Spice Up Your Life the Indonesian Way

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Indonesian cuisine is the blending of seasonings, be they fresh herbs, spices or a host of aromatics to produce some of the world’s most flavoredful food. Some of the spices are familiar to cooks around the world but some others are indigenous to the area.   

One day, when discussing about Indonesian cooking with a Canadian friend, I found out that as an expatriate living in Indonesia, she wish she could find a list of Indonesian spices and cooking ingredients available both in English and Bahasa Indonesia. She said she loves Indonesian dishes but the difficulty of cooking Indonesian dish is to find the right ingredients. Many times she knows the name of the ingredients in English but does not know how the Indonesian call them or read recipes of Indonesian dishes with list of ingredients in Bahasa without the English translation. I can understand her frustration.

To help my Canadian friend and also other expatriates in Indonesia who face the same situation, in this post I list downs some basic and often used Indonesian spices and cooking ingredients in English and also  what each ingredient is called in Bahasa Indonesia. 

Banana leaves (=daun pisang) infuse a delicate flavor and aroma to foods and are used as wrappers when steaming or grilling dishes or as little trays to hold food when cooking. Soften the leaves in boiling water before use to prevent them from cracking when folded.


Basil is often used as a seasoning and garnish in Indonesian cooking and there are several types:

  • Asian basil (=selasih) is fairly similar to European and American sweet basil. It is used literally as a seasoning and sprigs of it are often added to platters of fresh raw vegetables.

  • Lemon basil (=kemangi) is similar but paler and with a distinctive lemony fragrance. It is used in soups and salads.


Candlenuts (=kemiri) are waxy, cream colored nuts similar in size and texture to macadamia nuts, which can be used as a substitute although less-expensive raw almonds or cashews will do also. Candlenuts are never eaten raw or on their own, but chopped, ground and cooked with seasoning and added to curries and spice mixes for flavor and texture.


Carambola (=belimbing wuluh) is a pale green acidic fruit about 5-8 cm long. It grows in clusters and is related to the larger starfruit. Carambola is used whole or sliced to add a sour tang to soups, fish dishes and sambals. Substitute tamarind juice or sour grapefruit.


Cardamom pods (=kapulaga) are used to flavor curries and desserts, giving foods to heady sweet scent. The fibrous, straw-colored pods enclose 15-20 pungent, black seeds. Whole pods are bruised lightly with a cleaver or a pestle before use. Try not to use ground cardamom as it is virtually flavorless compared to the whole pods.

Chayote (=labu Siam) is an oval, pale green squash with a small white seed. When boiled, the seed is not only edible but also very delicious. Substitute zucchini.


Chilies (=cabe) are used throughout Indonesia. The commonly-used fresh green and red Asian finger-length chilies are moderately hot. Tiny red, green or yellow-orange bird’s-eye chilies (=cabe rawit) are very hot, designed for strong palate.


Cinnamon (=kayu manis) is lighter in color, thinner and more expensive than cassia bark which often sold as cinnamon. Cassia bark has a stronger flavor, but makes an acceptable substitute where cinnamon stick are called for.

Coconut milk (=santan) is available fresh or canned and in packets which are quick, convenient and quite tasty.  Desiccated coconut is grated coconut flesh that has been finely ground and dried. Sweetened and un-sweetened coconut  flakes of several sizes are sold in packets, usually in the baking section of the supermarkets.


Coriander seeds (= ketumbar) are one of the most commonly used spices in Indonesia. The small, round seeds have a mild citrus fragrance. They are used whole, or ground into a powder.


Cumin seeds (=jinten) are pale brown to black in color and rigged on the outside. They impart an earthy flavor and are used whole, or roasted and ground to a fine powder. Cumin seeds are usually partnered with coriander seeds in basic spice-mixes and are often dry-roasted or fried in oil to intensify the flavor.  


Dried Shrimp-paste (=terasi) is a dense mixture of fermented ground shrimp with a very strong odor that may be offensive to some. It is sold in dried blocks that range in color from caramel to dark brown. It should be roasted before use – either wrapped in foil and dry-toasted in a wok or skillet or toasted over a gas flame on the end of a fork or back of a spoon to enhance its flavor and kill its bacteria. In some recipes, dried shrimp-paste is ground with the rest of the ingredients and fried in oil without toasting.



