Indonesian Food: The Only Guide You Need

Alexis
Modified on January 21, 2024

If you are heading to Bali or anywhere else in Indonesia, there are some food you MUST try. Here is what you should know about food in Indonesia and the meals you shouldn't miss.

Table of Contents

What does Indonesian cuisine look like?

If you've never set foot in Indonesia, you're probably wondering what Indonesian cuisine looks like in general. Here's what you can expect.

Attention, I'm only talking about cuisine that is NOT Balinese. Read my article on 100% Balinese dishes for those interested.

Rice is the staple food regardless of the region in Indonesia

Without much surprise, being in Asia, the staple food for almost all Indonesian dishes is rice, regardless of the region.

Rice is most often white rice, but occasionally you can find brown rice or red rice.

Noodles (rice noodles...) are also relatively popular, but much less than rice overall.

The average Indonesian eats rice 3 times a day at least: from breakfast to dinner, and many snacks and treats are also rice-based.

In short, if you don't like rice, you're at a disadvantage. If there's no rice on the table, most Indonesians consider that they haven't eaten...

Indonesian cuisine is generally either spicy, sweet, or both

An Indonesian friend once summarized the tastes of Indonesians for me:

  • Either they like it very spicy
  • Or they like it very sweet

With hindsight, it's a good summary that is not as caricatured as it may seem. I would add, however, that they also like what is both spicy AND sweet.

The spice level varies greatly depending on the regions and individuals (yes, some Indonesians don't like it too spicy). Balinese food, for example, is known to be very spicy, mainly because they use a lot of raw chilies. Central Java, on the other hand, is known to be milder or even very sweet. 

Note that spicy doesn't always mean there's ONLY chili to enhance the taste or blow your head off: some dishes can contain a lot of ginger, galangal, or pepper, for example... and be mixed with additional chili. If you ask for a non-spicy dish and it's still spicy, it's probably because they removed the chilies, but not necessarily the rest.

A lot of Indonesian cuisine is fried

Saying that Indonesian cuisine is not the healthiest in the world is an understatement.

Contrary to what many Westerners arriving in Indonesia think, Indonesian cuisine is not exactly balanced! Some might even say that it's more or less a concentration of what you should avoid.

Not only is eating rice (white rice, moreover) three times a day not exactly great for health (you'd be surprised how many diabetics there are beyond a certain age), but, above all, many foods are fried in palm oil.

It's delicious, it's satisfying, but it's still quite far from lean or nutrient-rich food. There are exceptions, though, I assure you.

Where to try Indonesian cuisine during your trip?

Many wonder if it's possible to try Indonesian cuisine during their travels without getting sick. The answer is generally yes, and I invite you to read these tips if you want to avoid the infamous traveler's diarrhea or Bali belly.

Warungs: the best place to taste true Indonesian flavors

warung makan indonesia

Unsurprisingly, the best places to try Indonesian cuisine are the warungs, small local restaurants, which are also where most Indonesians eat.

It's simple, they are everywhere throughout the archipelago. In big cities, you have warungs selling specialties from all over Indonesia. In small villages, you will most often have a more limited choice mainly composed of regional specialties.

Most of the time, it's challenging to know what they sell for foreigners who are not familiar with the regions of Indonesia, the names of the cities, and even less the dishes from each area.

The name of the warung can be an indication. The most popular cuisines can be found in the name of the warung, especially for the most popular types of cuisines.

For example:

  • Java: "warung java," "warung sunda," "warung banyuwangi," "sate madura"
  • Sumatra: "Warung Padang," "Masakan Padang"... Extremely popular
  • Sulawesi: "warung manado"...

You will also regularly see signs like "warung muslim," especially in Bali or non-Muslim areas, which most often means it's a Java warung, halal of course.

If, despite the name, you don't know what the warung sells, it's best to ask, look, or simply try. YOLO.

Street vendors / street food: perfect for some Indonesian dishes/snacks

street vendors indonesia

Street food, street food, is very present in Indonesia. It is often limited to a few specific types of dishes that are more like snacks than full meals, even though there are exceptions.

So you can buy all sorts of dishes directly from a moto-restaurant or the kinds of carts called gerobak.

