Satay and sambal: 12 foods that every visitor to Indonesia must try

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(CNN) — As the largest archipelagic nation in the world, Indonesia is teeming with diverse cultures and influences spread across 1,904,569 square kilometers (735,358 sq mi).

That makes it a big challenge to summarize the flavors of the country in just a few paragraphs.

“Indonesian food culture is based on the regional cuisine of 17,500 islands, 38 provinces and 700 dialects,” says Indonesian cookbook author William Wongso.

“The tastes of Indonesia are very diverse. From Aceh (the westernmost province of Indonesia) to West Sumatra (also a western province) is only about 1.5 hours flight, but their food and taste profiles are completely different.”

The 75-year-old author of Flavors of Indonesia: William Wongso’s Culinary Wonders. says that even though he’s been traveling and eating around Indonesia for decades, he still hasn’t tried every local dish.

For example, in the Moluccas of eastern Indonesia, once nicknamed the “Spice Islands,” chefs prefer fresh spices like cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Aceh, on the other hand, often contains dried spices thanks to the influence of India, Arabia, and China.

Padang (or Minangkabau) cuisine in West Sumatra makes heavy use of coconut cream, chili peppers, shallots and some curry spices, as well as ginger and galangal with aromatic herbs such as turmeric leaves, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass.

Javanese are experts at using the tri-colored spice pastes – red (made of chili peppers, shallots and garlic), white (candlenuts, shallots and garlic) and yellow (candlenuts, shallots, garlic and turmeric).

“Central Java’s flavor profile is sweeter than East Java,” adds Wongso.

Are you ready to enjoy the overwhelming variety of Indonesian cuisine? Here are some dishes that offer a taste of the many delicious flavors on offer.

Beef Rendang

Beef rendang is incredibly tender. The beef is coated in dry curry that has been stewed for hours.

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It is no exaggeration to say that beef rendang is one of the tastiest foods on earth.

Rendang is a dry curry dish associated with the Minangkabau ethnic group, native to West Sumatra. It’s a great way to preserve meat – essential for the Minangkabau on their travels.

There is no recipe for rendang. “There are about 900 districts in West Sumatra, and each has its own style of rendang,” says Wongso.

But one of the most common meats found in rendang is beef. It’s simmered for hours in coconut milk and spices like lemongrass, galangal, garlic, turmeric, ginger and chilies until the meat is incredibly tender and the curry mixture is reduced to a relatively dry casing around the meat.

tempeh

A rising star in plant-based diets around the world, tempeh has been a constant in Javanese culture for more than four centuries.

The low-fat, high-protein meat substitute is made from soybeans that are fermented in banana leaves — and sometimes other leaves — for two to three days before turning into a white, moldy, and chunky block.

Its flavor is often described as nutty and mushroomy with a slightly sweet soy scent.

It can be prepared like any meat – baked, roasted, grilled or boiled into various dishes. In Indonesia it is often fried and served as a tasty snack.

satay

Satay — or sate in the local language — is a staple in Southeast Asian restaurants around the world and is said to have originated in Java.

The preparation of these skewers varies from region to region and often includes different meats or vegetables, spices, sauces and marinades.

One of the most popular versions in Indonesia is chicken satay, served with a sweet peanut sauce that has just a hint of spice.

Nasi Goreng

Nasi Goreng: So much more than just fried rice.

Nasi Goreng: So much more than just fried rice.

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If there’s one staple food that represents Indonesia’s diverse culture, it’s nasi goreng – literally translated as fried rice.

Every household has a different recipe with different ingredients and side dishes, but the use of terasi (shrimp paste) and kecap manis (a sweet and thick Indonesian soy sauce) brings together most—if not all—versions.

These spices create the unique taste of Indonesian fried rice.

Topped with a perfect fried egg and a side of crispy shrimp crackers (or kerupuk), nasi goreng is a versatile meal that can be consumed throughout the day.

Nasi goreng is a Chinese-influenced dish popular in Singapore and Malaysia, as well as Indonesia.

Kerupuk

While shrimp crackers are commonly found in the diets of several countries — particularly Indonesia and Malaysia — it was thanks to Indonesia that the snack was introduced to the Netherlands and then brought to Europe.

Arguably the best accompaniment to any dish, a piece of kerupuk can also serve as an edible spoon to make additional sauce or sambal.

Indonesian kerupuk is also used as a topping for soto – a type of Indonesian soup. (See below)

Soto Ayam

Much like many other dishes in Indonesia, soto, or soup, tastes different depending on which part of the archipelago you are in.

