Indonesia is a fascinating nation consisting of over 17000 islands spread over the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, and the Pacific Ocean.
Sharing land and maritime borders with multiple Oceania, South, and Southeastern Asian countries, Indonesia has a diverse population, with over 700 languages and thousands of ethnic groups.
Indonesia’s lush tropical topography and climate provide gorgeous tropical rainforests and stunning white sandy beaches, attracting tourists from around the world to enjoy year-round summer vacations.
Foreigners may recognize Indonesian islands like Bali as the ultimate paradisiacal haven for yoga lovers and alternative lifestyles or Borneo as home to the beloved orangutan. Coffee lovers have surely sampled world-famous coffee from Sumatra and Java.
Coffee isn’t the only culinary gift Indonesia has to offer. Its tropical and coastal topography and diverse cultural practices bestow countless delicious dishes.
I have compiled a list of the most popular Indonesian foods below to whet your appetite.
Taking influence from China and Vietnam, Bakso is a beef meatball made from a beef paste called surimi, tapioca flour, and salt.
Unlike pork or beef meatballs in Western cultures, Bakso has a uniformly smooth and dense texture because they use beef paste as opposed to ground beef.
Tapioca flour is a binding agent, but I also think it gives these meatballs a jelly-like bite.
You can eat Bakso as one single meatball, a plate of meatballs, or as a soup called Mie Bakso with beef broth, vermicelli noodles, vegetables, tofu, and egg.
In my opinion, Mie Bakso is the Indonesian take on Vietnamese Pho. It’s also my favorite way to enjoy these meatballs.
Gado-Gado (Vegetable Salad)
One of Indonesia’s treasured national dishes, Gado-Gado is a hearty vegetable, potato, and egg salad with a sweet-savory-spicy peanut sauce.
Gado-Gado combines raw and cooked ingredients for a complex texture profile to match its trifecta of flavors.
Traditionally, Gado-Gado consists of blanched or raw cucumber, tomato, lettuce, cabbage, spinach bean sprouts, jack fruit, green beans, and bitter melon.
Then, sliced boiled potatoes and eggs and fried tofu or tempeh go on top. Lastly, the salad is drizzled with a peanut sauce made of ground peanuts, tamarind, sugar, chilis, shrimp paste, and lime juice.
I love peanut sauce, and the addition of chilies and tamarind adds a spicy tanginess that sets it above the satay sauces I’m used to making.
Nasi Goreng (Fried Rice)
Another national dish, Nasi Goreng is Indonesian fried rice.
Fried rice is a beloved dish in the surrounding island nations, not to mention China, Southeast Asia, and, through globalization, the rest of the world.
Nasi Goreng originated as a means of conservation, putting old rice to use instead of throwing it out.
Indonesians eat Nasi Goreng for breakfast, using the previous night’s leftover rice fried in oil, sweet soy, sambal, bumbu paste, spring onions, and palm sugar.
It’s usually topped with meat and fried eggs and garnished with pickled vegetables.
In my opinion, Nasi Goreng has a smokier and sweeter flavor than traditional Chinese fried rice due to the sweet soy sauce and bumbu paste, which are endemic to Indonesia.
Pepes Ikan (Steamed Fish Wrapped In Banana Leaves)
Pepes is a popular form of cooking in Indonesian gastronomy that involves steaming a mixture of meat, seasonings, and vegetables inside banana leaves.
Pepes Ikan is the popular West Java cooking tradition using the banana-leaf cooking method to steam a mixture of:
- carp meat
- curry leaf
- lemon basil
They’re convenient and eco-friendly fish dumplings with a bio-degradable plate.
They’re also incredibly flavorful, with a mix of aromatics, herbs, and spices. I love to eat them alongside a plate of fried rice or steamed rice with curry.
Soto (Indonesian Soup)
Indonesia has 17000 islands, so I think they’re allowed to have multiple national dishes.
Soto is one of the five national dishes. It is an all-encompassing Indonesian soup served in different varieties across Indonesia.
There are dozens of variations categorized according to region and ingredients.
Soto usually combines a protein like chicken fish or beef in a spiced yellow beef or chicken broth with coconut milk.
Classic Indonesian and Southeast Asian spices and aromatic mixtures are usually added to the mix featuring:
- Bay leaf
My favorite version is what you would find in street food carts, known as Soto Ayam with:
- spicy yellow broth
- rice cakes
- boiled eggs
- bean sprouts
- lime juice
Sop Buntut (Oxtail Soup)
Oxen are a universal beast of burden, serving as invaluable labor and food in cultures worldwide for centuries.
