Indonesian Food in the Spotlight: Best of the World and More

In 2011, readers of CNN Travel voted for Indonesian rendang and nasi goreng as No. 1 and No. 2 in the 50 World’s Best Foods. It makes you curious about Indonesian food, right?

My first Indonesian dining experience was a rijsttafel in an Amsterdam's restaurant. Rijstafel or “rice table” is one of the remnants of the colonial past. Apparently, it's not as easy to find restaurants offering rijsttafel in Indonesia as in the Netherlands. In fact, we didn’t try it once in the one month we travelled through the four islands in the archipelago. Rijsttafel is a feast on the table with 10 to 12 different dishes from meats to fish, vegetables to tempeh (fermented soybean). Laden with spices and rich in flavour, it keeps you full for a long time 🍛🍛🍛 

We went there because we wanted to have an idea of the food before going to the country. In hindsight, it didn't quite represent the actual thing but made an amazingly unique experience. 
 
From our trip through Java, Bali, Lombok and Gili islands, here are our two cents about Indonesian food. 

The Basics

Rice and noodles are the staples

Everywhere we’ve been, we could find a version of mie goreng (fried noodles) and nasi goreng (fried rice). If you still remember from above☝️, nasi goreng was voted the second best food in the world. It’s indeed tasty, the oily, glossy and crunchy rice and the fried eggs. All the comfort in a dish! I found the actual ingredients and taste varying among islands, though. In other words, I had exquisite versions as well as mediocre ones.

Sambal is the table sauce

Well, it’s not exactly that there's always a bowl of sambal on the table, but it is commonly found on your rice dish. 

Sambal is Indonesia's national spicy sauce, like our Vietnamese's tương ớt. Each island (or household) makes it slightly different, but the main ingredients call for chillis and shrimp paste. I don't think you can't tell about the shrimp part, though. Ian is not a fan of the paste but he loves sambal.  

Rich flavour, a lot of spices

If you go for curries, like beef rendang🌟, then be prepared that they are rich in taste. As many exotic spices are native to Indonesia, the locals use them generously to create many depths of taste challenging your palate.

Most of the curry dishes are yummy, but they could take a bit to get used to. If you have never eaten a curry before, or just the mild versions in some western restaurants, go in easy and don't be dishearted if you find them too overwhelming at first. 

A spoon and a fork

I always feel clumsy eating fried rice and noodles without chopsticks. The Vietnamese born and bred in me! However, when in Rome… 

Most restaurants give you a spoon and a fork to eat with. Some warungs provide a bowl of water, so you can wash your hand and use it to spoon your food. The right side only, please. 

Ian and I ate with our hands sometimes, as I never have any problem getting my fingers sticky, but yeah, it could be a bit off-putting for some. 

Our Favourite 5 Dishes (and where to get them) 

Babi Guling

Personally, I found the food in Java the best, but as the majority of the Javanese population is Muslim, it’s hard to find pork and babi guling there. 

My mouth waters like crazy mentioning the name. We learned about it from Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey show, but to taste the real thing is a world difference. The main ingredient is roast crispy pork. A suckling pig is stuffed and cooked on a spit for hours until the skin becomes crispy. That crispy skin makes a treat in the dish. Additionally, you have the pork itself, rice, urap-urap (vegetable salad) and sambal. 

You’ll find babi guling in many places on Bali but do check out this little restaurant: Babi Guling Ibu Oka. We found it recommended in many travel blogs, but it's not overcrowded or anything when we visited. You can sit on the upstairs and enjoy a breeze while savouring your food.

 

Nasi campur at Warung Bu Ageng

Nasi campur at Warung Bu Ageng

Nasi Campur

Though not as well known as a nasi goreng, nasi campur is a great dish and one of my favourite. Instead of fried rice, you get steamed white rice served with a variety of meat, some tiny crunchy and salty fried fish, rice cracker, and vegetables. 

In small, simple warung, you are likely to get nasi campur served on a bamboo tray with a banana leaf, which I prefer. 

The best nasi campur in my memory was in one of those tiny restaurants in a small town in Java. We got a few hours before the next train, so we sought out an old fashion internet cafe to do some work. The speed was too slow, and the heat was high. We gave up after a couple of hours and found this food stall. I sat on the floor, under the shade of a big tree and ate nasi campur. It was amazing! 

Another great place for nasi campur is Warung Bu Ageng in Yogyakarta. We went there twice, and the food was sublime. 

Gado Gado

In a nutshell, it’s steamed vegetables in peanut sauce. The creamy peanut sauce gives the vegetables a sweet, nutty and satisfying coat. In the mix are bean sprouts, morning glory, and long beans. It’s a good option to step away from all the meats and enjoy the singularity of flavour.  

Gado gado (with an egg) 

Gado gado (with an egg) 

The restaurant in Yogyakarta I mentioned above serves a great gado-gado too, though you can get a decent plate in most street food places and restaurants in Indonesia. 

Soto

It’s a noodle dish, with added rice to fill you up. It has a chicken broth and shredded chicken meat, a boiled egg and bean sprouts.

We also had this type of dish the first time in the Netherlands, in a Suriname kitchen. As Suriname is a melting pot of many ethnicities, it’s not a surprise if they have their soto or saoto soup from the Javanese migrants. 

This dish is very warming and tasty. Some places add fried potatoes in matchstick pieces to the already carb-full bowl. I am not complaining, though, as love the potatoes. 

The best soto soup I had in Indonesia was in the Admira Hotel, Bandung. The soto was a part of their buffet breakfast. 

Soto soup (bottom right corner)

Soto soup (bottom right corner)

BBQ Seafood

The whole country is made up of islands. Hence, fresh seafood!

Though not a particular dish but I have to add seafood as I had some many memorable dining experiences with fish and prawns in Indonesia. 

You have the fancy restaurants by the beach, sitting at a table by the beach, while they grill whichever sea creatures you pick out from the ice rack. 

We went for a meal in this restaurant called Scallywags in Gili T. They had the freshest prawns and a salad bar. Great salads and sambals for as much as you want. I think we had our money worth!

If you find yourself stop in Jakarta for any reason, there’s a restaurant you must try: Ikan Bakar Alas Purwo. It’s located in an ill-lit street, but worth the journey and any euros, sterling or dollar you spend. 

At Ikan Bakar Alas Purwo

At Ikan Bakar Alas Purwo

We found it on Foursquare after we failed to get a train ticket to Bandung and our plan went south on the very first day. Thus, we thought a nice restaurant meal would cheer us up. And it did. They had an extensive menu, without any prices. The seating areas were huge, which makes it look a bit like a tourist trap. Fortunately, it’s not. The food was fantastic; we feasted like kings at a very reasonable price. 

Then, you always have the food stalls in smaller towns where they offer river fish, seasoned with many spices, wrapped in banana leaf and cooked on a high-heat grill. 

So that are our two cents! And now I am starving. Rijstafel, anyone?