As the daughter of immigrants from Indonesia and the Philippines, my childhood memories of family meals are infused with the aromas and flavors of southeast Asia: coconut-based curry stews, lemongrass, galangal (a citrusy, peppery relative of ginger), turmeric, ginger, shallots, garlic, chilis, tamarind, jeruk purut (Makrut lime leaf), citrus, terasi (fermented shrimp paste), kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), kecap asin (salty soy sauce), palm sugar, pandan leaves (sweet-smelling tropical plant), cumin, nutmeg, cloves and coriander. Growing up in Houston, I spent a lot of time with my paternal grandparents, who were born in the small fishing village of Tegal in central Java. They emigrated to the United States after my grandfather retired from a career in journalism to help care for me while my parents worked full-time.
My brother, who later became a chef, and I often saw our grandmother cooking. Kneeling on the kitchen floor, she used traditional stone tools — the cobek (pestle) and ulek-ulek (mortar) — to prepare spice pastes and sauces. For example, she ground pungent terasi (fermented shrimp paste) with cabe rawit (bird’s eye chili), red bell pepper, salt, tamarind, peanuts and water into a mixture to season rujak ulek, a salad made of sliced jicama and cucumber.
The hot and humid subtropical U.S. Gulf Coast climate is well-suited for growing many plant foods that my parents grew up eating. I remember wandering into our backyard and smelling citrusy notes of sereh (lemongrass), poking at bitter melons that resembled bumpy green corn cobs and marveling at canoe paddle-sized leaves on tall banana trees. Even though the trees never produced fruit, we used the banana leaves to wrap lemper (plump, steamed oblong bundles of rice with curried chicken in the center).
Indonesia is an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, of which about 6,000 are inhabited by many ethnic groups, with the Pacific Ocean to the northeast, the South China Sea to the northwest and the Indian Ocean to the south. A true fusion of flavors, Indonesian cuisine has many regional variations and culinary influences of Chinese, Indian, Arab and European traders and settlers. The Chinese introduced soy sauce, tofu, cabbage and bean sprouts, as well as the wok and stir-frying. The Indians brought curried meats and traditional methods of using cloves and nutmeg. The Arabic influence of the kebab is evident in classic Indonesian satay (marinated and grilled meat on wooden skewers), though the addition of peanut sauce as a condiment originated in Java.
Starting in the 1500s, the Portuguese, Spanish, British and then Dutch sought to control the region for its valuable spices, such as nutmeg and cloves. The Dutch occupied the country for 300 years; the rijsttafel (“rice table,” an array of dishes on the table with rice at the center) is a colonial tradition that is well-known in Indonesia and Europe.
Cooking Indonesian food means using fresh, local ingredients and combining intensely flavored elements into a harmonious, rich, multidimensional experience, while customizing dishes according to the region. For example, Javanese cuisine tends to be sweeter, due to the local production of sugar.
All Indonesian meals include warm, steamed rice; a variety of flavorful dishes; krupuk (crunchy deep-fried tapioca or prawn crackers); and at least one kind of spicy, chili-based sambal as a condiment. Examples of Indonesian dishes include rendang (stewed, curried beef with spices), mie goreng (fried noodles with shallots, garlic, sweet soy sauce, meat and vegetables), nasi goreng (fried rice), satay, besenggek (meat stewed in coconut milk, turmeric, shallots, garlic, lemongrass, coriander and galangal), and gado gado (vegetable salad served with peanut sauce).
Religion also influences cuisine. According to 2010 census data, 87 percent of Indonesians identify as Muslim, nearly 10 percent identify as Christian and almost 2 percent identify as Hindu. Because Muslims do not eat pork, satay is usually made with chicken or beef in predominantly Islamic regions. In Bali, which is mainly Hindu, beef is not eaten, so dishes often use pork.
Common cooking methods include stewing, steaming, grilling, stir-frying, frying and roasting. To make the base of a stew or an element for a dish or sauce, Indonesians grind a variety of aromatics, herbs and spices into an intensely flavored paste that is fried in oil. Using a food processor is an acceptable shortcut to grinding spices into a paste by hand with the traditional stone mortar and pestle. Grapeseed, canola, avocado and coconut oils are frequently used. While there is a fondness for fried, crunchy textures and sweets, many classic Indonesian dishes are steamed and stewed.
Menus feature chicken, beef, eggs (seasoned boiled eggs are popular), pork, duck, fish, shellfish, tofu and tempeh. Coconut milk, not cow’s milk, predominates in both savory dishes and desserts. Vegetables such as shredded cabbage, sliced carrots, diced potatoes and green beans often are cooked lightly and eaten with a sauce. Some exceptions are cucumbers and bean sprouts, which are usually eaten raw. Classic Indonesian desserts often consist of coconut milk, rice flour, glutinous (sticky) rice and palm sugar. Fresh tropical fruits such as mango, durian, jackfruit, rambutan, lychee, longan and mangosteen serve as desserts and snacks. Traditionally, alcoholic beverages are rarely served. Jasmine tea, either hot or iced, is usually sweetened with sugar. Coffee is a popular beverage, and Indonesia is the fourth-largest producer in the world.
In America, many health food stores, ethnic markets and Asian food aisles of mainstream grocery stores sell ingredients for cooking Indonesian food. Commercially prepared products that make modern Indonesian cooking more convenient include dehydrated blocks of powdered peanut sauce that need only be mixed with hot water; packets of spices, aromatics, herbs and oil for rendang, rawon (beef soup), nasi goreng and soto ayam (spicy chicken soup); ready-to-eat krupuk sold in airtight bags; refrigerated lemongrass paste in a tube; and powdered galangal and turmeric. Condiments such as sambal oelek (chili-based paste), fried shallots, fried onions and fried anchovies also can be purchased. Due to similarities to other Southeast Asian cuisines, Indonesian flavors can be approximated by using more easily sourced ingredients, such as Thai fish sauce in place of terasi, lime juice for tamarind water and macadamia nuts instead of kemiri (candlenuts).
As my grandparents would say, selamat makan — enjoy your meal!
Facts & Figures. Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia website. Accessed December 16, 2020.
Traditional Balinese Coconut Oil. Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity website. Accessed December 16, 2020.
Wijaya S. Indonesian food culture mapping: a starter contribution to promote Indonesian culinary tourism. J. Ethn. Food 2019;6,9.
World Coffee Production. International Coffee Organization website. Updated November 2020. Accessed December 16, 2020.