Exploring the Traditions of Indonesian Food

Metta Murdaya


Food, friendships, and family—it’s all very serious business to us. Food—the sourcing, consuming or gifting of it—bonds a community, nourishing the soul as it fuels the body. We socialize over food, talk about food, commune through food and share our experiences with food.


In Indonesia, our agricultural and forest wealth has engendered a rich food tradition which we use to reaffirm our strong societal and familial bonds. Our food also reflects our differences: the same ingredients were adopted for different uses across the different islands, as cuisines evolved to suit the local tastes, needs and availability.


The vast rain forests of Sumatra, for example, contain an extensive variety of spices. With major provisioning and shipping ports on the seacoast and rivers, Sumatra was essential to the spice trade and has been influenced by the culture of migrants over centuries. Sumatra’s cuisine evolved to incorporate many ingredients from China and the Middle East, and has a wide variety of dishes in its repertoire.


Padang food is the most famous. The Minangkabau people from the highlands of western Sumatra mastered the use of coconut milk and chilies to make complex curries and slow-cooked dishes. The signature Padang dish, Beef Rendang, is now recognized as one of the most delicious dishes in the world.



The cuisine found in Java is simpler and less spicy, especially dishes from Central Java, in which even savory dishes are heavily sweetened with palm sugar and kecap manis, our beloved sweet soy sauce. Popular examples of signature Indonesian staple dishes loved by locals and foreigners include Nasi Kuning (yellow rice), Soto Ayam (turmeric chicken soup), and Gado Gado (vegetable salad).


Isolated, sparsely populated islands tend to have simpler cuisines because of lack of variety in the available ingredients. But even these pockets of specialized cuisine add to the diversity and, literally, color, of the Indonesian dining selection. For example, in the forest regions of Kalimantan (Borneo), sour eggplant is a common ingredient in the cuisine of the Dayak tribes. Yet this ingredient is usually unavailable or unknown to people in Java because it does not travel well—and few Dayak people leave their homeland to settle elsewhere.


But all corners of Indonesia, from cosmopolitan trading port to isolated fishing village, share one item of cuisine: sambal. This mixture of crushed chili and other ingredients can vary from Java’s Terasi, a thick, aromatic fish and tomato mix (not for the faint-of-heart,) to Bali’s Sambal Matah, a bright and fresh lemongrass and shallot based paste. Other sambal recipes use coconut, tamarind—even durian. With more than 200 types of sambal to choose from, cooks have unlimited options in turning commonplace ingredients such as chicken, beef, or vegetables into an incredibly wide array of dishes.


Because they easily grow in various climates and are found on many islands, turmeric, coriander, shallots, candlenuts, and ginger are commonly used in our cuisine, making up the base of flavors people recognize as distinctly Indonesian.



Casual Dining and Sharing Experiences

Food is a shared experience—we tell people about places to go and happily refer our friends to where they can find that amazing dish or snack, whether it be at a restaurant, a roadside stall, or a home bakery selling cakes over Instagram. Like an American hotdog stand or a kebab cart, roadside street stalls sell specialties ranging from Bakso to Gorengan (deep fried bananas, cassava, tofu and tempe), which is our version of eating chips. Except in Indonesia, these stalls are not just places to get food, but also opportunities for social congregation.


“Food is where real life expresses itself across all senses—we eat with our hands, we smell

food when we cook it, we see an array of colors in the natural ingredients of food, and we hear about what to eat or how to cook from others.”


Enjoying food helps us live in our senses and savor the moment as a part of an overall wellness practice (not diet plan). Despite Indonesia having the prevalent, empirical health tradition of jamu, Indonesians primarily eat for flavor and enjoyment. Whether it’s street food, home cooking, or restaurant meals, we don’t just eat our meals, we savor them, as savoring food is a part of savoring life.



Food for Gatherings

Communal eating came from our hunter-gatherer days when people would live, hunt, and eat together as a clan. It creates strong bonds among the people in the village tribes that carry it on today.


In Bali, local communities usually have a ritual or a celebration that community members have to attend. Unfortunately, this can create conflict when a tribe member must choose between attending a ceremony or going to work, but the community ties are so strong they’d rather risk being fired for skipping work than face being left out of their community. Even if you don’t live in a city with your family, many leave to return on weekends. And in the cities, extended families, even across three generations, commonly meet for weekly meals.


Given that gatherings are important, the thought that goes into what food to bring to the occasion is significant. One does not just grab a bag of chips to bring to the party. If you’re going to contribute some chips, you’d better bring them from a place famous for chips. If someone brings a simple offering, you can assume it came from a notable place known for that specific dish.


But these places don’t need to be high-end establishments. An offering could be Es Puter, a coconut milk ice cream, bought from a famous tiny roadside shop, or a simple pudding from a neighborhood bakery where that is its specialty. The biggest compliment is to be asked where you purchased the food and the biggest gift you can give is to share the contact information of the place where you bought it. Word of mouth is still the most powerful and exciting way we hear about the latest and greatest in food.


This is an excerpt from the new book, Jamu Lifestyle (AfterHours Books), by Metta Murdaya. It’s published here with permission.


Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--AfterHours Books

--Celebrityabc (Flickr, Creative Commons)

--Tresiahoban3 (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

--4547 (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

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