local Lalijiwo Mango is renowned for its distinguishable character; it is crunchy, dry and not too sour.
No many students go through their academic careers in Indonesia with eating this savoury meatball soup. Noodle soups are of course a favourite in most Asian countries and this variety earns its place as one of Indonesia’s favourite foods. It comes in many different varieties, the size and texture of the meatballs can vary dramatically, and they can be made from keef, pork chicken or a combination of them all. The Bakso is sold from carts called Kaki Lima and arrives with a garnish of boiled eggs, fried shallots and wontons. Any city centre will see hundreds of people, seated on small plastic chairs, enjoying their Bakso. When President Obama visited the country in 2013, he declared it to be his favourite amongst all Indonesia’s top foods.
A traditional Javanese dish from the town of Yogyakarta, Gudeg is made from unripened Jackfruit, boiled over a long period of time with coconut milk and palm sugar. It is further flavoured by the addition of Coriander seeds, Garlic, candlenuts, shallots, galangal, bay leaves and teak leaves. The teak leaves give the dish its distinctive red/brown colour. It is often served with either simple plain rice or chicken, eggs and tofu. For many of the locals this is more than just a dish, it is an obsession. Many claim it to be the most flavoursome dish in the world.
This is as simple as food gets. How the Indonesians get so much flavour into this is beyond me. It is simply chicken flash fried in a light batter in coconut oil. Unlike the KFC variety this is light on batter and full on flavour. The spices are generally a mixture of garlic, shallots, bay leaves, turmeric, tamarind, lemongrass, galangal, candlenut salt and sugar. The meat is marinated for a while in the mixture, then deep fried, quickly. It comes with steamed rice, a chilli sauce with shrimp paste, chilli and shallots in soi sauce and slices of tomato and cucumber. This has to be the best deep fried chicken on the planet.
Many soups are called Soto in traditional Indonesian cuisine. The soups are mainly composed of a mixture of broth, meat and vegetables. These are found from Sumatra to Papua and on just about every street corner. This is Asian comfort food at its best. This particular one is made from beef or beef offal. This is slow cooked in a whitish broth made by mixing cow milk or coconut milk with fried potatoes and tomatoes. It is served with a who;e variety of accompaniments depending whereabouts in Indonesia you find it. Potato patties, prawn crackers, seed crackers, tofu, fried shallots, just about anything.
This is by no means a complete list and many visitors to Indonesia will have their own personal favourites. What would you name as your best food in Indonesia? Let us have your choice.