An Introduction to Indonesian Food

Famous Dishes, What to Try, and Useful Terms for Ordering

Rojak Indonesian Food
••• Rojak is a unique Indonesian food dessert not to be missed. Photo by Greg Rodgers

Indonesian food is as varied and unpredictable as the archipelago. With 238 million people sprinkled throughout more than 17,000 islands, it’s no wonder that menus change as you travel further afield. And while different regions boast their own, unique specialties, a few familiar dishes are ubiquitous and will be found nearly everywhere that you go.

  • See some essential information to know before visiting Indonesia.

    Eating in Indonesia

    Outside of tourist restaurants, don’t be surprised if your food arrives barely warm or at room temperature. Many Indonesians often have irregular eating schedules, so food is prepared early and served throughout the day. Food is usually eaten with the hands -- another good reason not to serve it too hot!

    • See all the ins and outs of eating in Indonesia.

    Rice or Noodles?

    White rice is the default in Indonesia, however, you will encounter some delicious, fried noodle dishes. Most meals, especially ones in Padang restaurants, begin with a heaping portion of white rice.

    • Rice: nasi (pronounced: nah-see)
    • Fried Rice: nasi goreng (pronounced: nah-see gor-ang)
    • White Rice: nasi putih (pronounced: nah-see poo-tee)
    • Noodles: mei or mee (pronounced: mee)

    Mie/mee goreng, fried noodles, are a good substitute for when you can’t possibly eat any more rice. Noodles are unpredictable across Indonesia.

    Mie goreng can vary from thin, yellow noodles to fried spaghetti. In the worst cases, mie goreng may simply be ‘mama mee’ -- the cheapest instant noodles with an MSG-laden flavor pack.

    • See 10 FAQ about Asian food.

    Meat in Indonesia

    While there are often great vegetarian choices available on menus, Indonesians love to eat meat.

    From satay, delicious meat skewers cooked on charcoal grills, to the usual stir-fried offerings, meat is always on the menu.

    • Meat: daging (pronounced: da-ging)
    • Chicken: ayam (pronounced: aye-am)
    • Beef: sapi (pronounced: sa-pee)
    • Pork: babi (pronounced: ba-bee)
    • Mutton: kambing (pronounced: gahm-ping)

    Don’t be surprised if the meat in dishes arrives with bones and fat intact. While some tourist restaurants will pick apart chicken to provide only white-meat pieces, you’ll more often receive chunks of chicken with small, sharp bones.

    Seafood in Indonesia

    With so many islands and a fishing culture, cheap, delicious seafood can be found throughout Indonesia. But don’t assume that just because a restaurant sits near the sea that the fish is fresh: cooks will always use the oldest seafood in the kitchen first to avoid waste. Look for restaurants with a high volume to ensure the best seafood experience.

    • Seafood: makanan laut (pronounced: mok-a-naan lowt)
    • Fish: ikan (pronounced: ee-kan)
    • Shrimp: udang (pronounced: oo-dahng)
    • Squid: cumi-cumi (pronounced: choomy-choomy)

    Dried, whole anchovies known as ikan bilis are sometimes added to dishes for a fishy flavor. The same goes for udang kecil -- small, dried shrimp with a strong, fishy taste.

    Nasi Goreng in Indonesia

    Nasi goreng (Indonesian-style fried rice) could be considered the national dish of Indonesia: you’ll encounter it everywhere and travelers use it as a cheap, familiar standby. President Obama was even served nasi goreng during his 2010 visit to Indonesia.

    Indonesia’s take on fried rice isn’t the same as the familiar fried rice served in Chinese restaurants around the world. Nasi goreng is more fragrant and flavorful with seasonings and additions. Some of the most popular varieties appearing on menus are:

    • Nasi Goreng: the simplest version of Indonesian fried rice
    • Nasi Goreng Special: a fried egg is placed on top of the rice to add protein
    • Nasi Goreng Ayam: a piece of fried chicken is added
    • Nasi Goreng Cina: usually an attempt to recreate ‘Chinese-style’ fried rice

    Read more about nasi goreng in Indonesia and see a recipe.

    Tempeh

    Tempeh is a unique, Indonesian food that has caught on with healthy eaters around the world. Soybeans are fermented with a special process and then compressed into patties. Tempeh is much firmer and nuttier than tofu, making it a great meat substitute. The fermentation process also causes tempeh to become easier to digest than simple tofu.

    Tempeh goreng is simply stir-fried tempeh that has been cut into pieces. For a spicy, delicious twist, try sambal tempeh prepared in a flavorful tomato-chili sauce.

    More Popular Indonesian Dishes

    Indonesian food is about a lot more than just nasi goreng. Here are some popular dishes on offer in tourist areas:

    • Gado-Gado: Gado-gado literally means “hodgepodge,” and that’s exactly what it is. A mix of vegetables and/or greens are stir-fried and then coated in a thick, rich peanut sauce.
    • Ayam Goreng: Served with or without rice, simple fried chicken (ayam goreng) is on offer throughout Indonesia.
    • Bakso: Available from street carts throughout Indonesia, bakso is usually served as a delicious beef-ball soup, often with noodles. The meatballs have the texture of fish balls found elsewhere in Asia.
    • Rojak: A unique dessert found in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, rojak is a plate of fruit covered in a sweet, sticky sauce and crushed peanuts. Chili and even a fishy paste sometimes lend rojak an unforgettable taste.

    Useful Indonesian Food Terms

    • Rumah makan: restaurant
    • Roti: bread
    • Air: water
    • Nasi: rice
    • Mee: noodles
    • Bakar: baked
    • Goreng: fried
    • Ikan: fish
    • Ayam: chicken
    • Sapi: beef
    • Babi: pork
    • Tahu: tofu
    • Sayur: vegetables
    • Telur: egg
    • Sambal: chili paste
    • Pedas: spicy
    • Teh: tea