Street vendors are perfect for the following dishes: fried snacks (fried bananas, fried tempeh, etc.), soups (bakso/soto ayam...), fruit juices, ice creams, and some dishes like nasi goreng.

Naturally, more complex dishes and/or requiring space are not sold on the street, even if they are sometimes pre-cooked and packaged directly in small ready-to-sell bags called bungkus.

Restaurants/hotels: varying flavors often adapted to the Western palate

You can, of course, try Indonesian food in regular restaurants in tourist areas or directly in your hotel.

The flavors, however, are likely to be very different from what you will find in a warung or on the street, especially if you go to restaurants that receive many Westerners.

Many foreigners simply can't eat spicy food, so the recipes are adapted accordingly to ensure that no one gets sick. If you have too sensitive a stomach to try the real flavors, this is an option.

Bahasa Indonesia Survival Vocabulary to Venture into Discovering Indonesian Cuisine

As I mentioned earlier, knowing what the warung sells or even what's on your plate can be relatively complicated without a minimum of Bahasa Indonesia if you're in an area or establishment that receives few tourists.

  • Nasi = rice (cooked)
  • Mie = noodles
  • Goreng = fried
  • Bakar = grilled
  • Pedas = spicy
  • Manis = sweet
  • Ayam = chicken
  • Sapi = beef
  • Babi = pork
  • Ikan = fish
  • Telor = egg
  • Makan di sini = eat here
  • Bungkus = take away

The Most Iconic Dishes of Indonesian Cuisine to Try

I confess to being a bit shocked by the number of people who leave Indonesia having only tried two or three dishes of Indonesian cuisine, simply because they are not familiar with other dishes.

Here, I am talking ONLY about dishes that are not native to Bali (but you can find them all in Bali. Read this article to see the 100% Balinese dishes to try.

nasi goreng

The Nasi Goreng, which literally means "fried rice," is by far the most well-known dish in Indonesian cuisine, and also the favorite... of foreigners.

Contrary to what many may think, Indonesians actually don't eat nasi goreng very often, at least it's far from an everyday dish. It is more of a kind of snack than a proper meal: nasi goreng is usually eaten in the morning to finish the leftovers from the previous day or serves as a late-night snack, similar to carbonara pasta or kebabs in Western culture.

Nasi goreng is fried rice in palm oil, with the addition of some vegetables/condiments, sometimes chicken/shrimp, and especially sweet soy sauce (kecap manis) and chili. Nasi goreng is then topped with an egg; sometimes the egg is directly mixed into the mixture.

In short, you can put more or less whatever you want in it; it can be very spicy or not at all, and almost everyone likes it. It is, of course, a must-try, but limiting yourself to nasi goreng throughout your trip to Indonesia is still a bit of a shame and probably not great for your cholesterol!

Origin: Throughout Indonesia

Spiciness: In warung, yes. In Western restaurants often more sweet than spicy.

Where to try: Everywhere. Warung, hotel, street food. Significant flavor differences depending on the locations.

Mie Goreng: The Same Dish as Nasi Goreng, but with Noodles

The mie goreng is simply the little brother of nasi goreng. If you followed the previous paragraph on survival vocabulary, you probably already see what changes: instead of having rice as a base, this time we have noodles (rice noodles, don't be silly).

Otherwise, the recipe is exactly the same as for nasi goreng. So, it's a variation for days when you're tired of rice and vice versa. Again, it's worth trying, but it's a bit of a shame to eat only mie goreng for 3 weeks of travel, and it might clog your arteries if you don't exercise.

Origin: Throughout Indonesia

Spiciness: In warung, yes. In Western restaurants, often more sweet than spicy.

Where to try: Everywhere. Warung, hotel, street food. Significant flavor differences depending on the locations.

Nasi Campur: The (Real) Staple Dish of Indonesian Food

nasi campur

The nasi campur is a somewhat catch-all dish that means "mixed rice." Depending on the regions and restaurants, this can include very different flavors and ingredients.

This is what Indonesians eat every day, for real, unlike nasi/mie goreng. This is what housewives cook, what makes up the majority of Javanese warungs, and even the Balinese have their version with their ingredients.

