Indonesian Cuisine

A Nation of Islands
Rijsttafel, Sate, and Sambals

“Indonesia isn’t a country, it’s a happening.” — Christopher Lucas [1]

Garjda, Indonesia 14th cent.

Garuda, Indonesia, 14th cent.

Indonesia stretches from the Asian mainland towards Australia, like a jade necklace across the southern ocean.  The nation contains more than 17,000 islands, and its people represent several hundred ethnic groups, speaking many different languages.

Indonesia is an ancient country and its culture and cuisine show influences from many visitors — Indians, Persians, Arabs, Malays, Dutch — resulting in a diverse cuisine.

Important dishes reflecting this heritage include Rijsttafel, or Rice Table; Sate, skewered and grilled kebabs, usually meat; and Sambals, peppery accompanimensts to main dishes.

Indonesia began to trade with southern China in the third century BCE and is mentioned in the chronicles of the Han Dynasty.  Chinese travelers and traders describe the country and, by the 7th century, Indonesia had provided exotic spices and seasonings to the Chinese court. [2]

Indonesian foods changed the nature of Chinese cuisine in a major way and helped make it what it is today.

The Italian adventurer Marco Polo visited Indonesia in the 13th century and spent several months exploring the country. Polo said that the people of the country lived on rice and that the land was the source of most of the spices in world trade. [3]

By the time the Mongols ruled China, in the 13th century, Zhao Ru-gua, author of the Description of Barbarian Peoples, tells that Palembang, in Eastern Sumatra, was a major source of Cloves, Frankincense and Myrrh, Asafoetida, Galangal and Rhubarb which were used in China.  Some of the goods, he says, were transshipped by Arab merchants calling at Palembang.[4]

“Rijsttafel is the national dish of Indonesia.” —  Agnes de Keijzer Brackman [5]

“Rijsttafel was invented by and for Dutch colonials, so they could pick the dish they disliked least, and order the rest thrown out.” — David Dodge [6]

Important Dishes: Rijsttafel, or Rice Table, is a kind of sumptuous buffet featuring plain Rice with a large array of accompanying side dishes.

In great establishments during the Dutch Colonial period, it might involve from 20 to as many as 50 such side dishes.

Rijsttafel has been called the national dish of Indonesia.  Traditionally it was served by bearers, each carrying a single dish, from which the diner could then add to his plate of rice as desired.

Actually, Rijsttafel may be described as a kind of colonial Fusion food, and may only date to the early 19th century.  More popular today in Amsterdam than Djakarta, it will be typically served buffet or self-service style in hotels in Indonesia, if it appears at all. [7]

Sates, skewered, grilled meats, are a classic Indonesian style of grilled kebabs since the oldest times, and indeed are served in a wide swath stretching from North Africa through to Indonesia and beyond.  The ingredients to be grilled are typically first marinated, then grilled over charcoal, and frequently served with a sauce, often peanut-based — see the recipe for Indonesian Peanut Sauce.. Lamb Sate is a good version, which makes enough for a buffet meal. Beef Sate is another simple example. also Sweet Beef Sate.

Some other interesting Sate dishes include Shrimp Sate and Beef and Pork Sate Persian Style.  Actually, there are hundreds of varieties.

Sambals,spicy relishes or condiment sauces served with most meals and usually involving some intense Red Chili Peppers plus other ingredients — there said to be hundreds or even thousands of different types.

The range of dishes in Indonesian cuisine is enormous. More than 40 years ago a food writer specialized in the country’s food estimated there were about 1,500 recipes.

Since then, Indonesian food writer Siri Owen alone has continued to author more than a dozen cookbooks concentrating on Indonesian food and published a good deal of research on local specialties. [8]

So the actual total is probably now several times the original number and running easily into several thousand recipes.

Indonesian cuisine is one of the world’s greatest and offers many dishes that are popular everywhere and can be fairly easy to make.

Important dishes: Besides the trio of Rijsttafel, Sate and Sambals, some notable dishes or classes of dishes include

Some other favorites include —

  • Shrimp or Prawn Crackers

    Prawn Crackers

  • Tempeh, a byproduct of Soybean Curd production which has enjoyed a vogue among health conscious people in the West
  • A wide range of meat balls, dumpling, noodles and items like Lumpia.
  • A whole category of fritters, like the delicious Peanut Fritters, or Rempejek.
  • A whole array of street food, including such snacks as ChiliPeanuts cooked with Ancovies.

Desserts: Usually fresh fruit, but other sweets might include Ice Cream, various Puddings and Custards and Cakes, sometimes steamed Cakes.

A personal favorite is Indonesian Corn Fritters, definitely a Fusion food, which is available everywhere in Indonesia as a street food, and also appears in upscale watering holes internationally as a snack or bar food. [9]

Sambal Istim

Indonesian Saus Cabe

Indonesian Saus Cabe – A Kind of Sambal

Sambal Oelek


Main Ingredients — Vegetables: Some of the important Vegetables include:

  • Bean Sprouts

    Bitter Melon

  • Bitter Melon
  • Calabash
  • Cucumber
  • Cauliflower
  • Carrots
  • Chayote
  • Eggplant
  • Indian Corn (Maize)  — of which more later
  • Papaya and Cassava Leaves
  • Potatoes


  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Wing Bean
  • Yard Long Beans

Coconut Milk is an important cooking liquid and coconut an important cooking material.

