Indonesia, the Tropical Islands of Spice and Rice

Paddy field Indonesia

Being a researcher as my profession has led me to conduct desk research for my new-found cooking hobby. I browsed the internet, read many books and interviewed some people trying to find out all about cooking. And as Indonesian, of course I started my research on my home country cooking.

Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago, consist of more than 17,000 tropical islands ranging from the world’s largest to mere tiny coral atolls stretching some 8000 kilometers from the northwestern tip of Sumatra to the southeastern of Papua. Indonesia is a home to some 235 million people and it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate motto for this nation than Bhineka Tunggal Ika which means Unity in Diversity.

A typical Indonesian meal can be described as simple mound of rice accompanied by several savory side dishes of veggie, fish or meat or chicken dish with a chili-hot condiment (sambal) on the side and crispy wafers (kerupuk) and fried shallots sprinkled on top to provide a crunchy contrast (this description is valid mainly for Sumatra, Java & Bali, the most populated islands). In other islands of the archipelago we can discover the diversity of the Indonesia’s native cuisines.

Indonesian spices

Preparing Indonesian food does not require a complex arrays of ingredients or a number of utensils needed as I used to think. First and foremost you need a tool to grind or crush the seasonings (bumbu). I use a saucer-shaped mortar and a pestle both made of volcanic stones. You can also use food processor, blender or spice grinder as the easier way to prepare the basic spice paste.

Also important is a chopping board and a heavy non-stick wok that won’t tip over easily. To partner the wok, I use a wooden spatula and a perforated ladle for lifting up deep fried food are useful.

I learned from some cooking books that it is not advisable to use aluminum or cast iron saucepan for cooking Indonesian food. Many of our recipes contain acidic ingredients such as tamarind or lime juice, or coconut milk and using aluminum or cast-iron will result in discolored sauce or can cause a chemical reaction. Choose either stainless steel, glass or enamel saucepan.

Rice, the soul of the Indonesian Life

For Indonesian, rice is more than just a staple food. Even when we have eaten Big Mac or a bowl of noodle soup, for many Indonesians including me, it feels like we have not eaten yet if we have not eaten rice.

One of Indonesia’s most popular dishes is fried rice (Nasi Goreng). It is prepared in countless different ways and is eaten morning, noon and night. During my stay at my sister’s house in Bern (Switzerland), she cooked me the classic Nasi Goreng from my mom’s recipe. This classic version is accompanied by sunny side-up fried egg (telor mata sapi) and deep-fried shrimp crackers (kerupuk udang). Any sort of left-over meat or shrimp or chicken may be added but the source of the true flavor of Indonesia comes from the use of chilies and roasted shrimp-paste (terasi).

nasi goreng special

• 500 gram cold cooked rice or leftover rice
• 3 table spoon oil
• 2 eggs
• 4 shallots, peeled and sliced
• 2 cloves of garlic, peeled & sliced
• 2 - 4 red chilies, chopped
• 2 teaspoons dried shrimp paste, roasted
• 200 g chicken meat or any other left-over meat, diced
• 200 g thinly sliced cabbage
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 tablespoon Indonesian sweet soy sauce (kecap manis)
• Sliced cucumber & tomato to garnish


• Flake the cold rice with a fork or fingers to separate the grains. Set aside
• Grease the non stick skillet with vegetable oil and fry the egg. Remove from the heat and set aside.
• Pound the shallots, garlic, chilies and roasted shrimp-paste in a mortar and pestle into a paste.
• Heat the remaining oil in the wok over medium heat and stir fry the spice-paste 1-2 minutes or until fragrant.
• Add the chicken dice until almost cooked around 2 minutes, add the cabbage and continue to stir fry until the cabbage is almost wilted around 2 minutes
• Add the rice, salt and Indonesian sweet soy sauce (kecap manis) and stir fry briskly until all the ingredients mixed well and heated through, about 2 minutes.
• Remove from the heat.
• Transfer the fried rice to serving dish and top with fried egg and if liked garnish with cucumber & tomato slices.

Notes & Tips

It is important to use cold cooked rice (leftover rice of yesterday which is kept in refrigerator) since freshly cooked rice is too soft and will absorb the oil. It’s good to use long-grain rice (e.g. basmati rice) because it remains separate when cooked correctly.


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