International Cooking: Food from Indonesia

I was excited to try food from Indonesia this week! I did not know a lot about it, but I vaguely remembered reading a webcomic set in Indonesia where there seemed to be eggs served with everything. That was something I was looking forward to!

Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelagic state consisting of 17,000 islands in Southeast Asia and Oceania. Due to its position in the Pacific Ring of Fire, it is prone to natural disasters such as volcano eruptions, earthquakes, and floods. Indonesia is the world’s fourth-most populous country, but it also has large wilderness areas that support one of the world’s highest levels of biodiversity.

Since at least the 7th century, the Indonesian islands have been valuable for trade. Eventually, Europeans came and attempted to monopolize the sources of spices on some of the islands. The Dutch established the Dutch East India Company in 1602 and controlled the archipelago for over 300 years. After World War II, Indonesia became independent.

Today, Indonesia still consists of thousands of distinct native ethnic groups and hundreds of linguistic groups. Most of these groups even manage to get along, though there are a few issues in some areas.

What Do People Eat in Indonesia?

Since it’s such a large country, with water separating many of the citizens from each other, cuisine varies greatly from region to region. Some areas have Middle Eastern and Indian influences, some derive dishes from China, while other areas remain more indigenous.

Indonesian cooking has a range of complex flavors, often combining sweet, sour, savory, and spicy in one dish. This is because of the variety of spices and seasonings used, including garlic, ginger, galangal, makrut lime leaves, chilies, and tamarind. I should mention here that makrut lime leaves are often known as ‘kaffir lime leaves’, but the latter term is not being used as much these days. This is because ‘kaffir’ is actually an ethnic slur in South Africa. So now a lot of people are starting to use the Thai word for the leaves, which is ‘makrut’.

Other common ingredients include rice, peanuts, and a wide range of vegetables and tropical fruits. Vegetarian proteins such as tofu and tempeh are often included in dishes, but poultry and fish are also common. You can also find beef, water buffalo, goat, and mutton at Indonesian marketplaces.

Some of the more common Chinese elements include noodles, meatballs, and spring rolls. Indonesia has its own version of fried rice, nasi goreng. It may have Chinese roots, but it has become a unique dish on its own and is now considered one of Indonesia’s national dishes.

Indonesian cuisine has become so popular that many of its dishes are now found in neighboring countries too.

What I Made

Scroll down to read about other popular Indonesian dishes I didn’t make!

Pempek (Fish Cakes)

Pempek (Fish Cakes)

Pempek is a dish from Palembang, in the South Sumatra province of Indonesia. It consists of a type of fish cake or fish stick, depending on how you shape them. They can be filled with egg, but even though I love eggs I did not choose to do that this time. This is because the recipe called for enclosing raw beaten eggs in the pempek and I just don’t think I could have done that without making a mess. I may try it another time since I’m sure it would be delicious.

The pempek are made by combining blended fish with tapioca starch and a little salt and sugar for seasoning. The recipe I used also included chicken bouillon and added some all-purpose flour in place of some of the tapioca. The author says they think that pure tapioca makes the pempek too chewy, and since they grew up in Indonesia I think that their substitution must be acceptable!

Once the pempek mixture was ready, I shaped the dough and boiled until done. A variety of shapes are common, and I chose to make both balls and sticks. The pempek then had to cool before the final step of cooking, where I deep-fried them briefly. They didn’t seem to want to brown much, so I just took them out of the oil when they were crisp on the outside.

Pempek are typically served with a sauce, which is meant to be sweet, spicy, and tangy. Mine was made from sugar, water, tamarind paste, vinegar, garlic, chili, and salt. The sauce has to boil for a few minutes, and then it’s ready. I reduced the sugar amount from the original recipe since it seemed like a lot and I used tamarind concentrate instead of paste, since that was what I had. I feel like the sauce was far too watery, though it tasted okay. A bit too sweet, even though I reduced the sugar (and it’s possible the sauce would have been thicker with that extra sugar but I don’t think I would have liked the taste).

I served my pempek with noodles and cucumber, and I poured the sauce over everything. This made a pretty good meal. The pempek had kind of an unusual texture (to me), but they tasted good. I would just make some changes to the sauce if I were to make this again.

