Indonesian Cuisine, More Than a Meal

Indonesian cuisine

Indonesian cuisine is famous for its variety and taste.  Every region in Indonesia has its own special food and custom. In West Java – where Sundanese live most – they like to eat fresh vegetables and sambal. As such, there is a ridiculous joke that says you can leave them in the garden and they will be fine. And they like to drink tea without sugar. On the other hand, Javanese (Central and East Java) prefer something sweet. So, tea should be sweet while in Padang (West Sumatra), they like spicy food.

The famous Indonesia’s culinary expert  William Wongso has a ready answer when asked by Maggie Tiojakin (published in Weekender May 2009) to define Indonedian cuisine. First of all, “there is no such thing as Indonesian food” says William. “Whenever someone asks me to explain what Indonesian food entails, I always tell them: “We are too many, therefore we are no-many”.

Further on William says: “Indonesia is comprised of thousands of regions and each region has its own special dish, some of which we are already know, and others we don’t. So if you say nasi goreng, satay and gado-gado are the real Indonesian dishes – I beg to differ. I think there is so much more”


Indoneisan cuisine3

William Wongso is a renowned restaurateur, food consultant, critic and host of his own very popular television series ‘Cooking Adventures with William Wongso’. In 2001 the French Ministry of Agriculture bestowed on Mr Wongso the honor of Chevalier dans l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole. His talk will dispel the myths built up around Indonesian food and will offer an appreciation of the real essence of Indonesian cuisine.


Indonesian food reflects the country’s diverse cultures and traditions. In general, Indonesian food is rich in spices. The indigenous cooking techniques and ingredients have benefited from trade and influences originating in places as far away as India, China, the Middle East, and Europe.

The rijstafel (rice table)

It was during the colonial times that the “rijst tafel” (Dutch for rice table) was introduced to the Western world, which was usually an elaborate buffet with rice as the main dish and maybe a dozen or so side dishes of different variety

Regional dishes

Different regions in Indonesia offer different dishes. The Minangkabau region  in West Sumatra, is represented all over the world for it’s Padang food (Padang is the capital city of West Sumatra). Padang food is pretty spicy and in local restaurants it is being served by waiters who will put all of the earlier prepared dishes on your table and you only pay for the ones you have touched.


Padang food

Rice is the staple food

Rice is a staple food for majority of Indonesians. It holds an important place in the country’s culture. It shapes the landscape, is served in most meals, and drives the economy. Plain rice is known as nasi putih. Often, it is accompanied by a few protein and vegetable side dishes. Rice is also served as ketupat (rice steamed in woven packets of coconut leaves), lontong (rice steamed in rolled banana leaves) and many other rice dishes such as the festive yellow rice (nasi kuning), nasi timbel etc.


nasi tumpeng putih

Staple foods in other regions

In the eastern part of Indonesia, corn, sago, cassava, and sweet potatoes are more common. Sago is a powdery starch made from processed pith, the soft and spongy cells found inside the trunk of the Sago Palm (Metroxylon sago). Sago is usually cooked as pancake and eaten with fish and vegetable side dishes.


 As its endless coastlines are strategically located between two oceans, the country enjoys an abundance of salt-water fish and seafood. Its many lakes and rivers too provide fresh-water fish. Not surprisingly, fish is major source of protein for the people of Indonesia. Fish is usually fried, grilled, baked, or cooked.


Next to meat and fish, Indonesians’ other main source of protein is soy. Soy-based dishes such as tahu (tofu) and tempe are very popular in Indonesia. In fact, tempe is an adaptation of tofu to the tropical climate of Indonesia. Tempe is uniquely Indonesian. It is made through a controlled fermentation process that binds soybean into a cake form. The fermented soybean holds more protein, dietary fiber, and vitamins than regular tofu. Tempe is usually prepared by cutting it into small pieces, soaking it in a salty sauce and then frying it to a golden brown. Cooked tempe can be eaten alone or accompanied with chili


Sambal is  the most famous Indonesian condiment. It is made of various spices including chili, shallots, garlic, and terasi (shrimp paste). It can be served either as a side dish or as a substitute for fresh chili. Sambal is often cooked with fish, vegetables, and meat. Some popular Indonesian sambal include sambal bajak, sambal balado, sambal belacan, and sambal tomat. 


Fruit is also an important part of the Indonesian diet. Fruit is usually served fresh, made into dessert, jelly, or rujak (fruits mixed with palm sugar sauce). Tropical fruits such as banana, papaya, coconut, pineapple, jackfruit, salak, and others are widely available throughout the islands. Seasonal fruits such as water melon, mangosteen, rambutan and durian are also available.


Traditionally, the main meal is served at midday. Food that was cooked in the morning is set out all at once for the rest of the day. Members of the family then help themselves, serving with a spoon and eating with their right hands. Today, meals are eaten using modern utensils, usually a fork and a spoon. A soup or vegetable dish may be included in a meal. Sambal is often served with the food


Street Hawker 

hawker gorengan

There are many sidewalk stalls in Indonesia. They are called  as “Pedagang Kaki Lima” literally means ‘5-Legged-traders’.  So, we don’t need to come in a restaurant or food stall to fill in our stomachs. If our pocket is in crisis, come and try food in the sidewalk. They usually sell on a small tent or pushcart on sidewalk city. They have unique ways to attract people. For example, a meat ball seller strikes the meat ball pan or a Indonesian chicken noodle seller makes sounds by bamboos. Sure, it will not be a boring culinary tourism.

fruit hawker


  • Wikipedia
  • Weekender Monthly Magazine of Jakarta Post (May09 edition)
  • Belindo Indonesia Portal






4 responses to “Indonesian Cuisine, More Than a Meal

  1. Hi Wina,

    I was just thinking about you and the earthquakes that have struck Indonesia. I hope you and your family are safe.

    • Thanks a lot, I am fine. The place where the earth quake hit was in Sumatra island and I live in Jakarta in Java island. As a nation we are very sad with what has happened there.

  2. I would like to ask pak William Wongso why most Indonesian restaurants use MSG in their cooking. Indonesian dishes are rich and full of wonderful natural flavours due to the multitude of spices used one would like to think that MSG, also known as flavour enhancer, is completely unnecessary. And, MSG is actually not good for health.

    If pak William Wongso agrees, is there an awareness educational program to inform the public about the fact that MSG has a lot of negative side effects for one’s health.

    The Chinese Food restaurant establishment in Canada, who used to use a lot of MSG, is now moving away from using MSG. Many, in fact advertise this fact so as to promote their restaurants.


    Darmo Sugeng
    Toronto, Canada

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    nice work.

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