In all warungs offering nasi campur, the dishes are mostly prepared and displayed in the showcase. The "seller" does not cook directly for you (at least rarely). They serve a bowl of rice and add the already prepared ingredients that you tell them to add (vegetables, meats, sauces, etc.).

So, if you want to take a culinary journey into the daily life of the average Indonesian, try several different nasi campur, and you will really experience many different flavors.

Origin: Throughout Indonesia

Spiciness: Often a bit, but rarely extreme even if variable

Where to try: In warung, clearly. Hotels/restaurants also regularly offer it.

Nasi Padang and Its Rendang: A Highly Appreciated Indonesian Cuisine from Sumatra Across the Archipelago

nasi padang

If there is a cuisine found everywhere in Indonesia because everyone loves it, it is undoubtedly the cuisine of Padang, in Sumatra.

All major cities have Padang warungs, and even small villages sometimes have them too. Warungs are clearly labeled "Padang" and are establishments similar to warungs offering nasi campur: you choose your assortment based on what is ready; they do not cook for you.

Padang cuisine is known to be very fatty: everything is cooked in coconut milk/santan. So, you have (in addition to rice) many stewed dishes like curries, rendang (slow-cooked beef) that you must absolutely try, and other sambal, especially the green sambal aka sambal hijau. But clearly, what makes the difference is this curry-like sauce called Gulai and/or the thick rendang sauce.

Be careful; the reputation of nasi padang is also to give you cholesterol. I had an addiction problem to nasi padang and ate it for 2 years non-stop; all my Indonesian friends told me I was going to die.

Origin: Padang, Sumatra

Spiciness: To your taste depending on what you choose, but generally not too much (sambal hijau is far from the spice level of Balinese sambal)

Where to try: In Padang warung only.

Gorengan: The Catch-All Term for All Fried Snacks in Indonesian Street Food

gorengan indonesia

The term gorengan is not a specific dish but rather a family of fried dishes. It could roughly be translated as fried. If you've read this far, you probably understand that Indonesia is very (very very) fond of fried foods.

So, gorengan is found everywhere, especially on the street, where they are most often sold already fried. There's something for every taste:

  • Pisang goreng (fried banana)
  • Bakwan/Ote ote: small cakes with fried vegetables
  • Tempe goreng/Tempe mendoan: fried tempeh/tempeh fried with vegetables
  • Tahu goreng/Tahu isi: fried tofu/tofu filled with vegetables
  • Ayam goreng: fried chicken
  • Risoles: a kind of fried vegetable pastry
  • Perkedel: a kind of fried potato pastry
  • Singkong goreng: fried cassava

In short, there are dozens and probably even hundreds. Imagine any kitchen ingredient, and you're almost sure that there is a "goreng" version somewhere in Indonesia. I exaggerate a bit, but barely.

Origin: Throughout Indonesia

Spiciness: Almost never as such. But sometimes served/consumed with separate chilies (Bakwan/Ote Ote, for example).

Where to try: On the street directly

Sate Ayam Madura: Chicken Skewers Found Everywhere

sate ayam madura

Satays, meaning skewers, often made with chicken, are a dish found all over Indonesia. Again, each region has its own recipe when it comes to skewers (there are, for example, satay padang, or quite common in Bali, satay lilit with fish).

But if there is ONE type of skewers that you can find almost everywhere in Indonesia, it's the Madura chicken skewers, named after the eponymous island near Surabaya.

These are the famous chicken skewers with their sweet peanut sauce. You can find them by the roadside, in a warung, and even in tourist restaurants. Very often, Madura satays are served either with lontong (compressed rice cake) or directly with rice.

Origin: Madura, an island near Surabaya off Java

Spiciness: Mildly, but more sweet than spicy

Where to try: Ideally on the street as street food, also in warungs, but restaurants usually make them well too

Gado-gado: A Good Option for Vegetarians and Vegans

gado gado

Indonesians don't have many dishes specifically made for vegans or vegetarians, contrary to popular belief (the famous vegan restaurants in Ubud are not a local tradition!).