It’s no surprise that Oxtail soup is a popular dish in countries on most continents. Sop Buntut is Indonesia’s take, consisting of:
- Fried or barbequed sliced oxtail
- Clear beef broth
- Fried shallots
- Dried mushrooms
- boiled potatoes
- black pepper
It’s comforting, flavorful, and filling. I prefer barbecued oxtail for a smokier flavor and more tender texture.
Indonesians usually eat the soup with a bowl of steamed white rice and condiments like sambal, sweet soy, and fresh lime.
Satay (Skewered Meat)
Their popularity influenced culinary traditions in Europe, Asia, and Africa with dishes like the shish kebab or Japanese Yakitori.
Satays are skewered chunks of meat, cooked over a charcoal grill and served with a peanut dipping sauce.
You can skewer and grill just about any protein, from fish to pork, to tofu. Meat of any kind is cut into bite sized cubes, pierced with either coconut leaf fronds or bamboo sticks, and grilled.
The most popular satay is chicken, but I enjoy the tofu satays because it adds a unique charred flavor that I never taste in any other tofu preparation.
Rendang (Slow-Cooked Beef)
Another one of Indonesia’s national dishes, Rendang is a slow-cooked beef dish that originated in Sumatra.
It’s a rich and flavorful dish often reserved for special occasions like weddings or holidays.
Rendang consists of beef seasoned with bumbu paste (typical herb and spice mixture), then slow-cooked and braised in coconut milk.
The result is savory and tender beef dish that Indonesians enjoy with rice cakes.
Spices used in bumbu paste are:
The coconut milk neutralizes the intensity of the aromatics and adds savory richness to the tender meat.
Pempek Palembang (Fish Cake)
Named for the South Sumatran capital city of Palembang, Pempek Palembang is a fish cake or ball made with:
- Ground Wahoo boneless fish meat
- Sago flour
The fishcake dough is either steamed or boiled for storage and deep fried before slicing into bite-sized pieces and serving.
Pempek Palembang is always served with a sauce known as Kuah cuko which consists of:
- Boiling water
- Palm sugar
I enjoy Pempek Palembang over a plate of vermicelli noodles. The vinegar sauce is tart and flavorful which enhances the fishy flavor of the fish cakes.
Opor Ayam (Spicy Chicken Soup)
Originating in Central Java, Opor Ayam is coconut milk and chicken soup consisting of whole bone-in chicken parts braised in coconut milk and seasoned with bumbu paste.
I don’t know if I would call it a soup as much as a chicken dish with a brothy coconut milk sauce. It also contains whole hard-boiled eggs.
Opor Ayam is a popular holiday dish for Indonesians who celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid ul-Fitr.
Opor Ayam is usually accompanied by Ketupat or Indonesian rice cakes wrapped in palm leaves.
If you don’t want to go through the hassle of wrapping rice cakes in palm leaves, white rice is an adequate substitution.
Nasi Padang (Steamed Rice With Curry)
Also known as Padang rice, Nasi Padang is a popular compartmentalized lunch dish that originated in West Sumatra.
Many restaurants serve a menu of various Nasi Padang variations on circular plates with four or five compartments, each one containing a different type of curried meat, vegetable, or sambal surrounding a central compartment with a mound of steamed white rice.
The combinations of Nasi Padang are endless, with dozens of different curried meats and veggie dishes to choose from.
In my opinion, Nasi Padang is the best way to sample multiple Indonesian dishes in one compartmentalized smorgasbord.
Pecel Lele (Fried Catfish)
I was happy to see that fried catfish is as much a popular southeast Asian dish as it is a Southern U.S. dish.
Indonesians call their fried catfish Pecel Lele. Unlike the breaded fried catfish you may have eaten in Louisiana, Pecel Lele deep fried catfish without breading it, serving it with sambal, fried tempeh, and a raw veggie salad known as lalab.
Pecel Lele is a common street food dish in East Java. The sambal used as a condiment contains ground chili and shrimp paste.
I love Pecel Lele as a filling, protein-packed lunch, with a characteristically spicy, fishy kick from the sambal.
Gudeg (Jackfruit Stew)
Jackfruit has become the latest fad health food and low-calorie meat substitute.
It’s been a staple of Indonesian diets for centuries. One of the most popular Jackfruit dishes is Gudeg, a stew consisting of:
- Unripe shredded jack fruit
- Palm sugar
- Coconut milk
- Baly leaves
- Teak leaves
The jackfruit stews in the palm sugar and coconut milk until tender, then the bumbu paste with the rest of the ingredients seasons the stew. Chicken tempeh and hard-boiled eggs are popular additives.
I think the jackfruit stew tastes like a Southeast Asian style of pulled pork. It tastes delicious as a main dish to spoon over steamed rice.
Most culinary cultures that eat chicken have a version of fried chicken, and Ayam Goreng is Indonesia’s version.
Translated as fried chicken, Ayam Goreng incorporates various cooking and flavoring methods.