Galangal (=lengkuas or laos) is a fragrant root from the ginger family. It imparts a distinctive fragrance and flavor to many Indonesian dishes. Try to find the young, pinkish galangal as they are more tender. Always peel and slice the root before grinding as it is tough.


Kaffir lime leaves (=daun jeruk purut) are added whole to some Indonesian dishes giving them a wonderfully tangy flavor.  


Keluwak comes from the kepayang tree (Pangium edule) of Indonesia, a member of the flacourtia family (Flacourtiaceae). The oily, hard-shelled seeds superficially resemble Brazil nuts. Meaty seeds are edible after the poisonous hydrocyanic acid is removed by soaking and boiling them in water. Cooked seeds are used in a number of popular Indonesian dishes. 


Kencur  sometimes mistakenly called lesser galangal, is also known as zedoary. Kencur has a unique camphor-like flavor and should be used sparingly. It must be rinsed and the skin scrapped off before using. Dried kencur should be soaked in boiling water for 30 minutes to soften before use.


Lemongrass (=sereh) is a fragrant, lemony stalks that is either bruised or use whole in soups or curries or sliced and ground as part of a basic spice mix. The tough outer layer should be peeled away and only the inner part of the thick lower third of the stem is used. Always slice the stem before grinding to get a smooth paste.


Melinjo (= Gentum gnemon) is a tree found wild in the forests and is also cultivated. The melinjo leaves are treated as herbs and vegetable. There is no common English name for this tree and one has to go to Indonesia to find it readily in the market. Spray of young leaves and immature nuts with a fleshy green to red coating are an essential ingredient in West Javanese sour soup called ‘Sayur Asem’.


The mature nuts are dried and pounded to make the very popular and tasty ’emping goreng’ or deep-fried crackers.   


Nutmeg (=biji pala) is the inner kernel of the fruit of the nutmeg tree. Always grate whole nutmeg just before using as the powdered spice loses its fragrance quickly. Whole nutmegs can be kept for a long time.


Palm sugar (gula jawa) is sold as a solid block or cylinder of sugar made from the sap of the coconut or sugar palm. It varies in color from gold to light brown and has a faint caramel taste. Palm sugar can be used as substitute of brown sugar.


Pandan leaves (=daun pandan) impart a subtle fragrance and a green hue to a range of Indonesian dishes. They are usually tied in a knot and then added to a liquid recipe. Vanilla essence may be substituted in desserts recipes.


Salam leaves (=daun salam)  from the cassia family are used in the same way bay leaves are used in Western cooking. – to add a complex earthy, fragrance to dishes. If unavailable, you may omit them from the recipe. Do not substitute with bay leaves as the flavor is totally different.


Star anise (=bunga tawang) is an 8-pointed dried pod encasing shiny black seeds with a strong aniseed flavor. The whole spice is usually used when cooking and discarded before serving. Whole star anise can be kept for a year in an airtight container.

Sweet Soy Sauce (=kecap manis) is much sweeter and thicker than normal soy sauce. It has palm sugar and cane molasses added. If unavailable, you can just add brown sugar to dark Chinese soy sauce.


Tamarind (=asam jawa) is a fruit that is often sold dried in Indonesia. It is used as a souring agent    in many dishes. To obtain tamarind juice, mash one part tamarind pulp in 2 parts of warm water and strain. Discard the seed and fibers. The dried pulp can be kept for a long time in an airtight container.


Tempeh (= tempe) or fermented soybean cakes, a Javanese creation, are made of compressed, lightly fermented soybeans with delicious nutty flavor. They can be fried, steamed or baked and are a rich source of protein, riboflavin, calcium and iron. They are low in cholesterol and sodium and are increasingly popular with health enthusiasts.Turmeric (=kunyit) is a root similar to ginger but with a bright yellow to orange color and a strong woody flavor. Turmeric has antiseptic and astringent qualities and stains permanently, so scrub your knife blade, hands and chopping boards immediately after handling.

  • Authentic Recipes from Indonesia by Heinz von Holzen and Lother Rosana
  • Wikipedia

6 responses to “Spice Up Your Life the Indonesian Way

  1. I found this and it helps me a lot..thank you

  2. Is there any place I can get a fairly large list of spices and seasonings used in Indonesia????? I live in america and am helping a friend that lives there learn to cook…I’m trying to get as big a list as I can that also gives the flavor….Thank You in advance for your time.
    Mike Cook

  3. Pingback: Cooking with Nora | Two Hungry People

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