When it comes to foodie allure, Indonesia is sort of the unsung hero of Southeast Asia. Its central location among ancient trading routes between the Far East, Middle East and South Asia, and a rather lengthy Dutch occupation, made it a culinary melting pot. Part of the reason Indonesia was so deeply integrated into ancient trading routes was because of its importance in the global spice trade. The “Spice Islands” of antiquity, now known as the Maluccas, are where globally recognized spices such as cloves and nutmeg originally came from. This, compounded by the influence of some 300 ethnic groups that live in Indonesia, results is a cuisine that’s vibrant, colourful, full of intense flavours and incredibly varied.
Although Indonesia may be unfairly dismissed as a foodie paradise, if imitation is the greatest form of flattery, it’s not without its share of recognition. Many dishes that originate from Indonesia are enjoyed and paraded around as “local” favourites elsewhere in the region. Tempe, for example, originates from the island of Java. Other classics such as satay, rendeng and sambal, which are extremely popular in both Malaysia and Singapore, are also of Indonesian descent.
Nowhere on the archipelago has as widely regarded reputation for bold cuisine than the island of Sumatra. With a substantial culinary influence from India and the Middle East, Sumatran cuisine separates itself from cuisine elsewhere in Indonesia with the prevalence of its spicy curries such as gulai or kari. The city of Padang in west Sumatra is particularly well known for its rich and varied gulai dishes. In eastern Sumatra, the capital city of Medan is well-known for its Malaysian-style dishes. Among Indonesians, Medan is considered to be the “Penang of Indonesia” and is wildly popular for its thriving street food culture. The most well-known area for street food in Medan is Jalan Selat Panjang, where the oldest and most well-established traditional eateries are.
Cuisine on the island of Java is known for being more indigenous in nature. The capital city of Jakarta bucks that trend with its famously rich and eclectic Betawi cuisine. Betawi cuisine combines an influence of Indonesian flavours from throughout the archipelago, as well as flavours from further abroad due to the wave of immigrants that settled in the city over the last century. For seafood, head to Santiga Seafood Stall, which is one of the most beloved eateries in the city, or Jalan Wahid Hasyim for just about anything else.
On the island of Bali, culinary traditions are a mix between both indigenous dishes and dishes introduced from elsewhere in the archipelago. Indigenous dishes are famous for combining a multitude of aromatic local ingredients that pack a punch. In the south of Bali, the tourist centre of Kuta has abundant opportunities for visitors to sample local dishes among the multitude of street food vendors that line its streets. In particular, Nakula Night Market is well-known amongst locals for its authentic and varied cuisine. Due to the abundance of options, the best way to sample these is under the guidance of an experienced local expert.
The great thing about exploring a country’s culinary offerings is that there’s never not a great time to do it. When sampling street food in Indonesia, or anywhere else in Southeast Asia for that matter, it’s always best not to go too late. Most restaurants, or warungs, in Indonesia stay open until their ingredients run out- and the most popular ones run out soonest!
It’s tempting, when you find something that you like, to fill up on it because it’s so delicious. When sampling street food in Indonesia, it’s important to remember that there countless dishes to try.