However, among the vegetable-based dishes worthy of study for vegetarians and vegans, gado-gado is clearly at the top of the list. It's simply a kind of salad with lightly cooked vegetables, so they remain quite crunchy. To top it off, they are covered with a sweet peanut sauce, somewhat similar to what you might find in Madura chicken satay and very close to that of nasi pecel (a type of nasi campur with vegetables and peanut sauce with chicken, unlike gado-gado alone).

Gado-gado is generally served with rice, like most other dishes, sometimes with lontong in nasi pecel. While it is often an accompaniment to meat, it is one of the few Indonesian vegetable-based dishes that can stand on its own.

A must-try, whether you're vegan or not!

Origin: Java

Spiciness: Very little to none (same goes for nasi pecel!)

Where to try: Typically a dish in warungs like nasi pecel, sometimes available in restaurants. Many vegan Western and local restaurants also offer it.

Cap-cay: Basic Vegetable Dish in "Chindo" Cuisine

cap cay

Cap-cay is another classic dish in Indonesia, especially in restaurants of the Chinese-Indonesian community, known as Chindo. However, it is, in my opinion, much less exotic and unique than gado-gado.

It's a kind of vegetable salad containing various cabbages, carrots, mushrooms, tofu, and sometimes chicken or another meat.

Most cap-cay dishes are sweet and are served with rice or another meat.

Origin: China, but present throughout the Chindo community

Spiciness: Not spicy at all

Where to try: Chindo restaurants almost always offer it. Western restaurants often do too.

Ayam Rica Rica: A Dish Originating from Manado, Both Fresh and Spicy

ayam rica rica

Unfortunately, Manado cuisine is not the easiest to find in Indonesia, unlike Javanese cuisine, for example. But there are always expatriate Manado communities in Bali, Jakarta, and elsewhere (look near churches, many are Christians!) that offer, among other things, the famous ayam rica rica.

Rica rica is a sauce used with almost all dishes originating from this region of Sulawesi. If I indicated Ayam (chicken) Rica Rica in the title, it works with all meats: you can find bebek rica rica (duck), babi rica rica (pork), or ikan rica rica (fish), you get the idea.

The recipe is quite simple: chili, chili, a little more chili, shallots, garlic, ginger, lime, lemongrass, quickly cooked in coconut oil, and there you go. It's somewhat similar to Balinese sambal matah but spicier. Ayam rica rica is also often served with kemangi leaves, this lemon basil, for even more freshness.

These are not the easiest specialties to find in Bali, Java, or Jakarta, but if you are lucky to be near a Warung Manado, it's worth trying if your stomach can handle a minimum of spices.

Origin: Manado, Sulawesi

Spiciness: Often very spicy and difficult to replicate without spices (chili is really the base!)

Where to try: Warung Manado

Ayam Kari: Indonesian Chicken Curry

ayam kari

Ayam Kari is simply Indonesian-style chicken curry. Like every curry from every region in the world, it has its specificities. So, it doesn't taste exactly like Indian curry or Caribbean curry, for example. But the base remains the same, and there is, of course, that very characteristic coconut taste.

In terms of taste, expect something generally similar to what you can find in Thailand. However, here, almost all curries are yellow; red or green ones are really rare.

It's not really the Indonesian specialty as a whole, nor a particularly regional specialty, but almost everyone knows how to cook kari/kare, and some cuisines, like Padang and to a lesser extent others, clearly have a strong curry base, although they are often called gulai, and they are still different from classic kare/kari.

Origin: Hard to say!

Spiciness: Generally quite spicy, but not always

Where to try: Warung Padang, some Java warungs, Western and local restaurants (including vegan ones)

Gulai Kambing: Indonesian Goat Curry

gulai kambing

Gulai is a sauce very close to curry but often thicker, found mainly in Sumatra's cuisine, as mentioned earlier (especially Padang), but also in the rest of Indonesia like Java.

Of course, gulai can be made with almost anything you want: chicken, meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, and many more.

What, in my opinion, is one of the best versions of gulai is gulai kambing, which is goat meat cooked in this extremely flavorful curry-like sauce.

For some reason I don't know, the two just go together wonderfully. And goat meat simmered for hours melts in the mouth, a bit like beef rendang, but even better.

