Indonesian Local Food

Indonesian cuisine is one of the most vibrant and colourful cuisines in the world, full of intense flavour. It is diverse, in part because Indonesia is composed of approximately 6,000 populated islands of the total 18,000 in the world’s largest archipelago, with more than 300 ethnic groups calling Indonesia their home. Many regional cuisines exist, often based upon indigenous culture and foreign influences. Indonesia has around 5,350 traditional recipes, with 30 of them considered the most important.

In 2011, Indonesian cuisine began to gain worldwide recognition, with three of its popular dishes make it to the list of ‘World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods (Readers’ Pick)’, a worldwide online poll by 35,000 people held by CNN International. Rendang top the list as the number one, followed closely by nasi goreng in number two, and satay in number fourteen.

Indonesian cuisine varies greatly by region and has many different influences. Sumatran cuisine, for example, often has Middle Eastern and Indian influences, featuring curried meat and vegetables such as gulai and kari, while Javanese cuisine is mostly indigenous, with some hint of Chinese influence. The cuisines of Eastern Indonesia are similar to Polynesian and Melanesian cuisine. Elements of Chinese cuisine can be seen in Indonesian cuisine: foods such as bakmi (noodles), bakso (meat or fish balls), and lumpia (spring rolls) have been completely assimilated.

Indonesian cuisine often demonstrates complex flavour, acquired from certain ingredients and bumbu spices mixture. Indonesian dishes have rich flavours; most often described as gurih (savory which equate to umami) and pedas (hot and spicy), and also combination of basic tastes such as manis (sweet), asin (salty), asam (sour) and pahit (bitter). Seven main Indonesian cooking methods are goreng (frying), bakar (roasting) or panggang (grilling), tumis (stir frying), sangrai (sautéing), rebus (boiling) and kukus (steaming).

Some popular Indonesian dishes such as nasi goreng, gado-gado, sate, and soto are ubiquitous in the country and considered as national dishes. The official national dish of Indonesia however, is tumpeng, chosen in 2014 by Indonesian Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy as the dish that binds the diversity of Indonesia’s various culinary traditions.

Today, some popular dishes that originated in Indonesia are now common to neighbouring countries, Malaysia and Singapore. Indonesian dishes such as satay, beef rendang, and sambal are favoured in Malaysia and Singapore. Soy-based dishes, such as variations of tofu (tahu) and tempe, are also very popular. Tempe is regarded as a Javanese invention, a local adaptation of soy-based food fermentation and production. Another fermented food is oncom, similar in some ways to tempe but using a variety of bases (not only soy), created by different fungi, and particularly popular in West Java.

Indonesian traditional meals usually consists of nasi (steamed rice) as staple, surrounded by sayur-mayur (vegetables and soup) and lauk-pauk (meat or fish side dishes). In a typical family meal, the family members gather around the table filled with steamed rice and several other dishes. Each dish is placed in piring saji or a separate communal large plate or in bowls. Each of these dishes has its own sendok saji or serving spoons, used only to take parts of the dishes from the communal plate into one’s own personal plate. Each of the family members has their own piring or personal plate that is first filled with steamed rice. Usually the oldest family member or the husband has the right to initiate the meal, followed by the rest of the family to help themselves with the dishes. Each of them take some portion of dishes from the communal plates into their own individual plates.

On their personal plate, the steamed rice will soon be surrounded by two, three or more dishes; sayur (vegetables) and lauk (fish or meat), and maybe some fried dishes, sambal and krupuk. In Indonesian customs — unlike in Japanese counterpart — it is quite acceptable to be seen to mix the different flavoured dishes in a single personal plate during consumption. A practice commonly found in nasi campur, nasi Padang, or during prasmanan buffet. The soupy dish however, might be served in a separate small personal bowl. Today in contemporary Indonesian restaurants, the set menu is often offered. This has led to the personal serving practice, in similar fashion to those of Japanese cuisine, with a personal plate on a tray, a rattan or bamboo container each with a separate small portion of dishes surrounding the rice. This can be found in the presentation of nasi Bali.

Indonesian meals are commonly eaten with the combination of a spoon in the right hand and fork in the left hand (to push the food onto the spoon). Unlike European dining custom, knife however, is absent from dining table, thus most of the ingredients such as vegetables and meat are already cut into bite-size pieces prior of cooking. Although, in many parts of the country, such as West Java and West Sumatra, it is also common to eat with one’s bare hands. In restaurants or households that commonly use bare hands to eat, like in seafood foodstalls, traditional Sundanese and Minangkabau restaurants, or East Javanese pecel lele (fried catfish with sambal) and ayam goreng (fried chicken) food stalls, they usually serve kobokan, a bowl of tap water with a slice of lime in it to give a fresh scent. This bowl of water should not be consumed, rather it is used to wash one’s hand before and after eating. Eating with chopsticks is generally only found in food stalls or restaurants serving Indonesian adaptations of Chinese cuisine, such as bakmie or mie ayam (chicken noodle) with pangsit (wonton), mie goreng (fried noodles), and kwetiau goreng (fried flat rice noodles).

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