Chunks of boneless chicken are first marinated or seasoned in a coating of bumbu paste before being partially cooked to maximize the absorption of spices. The chicken then undergoes a deep fry in hot oil.
Certain variations also bread the chicken in galangal granules, shredded coconut, or spiced flour.
I recommend the shredded coconut variety with a side of steamed rice and a sweet soy dipping sauce. The marinade is so flavorful and works especially well with shredded coconut.
Babi Guling (Roasted Pork)
Indonesia is a majority Muslim country, so pork dishes in Indonesia are a part of non-Muslim cooking traditions.
The Babi Guling is a whole spit-roasted barbecued pig tradition from Bali’s Hindu peoples, North Sumatra Christians, and Sulawesi peoples.
Since it’s a whole pig roast, Babi Guling is a celebratory meal that’s usually the centerpiece at wedding feasts.
You’ll also find it at Balinese restaurants. Different regions use different cooking techniques, from open fire roasting to underground roasting over hot stones.
If you’re in Bali, Babi Guling is an impressive feast to share with family and friends that comes with a side of steamed rice and lawar, a shredded veggie medley.
Bakmi Goreng (Indonesian Stir-Fried Noodles)
As you might remember from Ayam Goreng, “Goreng” translates to “fried.” Bakmi Goreng consists of yellow wheat noodles that look like Spaghetti, stir-fried in sweet soy and oil with:
- Protein (chicken, beef, shrimp, or bakso)
- Chinese cabbage
You’ll find Bakmi Goreng at any street food stall around Indonesia, served out of a giant wok.
The ingredient that differentiates Bakmi Goreng from standard Chinese lo mien is sweet soy.
It’s very easy to recreate at home. I liken it to fried rice in noodle form!
Balado Terong (Eggplants With Chili Sauce)
Balado is a variation of bumbu paste found in West Sumatra that is made by frying the following ingredients in palm or coconut oil:
- Red hot chili peppers
- Kaffir lime
Balado is an all-encompassing base ingredient for stir-fries of all kinds, from chicken to egg, to vegetables.
Taruang or Terong Balado is thus Chinese eggplant stir-fried with Balado chili paste.
It’s a delicious side dish for lunch or dinner. I like to garnish it with chopped green onions and chopped cilantro, serving it with a bowl of steamed white rice.
Bubur Ayam (Chicken Porridge)
An Indonesian adaptation of Chinese chicken congee, Bubur Ayam is a classic Indonesian comfort food usually eaten for breakfast or a midnight snack.
Bubur Ayam starts with a simple rice porridge made by boiling rice in a large amount of water to create a soft, soupy, and glutenous mass.
Shredded chicken tops the rice porridge along with one or more of the following ingredients:
- Salted vegetables
- Fried shallot
- Fried soybean, sweet soy sauce
- Salty soy sauce
It’s savory and mild, acting as a comforting and gentle way to start your morning or a cure-all food for sick days.
Gorengan (Deep-Fried Snacks)
Frying is a popular cooking method in most cultures, with deep frying constituting the ultimate practice in decadence.
Whether it’s French fries or donuts, deep-fried snacks reign supreme on the streets and at festivals around the globe.
Gorengan is Indonesia’s various battered and deep-fried fritters, sold on the streets from street carts. The most popular fritters are:
- Sweet potato
You can find these fritters on any street corner during the afternoons and evenings. It’s the smell that I can’t resist.
I love fried bananas for a sweet snack, and fried cassava is starchy and savory like a French fry or yuca.
Gulai (Spicy Chicken Soup)
Often likened to Indian curry, Gulai is a stewed aromatic dish with a coconut milk base.
Perhaps the most popular main ingredient in Gulai is chicken, but you’ll see it made with goat, mutton, beef, vegetables, and fish.
Gulai, like curry, is really defined by its sauce which consists of:
- Coconut milk
Depending on the region, the sauce can be thick like an Indian curry, or thin and soupy. I prefer a thicker sauce, but the taste is the same.
There are dozens of varieties offered in restaurants nationwide. It’s served with white rice, which helps to soak up all the sauce.
Ikan Bakar is a roasted whole fish dish that is popular in every Indonesian region.
Indonesia is an island archipelago nation full of fresh and saltwater resources. Indonesians draw mainly from freshwater fish like carp or gourmani in Jakarta for Ikan Bakar.
In Sulawesi, Bali, and Maluku, seafood species are the main ingredient.
A whole fish is marinated in a sweet soy sauce, coconut oil marinade with a bumbu spice paste.
It is then grilled over open flames or wrapped in a banana leaf over a grill. I think it tastes like barbecued fish, with a very sweet glaze due to the sweet soy.
The fish is served with sweet soy and chopped chili and scallion dipping sauce and white rice.