One of the most common soto on Indonesian menus is the comforting soto ayam (chicken soup) — but even that comes in countless variations.

Of all the chicken sotos, those from East Java – like Soto Ayam Madura or Ambengan – are some of the most popular. They’re a clear broth and include a generous amount of garlic, shallots, turmeric, and chunks of chicken.

Koya powder, a unique blend of ground shrimp crackers and fried garlic, is sometimes added to give an already rich soup — like soto ayam lamongan — an extra boost of umami.

Gado Gado

A classic gado gado is served with chopped vegetables, an egg, and sometimes slices of tofu or tempeh.  It is often prepared with roasted peanut sauce.

A classic gado gado is served with chopped vegetables, an egg, and sometimes slices of tofu or tempeh. It is often prepared with roasted peanut sauce.

Galitskaya/Adobe Stock

Chop up blanched veggies, hard-boiled eggs and add a ladleful of peanut sauce and you have the humble but delicious Indonesian national salad – gado gado.

A classic Indonesian peanut sauce for gado gado is made with ground roasted peanuts, chili peppers, shrimp paste, tamarind pulp or juice, and some sugar and salt.

Translated as mix-mix, this ubiquitous salad dish sometimes includes fried tofu or tempeh slices and deep-fried fish cakes.

Sambal

Sambal may not be one of Indonesia’s five official national dishes — alongside nasi goreng, rendang, soto, sate, and gado gado — but for many Indonesians, no meal is complete without it.

It’s a relish made by blending chili peppers with a variety of different ingredients like shrimp paste, sugar, salt, and lime juice.

Today it is found in many famous Indonesian dishes – from nasi goreng to gado gado.

Legend has it that Portuguese and Spanish sailors brought a variant of the chili pepper to Indonesia – but it was in Java that they were first pounded into sambals.

It is believed that there are more than 100 types of sambal served across Indonesia. One of the most common is sambal terasi, which is made with chili peppers, garlic, tomatoes, shrimp paste, lime, salt, and sugar.

indomy

Not really a dish, but perhaps the most famous food brand in the country.

Indomie’s tasty and conveniently packaged pasta, which has been delighting the market since 1972, has amassed a huge following worldwide.

If you’re an Indomie newbie, start with a pack of Indomie mi goreng (barbecue chicken) and you’ll likely be converted too.

jamu

Jamu is a concentrated herbal drink made from ginger and turmeric.

Jamu is a concentrated herbal drink made from ginger and turmeric.

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When asked about the secret of his good health during the Covid-19 pandemic, Indonesian President Joko Widodo quoted Jamu as saying.

A traditional Indonesian herbal drink made from various combinations of plants and spices – ginger and turmeric are two common ingredients – Jamu is believed to boost the immune system.

There are many ways to prepare Jamu.

The plants and spices are blended into a concentrated juice and often served warm.

The president also said he’s been drinking it daily for the past two decades, increasing his daily Jamu consumption to three times a day during the pandemic.

In recent years, Jamu-inspired juice brands have popped up around the world.

Baby Guling

There are a few things that make us dream of Bali – the pristine beaches, the endless paddy fields and, for some, babi guling, the resort island’s famous roast suckling pig.

The animal is rubbed with turmeric and stuffed with a spice paste made from coriander seeds, lemongrass, Asian lime and salam leaves, chillies, black pepper, garlic, red shallots, ginger and kencur. Then it is roasted on a spit.

Every part of the pork – meat for satay, succulent pork slices, crispy greaves, as well as the flavorful entrails – are savored.

It is most often served with rice, spicy soup and an array of condiments.

The dish is rarely seen in the rest of Indonesia, where the majority of the population is Muslim and considers pork consumption haram or forbidden. In Bali, most people identify themselves as Hindus.

Rijsttafel

And finally, one cannot forget rijsttafelor Reistisch, in Dutch.

It is an elaborate selection of small Indonesian dishes with different flavors and levels of spiciness in one meal.

Rijsttafel is not technically a part of traditional Indonesian food culture. It was first introduced during Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia, when Europeans served small plates of sumptuous Indonesian dishes, ranging from sweet to spicy, to their visitors.

It’s still a common offering in Indonesian restaurants in the Netherlands as well as in its country of origin.

According to Wongso, the Rijsttafel culture is one of the reasons many traditional Indonesian dishes became popular outside of Asia.

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