It's clearly not the dish that all warungs have "by default" because it's often quite expensive, even if I happened to come across it by chance. On the other hand, it's a dish that many "real" Indonesian restaurants have on the menu. All Indonesian chefs seem to have their version of gulai kambing!

Origin: Sumatra

Flavor: Not really spicy per se, but very aromatic

Where to try: Authentic local restaurants, Warung Padang (if you're lucky), Warung Java (with some luck), some hotel restaurants also regularly offer it

Gudeg: Yogyakarta's (Very) Sweet Traditional Dish

gudeg yogyakarta

The cuisine of the Yogyakarta region is known for being very sweet and less spicy compared to the rest of Indonesia. Gudeg, the city's most iconic dish, is a perfect example of this.

The dish is made with jackfruit cooked in sugar, to which various spices and eggs are added, served with rice or chicken.

In general, it's a pot of sugar, especially if it's cooked "Yogyakarta style," but less sweet versions can be found in other regions of Indonesia.

Origin: Yogyakarta, Java

Flavor: No, but very sweet

Where to try: Yogyakarta/Solo Warung. Easily available in Jakarta and Java, a bit less in Bali.

Soto Ayam: Lemon-Infused Chicken Soup That Hits the Spot

soto ayam

Soto ayam is a chicken soup that is lightly infused with lemon and can be found absolutely everywhere in the archipelago, making it very popular. It's good, it's cheap, and for once, it's not fried in oil...

The best soto ayam I've tried was always on the street. It's clearly one of the must-try classics of Indonesian street food in my opinion, especially since it's very affordable for a Western palate, and there's little risk of getting sick: nothing is fresh, and it has been cooked for hours.

If you were to try only one dish of Indonesian street food, I recommend this one first.

Origin: Throughout Indonesia

Flavor: No, unless you add sambal to it

Where to try: On the street or in a warung. Restaurants almost always serve it too.

Bakso: Meatball Soup Found on Every Street in Indonesia

bakso

Bakso is THE big classic of Indonesian street food. It's simple, and usually, it's not you who goes to bakso, it's bakso that comes to you! 

When you see those small motorcycles with a mini restaurant at the back honking in your neighborhood, half the time, it's bakso! In food courts, bakso is also everywhere. An Indonesian restaurant would be foolish not to have bakso on its menu. In short, it's a classic.

Yet it's simply meatballs served in sauce with noodles, and you can add sambal or even vinegar. It's not much more complicated than that.

Westerners are generally a bit less fond of bakso than locals (hence my recommendation to try soto ayam first), but it's also a safe option to introduce yourself to Indonesian street food.

Origin: Chinese origins but absolutely everywhere in Indonesia today

Flavor: No, but the sambal you add to it can be

Where to try: On the street, in a warung, in an Indonesian restaurant... everywhere!

Martabak / Terang Bulan: Fried Savory or Sweet Pancakes, a Street Food Classic

Martabak telor (salty)

This is simply coconut milk to which ice, palm sugar, jelly, pearls, rice flour, and all sorts of things that can go into a dessert/drink are added.

It's a big classic of street food; you can also find them in many Indonesian restaurants as a dessert, and it's also common in certain ceremonies like weddings or Ramadan, for example.

If you like coconut, bubble teas, and sugar, you shouldn't be too lost.

Origin : Throughout Indonesia

Flavor : No, but often very sweet

Where to try : Mainly on the street, in food courts; some restaurants also have it on the menu

Kerupuk / Keripik: Various and Varied Indonesian Chips

kerupuk

Indonesians love fried food, you've probably understood that. So, if there's one area where Indonesian food is fascinating in its diversity, and is easy for a foreigner to experiment with, it's on the side of salty or sweet "chips" called kerupuk or keripik.

It's simple; there's everything: all shapes and flavors. From classic shrimp chips to Balinese pork chips to peanut chips called peyek.

Some will be served with your dishes without you asking, others will be available on the warung table, and you can also buy them in bulk at stores and supermarkets throughout the archipelago.

It doesn't cost much, it's easily found, and it allows you to do a lot of culinary testing.

Origin : Throughout Indonesia

Flavor : Sometimes but rare

Where to try : At the Warung, buy a packet at the minimart, on the street, in restaurants... everywhere!

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