The recipe I used is from What to Cook Today.

Tahu Telur (Tofu Omelet)

Tahu Telur (Tofu Omelet)

Tahu telur is an egg and tofu omelet dish originating from Indonesia’s largest island, Java. It is made by combining beaten eggs with diced tofu, along with green onions, salt, white pepper, and a little tapioca starch. I’m not really a tofu fan but I decided to try this because I thought the eggs might make it more palatable.

Before cooking the omelets, I had to make the sauce. First, I sautéed some shallots and garlic in oil. Then I added tamarind concentrate, ground peanuts, water, chili sauce, and kecap manis. The chili sauce was meant to be sambal oelek but I couldn’t find it even though I know I’ve bought it before. I used chili garlic sauce instead. I used kecap manis in a few recipes this week; it is a sweet soy sauce, popular in Indonesian cooking. After a short simmer, the sauce was ready.

Next, I pan-fried the omelets. At first it seemed like the tofu was just sticking out while the egg pooled around it but the egg did puff a bit to enclose the tofu more, so it worked out.

To serve, I layered lettuce, cabbage, and then the tahu telur. I topped with a little more lettuce and cabbage, as well as some cucumber, bean sprouts, and fried shallots. I served with the sauce on the side since I wanted the photo to show the omelet and there was already so much stuff on it that I thought the sauce would hide it completely!

This was pretty good. I really liked the sauce, and the tofu was quite inoffensive when surrounded by egg.

To make this, I used the recipe from What to Cook Today.

Nasi Goreng (Fried Rice)

Nasi Goreng (Fried Rice)

Nasi goreng is something I’ve eaten before, but I’ve never attempted to make an authentic version. It’s essentially just Indonesia’s version of fried rice, a display of Chinese influence. Nasi goreng can include a variety of ingredients but I chose a simple version without protein mixed in.

First I made a spice paste using my mortar and pestle. It consisted of shallots, garlic, chili (I used jalapeño), and shrimp paste. I used a Chinese shrimp sauce instead of the shrimp paste since I already had that, so not quite as authentic.

Once the spice paste was done, I cooked it in some oil in my wok, and then stirred in some day-old rice. I added kecap manis and soy sauce and seasoned with salt and pepper, and that was the nasi goreng pretty much done.

It’s usually served with a fried egg on top, so that is what I added to mine. Other common additions are cucumber, tomato, fried shallots, and shrimp crackers. Shrimp crackers are something that used to come whenever we ordered Chinese in Australia, though I don’t think that’s common in the US. I had not realized that they are apparently very popular in Indonesia. I was able to get a bag from my local Asian grocery store. They are delicious but I’m pretty sure they are terrible for you.

You can’t really go wrong with fried rice and an egg, so this was a great meal!

The nasi goreng recipe I used is from Serious Eats.

Gado Gado (Salad with Tofu, Egg, Vegetables, and Peanut Sauce)

Gado Gado (Salad with Tofu, Egg, Vegetables, and Peanut Sauce)

Gado gado is a salad that usually includes tofu, vegetables, and eggs with creamy peanut sauce. These days it is popular all over Indonesia, but it is believed to come from Java.

My gado gado consisted of potato, pan-fried tofu, blanched green beans, cucumber, tomato, cabbage, boiled egg, prawn crackers, bean sprouts, and crispy shallots. To make the peanut sauce, I sautéed finely chopped galangal, red chilies, shallots, and garlic. Then I added ground peanuts, kecap manis, brown sugar, salt, water, coconut milk, makrut lime leaves, and bay leaves. I made one substitution here; I used brown sugar instead of coconut sugar. After a few minutes of simmering, the sauce was ready.

I assembled my gado gado with room temperature ingredients and I liked it that way. The recipe doesn’t actually say what temperature it should be served at.

This was pretty good; I particularly enjoyed the sauce. This was also the best tofu I’ve eaten so far. I have always wanted to try pan-frying it and now I would call that my favorite tofu-cooking technique.

This recipe was another one from What to Cook Today.

Soto Ayam Lamongan (Chicken Noodle Soup)

Soto Ayam Lamongan (Chicken Noodle Soup)

Soup is pretty popular in Indonesia and there are many varieties. I chose to make this chicken noodle soup, which gets its name from Lamongan in the East Java province.

