Indonesian food simply doesn’t hold the same sway over American palates as other Asian cuisines, which is a shame because Indonesia has so much to offer. Even though Chinese takeout containers and Indian buffets have served as introductions to Asian cuisine, there are still parts of Asia that deserve a culinary introduction. Living in Southeast Asia has many charms, but it’d be a lie to say that anything beats the constant opportunities to try new food.
Bali Cuisine: Variety Rooted in Old Tradition
I was fortunate enough to visit Bali, Indonesia. Loved for its beautiful beaches and colourful nightlife, the island is bursting at the seams with things to do and see. It’s hard to pin down any one cuisine to represent a country that’s made up of over 6,000 populated islands. Roadside cafes (called warungs) dot the roads of Indonesian islands and each territory has laid claim to different dishes and styles of cooking. Bali boasts spit-roasted pigs (babi guling) stuffed with chilis, garlic, turmeric and ginger. Sumatran cuisine bears witness to the preservation of the techniques from old spice traders. Fragrant curries can be found in every variety to fit every diet.
Each dish comes with a hearty dollop of sambal chili sauce. The condiment is similar to sriracha, which has been burning up the roofs of mouths Stateside for years now. Sambal is made from a combination of chilis, fermented shrimp paste, lime juice, and the old standbys, sugar and salt. It elevates everything – from a plate of humble noodles to a hunk of suckling pig. Look for it in the international aisle of your grocery store or at a specialty Asian grocer.
The satay in Indonesia is nothing like the dried-out sticks of meat served as appetizers in Thai restaurants. Walk through any city in Indonesia and you’re likely to feel the sting of the smoke from the hot coals used to cook satay, a street food conceived by Indonesian street vendors and spread by Dutch traders during the colonial period. Expect it to come with a side of Skippy derived peanut sauce and you’ll be sorely disappointed. Satay is usually served with packed rice cakes (ketupat) and cucumber to quell the fire from the accompanying peanut chili marinade.
Goreng: The Fried Way
Aside from the requisite curries, Indonesian food excels in another category. State fair creations have nothing on the wide variety of foods that come goreng – fried, that is. Look at a menu in any warung and you’ll find fried chicken (ayam goreng), fried noodles (mie goreng) and fried rice (nasi goreng). Try them all. You’ve never had fried chicken until you’ve tried one that was raised and prepared on the same island. That kind of eating takes the locavore movement to a whole new level. Nasi goreng has been hailed as Indonesia’s national dish, and though it’s easy for the adventurous tourist to give this staple a derisive sniff as they set their sights on more adventurous dishes, it would behoove them to discover the many variations that this ultimate comfort food has to offer.
Street Food, Street Cred
The Indonesian islands of Maluku hold rich, volcanic soil that gave way to fragrant mace and cloves. The islands have changed hands many times, with Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands all claiming ownership before Indonesian independence. The remnants of each culture, mixed with indigenous cooking methods, have been strengthened by regional practices. Indonesia shines as an example to culinary experimentation and has enough street food to lure even the most jaded backpackers.