Indonesian cooks use many Fruits, including —

  • Bananas — many kinds, also

    Green Papaya

    Tamarind Pods


  • Durian
  • Litchi

    Litchi Fruit in Syrup

  • Mango
  • Mangosteen
  • Papaya
  • Rambutan and many others

Meats and Fish: Poultry and Fish are the main meats used, but Beef, Water Buffalo, Goat, Lamb and Mutton are also


used.  Since the country is about 94 percent Muslim, Pork consumption is rare, except among the Christian and Chinese minorities. There are also many ways of using Eggs.

Seasonings & Aromatics: The Moluccca

(Maluku) islands were known since ancient times as the Spice Islands and introduced many of their spices to world cuisine. Some of these were:

Galangal, Cassia, Cinnamon, Cloves, Cardamom, Coriander, Candlenuts, Cumin, and also —
  • Garlic
  • Ginger

    Fresh Ginger

  • Bay or Laurel Leaves (Salam)
  • Durian

Indonesian cooks also use Scallions, Tamarind, Turmeric.

Soy Sauce is also an important flavoring.  Besides ordinary soy sauce, Indonesian cooks also developed Sweet Soy Sauce (Kecap Manis), made with addition of Palm Sugar into Soy Sauce.

Sweet Soy Sauce is used in marinating fish and meats.

Cooking Indonesian food with Coconut


Other important cooks’ standbys include Peanut Sauce, Coconut Milk and other forms of Coconut.

Regional Styles: There are at least nine major regional cooking styles, with additional sub-groupings —

  • Java — including West Java, Central Java and East Java sub-schools of cooking
  • Madura
  • Bali
  • Sumatra — North Sumatra,West Sumatra and North Sumatra
  • Celebes/Sulawesi  — including North Sulawesi and South Sulawesi styles
  • Sunda Islands
  • The Molucca Islands and
  • Papua-New Guinea

There is quite a lot of regional variation and the excellent Wikipedia article contains a useful detailed review of the regions and their specialties.

Cooking Techniques: Some of the major cooking techniques used by Indonesian cooks include —

  • Boiling
  • Pan-Frying
  • Deep-Frying
  • Stir-Frying
  • Braising and slow cooking
  • Steaming
  • Drying and
  • Pickling

Specialties: Besides the Rijsttafel, Sate and Sambals, some notable dishes include Soto, Gado-Gado Salad, Tempeh, Nasi Goreng, other rice dishes like Nasi MinyakPrawn Crackers, and some of the classic sweets and desserts.

Rice, sometimes colored yellow with Turmeric, is sometimes boiled or steamed for a long time wrapped in Banana Leaves.

Other foods, including Fish, are also steamed in Banana Leaves.

The unusual meat preparation known as Rendang, a specialty of the Menangkebau people of Sumatra has become world-famous.  It is covered in another Article of its own in this site.

Fried Rice/Nasi Goreng: One of the leading Indonesian dishes and now enjoyed as far away as Sweden. In Indonesia, Fried Rice may be made with Pork, Beef, or even diced Bacon, but it invariably contains a healthy dose of fresh Red Chilies. Rather than mixing the chopped scrambled egg into the Rice, as is usual in Chinese fried rice, Indonesian cooks often slide a Fried Egg on top of it.

Garuda, Indonesia 14th c.

For Further Information:

[1] Christopher Lucas, Indonesia Is a Happening (Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1970) —
[2] Ed[ward Schafer, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T’ang Exotics (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1965) —
[3] Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, translated by Ronald Latham (London: Folio Society, 1968,1990) —
[4] Friedrich Hirt and W. W. Rockhill, Chau Ju-Kua, His work on the Chinese and Arab trade in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, entitled Chu-fan-chi (St. Petersburg: Printing Office of the Imperial Academy of Sciences, 1911) —
[5] Agnes de Keijzer Brackmann, The Art of Indonesian Cooking; The ABC’s (Sydney: Asia Pacific Press, 1970) —
[6] David Dodge, The Poor Man’s Guide to the Orient (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1965) —
[7] Emily Hahn, Raffles of Singapore, a Biography (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1946) —
[8] Siri Owen, Indonesian Food & Cookery (London: Prospect, 1980)  —
[9] “Indonesian cuisine,” article, Wikipedia —
Besides SirI Owen’s writings, other sources on Indonesian food and cooking:
Copeland Marks and Minatri Soeharjo, The Indonesian Kitchen (New York: Atheneum, 1981)  —
Alec Robeau, Cooking the Indonesian Way (Sydney: A.H.& A.W. Reed, 1970)  —
Gilda Tay, Indonesian Cooking (Sydney: Bay, 1978)  —
Online resources: A source of online recipes for Indonesian cuisine at Recipes Pro —

Frieze – Borobudur

Water buffalo or carabao in Indonesia

Ad from restuarant Chez Mario, Djakarta