First I started cooking whole chicken thighs in water, seasoned with salt and pepper. The recipe called for boneless, skinless chicken breast but I thought I would get better flavor from the bone-in thigh.

Next, I made a spice paste in my food processor, consisting of shallots, garlic, ginger, turmeric, and ground coriander. Candlenuts were included too, but the recipe said it’s fine to omit them and since I don’t know where I’d get them, I left them out. I sautéed the spices, as well as some lemongrass and makrut lime leaves. Then I added the spice mixture to the chicken stock remaining after removing my cooked chicken. I seasoned the broth with some salt, pepper, and sugar, and simmered for about 15 minutes.

To serve, I placed cooked glass noodles, chicken, bean sprouts, cabbage, boiled egg, tomatoes, and green onion in a bowl. I poured over the broth and garnished with some fried shallots.

This soup was different from anything I’ve made before and I really enjoyed it. It’s something I’m sure I’ll make again!

For this dish, the recipe I used is from Indonesian Cooking 101.

Beef Rendang (Spicy Coconut Beef Curry)

Beef Rendang (Spicy Coconut Beef Curry)

Beef rendang is something I’ve heard of but never actually tried. It originated in West Sumatra, and is thought to be influenced by Indian cuisine.

Originally, beef rendang was made for traveling. This is because, when cooked long enough to dry out completely, the rendang would keep well as a ration for long journeys.

Indonesian Redditors told me not to confuse Indonesian beef rendang with the Malaysian version, and I hope I succeeded. I specifically looked for a recipe by an Indonesian author and that is what I used.

First I added onion, galangal, ginger, and chilies to my food processor and processed until they formed a paste. I’ll include an important note here: the recipe called for 1 1/2 teaspoons of red chili pepper powder or 10-15 fresh red chilies. I used 3 red chilies of what I would call average spiciness and I don’t think I would have wanted much more!

I added the paste to my Dutch oven with chunks of beef chuck, cumin, coriander, lemongrass, turmeric, and makrut lime leaves. I cooked this for about 20 minutes, stirring now then then, before adding the coconut milk. Be careful if you follow the recipe I did; it says to add 2 cans but the cans are only 7 ounces each. The cans I get from the store are around 14 ounces, so I only needed one.

At this point I just let the beef rendang cook for a few hours, covered on low heat. You can serve it as more of a stew, but if you cook it longer you get black or dry rendang, and I decided that was what I was going for. When you make black rendang, the liquid reduces completely and the rendang becomes darker.

I served this with jasmine rice and a simple tomato and cucumber salad. I know it’s not the prettiest dish but it tasted amazing! It was spicy but not overly so, and the reduced coconut milk created some intense flavor. It didn’t taste super coconutty; it was like it just changed into something else completely.

The recipe I used is from So Yummy Recipes.

  • Mi goreng – this is basically the noodle version of nasi goreng. The noodles are stir-fried with garlic, shallots, vegetables, and your choice of protein – shrimp, chicken, and egg are common. As with nasi goreng, the exact ingredients can vary. Mi goreng is actually available in instant noodle form; I’ve eaten it and can confirm it is delicious!
  • Tumpeng – rice shaped into a cone, served with vegetable and meat side dishes. It originated in Java and is often served at celebrations and other important events.
  • Sate – meat marinated in varying ingredients, then threaded onto skewers and cooked over hot coals. Sate can be served with a variety of sauces, but a spicy peanut sauce (sate sauce) is most common. This is also popular outside Indonesia; you may have eaten a variation before under the slightly different spelling of ‘satay’.
  • Bakso – meatballs that are typically made from beef and a little tapioca flour. They are usually served in broth with noodles.
  • Martabak manis – a thick, sweet pancake, topped with various ingredients such as chocolate, cheese, peanuts, condensed milk, sesame seeds, and margarine. There are variations of this dish found in many countries, particularly in South Asia and parts of the Middle East, and some are completely savory.

Final Thoughts

This was a great week! I enjoyed all the food from Indonesia but the beef rendang was definitely my favorite.

Next week, I will be cooking food from Iran.

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