Indonesia is a country of surprises. While many have visited Bali and been smitten by the friendliness of the local people and its beaches, mountainous interior, the shopping, few tourists venture to the west or the rest of the country. After CNNGo readers voted ‘Rendang’ as the most delicious food in the world, we thought it was time to give Indonesia’s culinary credentials some time in the limelight.
With Indonesia’s long history as a land of spices, it seems only natural that the local food – even the cheap but filling stuff sold on the streets – fuses local ingredients and traditional cooking styles into a tasty, thrilling whole. Indonesia’s history as a battleground and colony for Portugal and Indonesia actually revolves around the spices originally cultivated around the nation’s many islands.
Today, visitors to Indonesia can now eat their favorite street foods in peace. If you’re in a city like Jakarta or Yogyakarta, chances are you don’t need to walk very far to find any of the street foods we’ve listed in the next few pages. Many of these foods are popular throughout Indonesia, but we’ve thrown in a few local favorites for good measure.
For the Asia-bound traveler keen to know the region’s diverse culinary cultures, these are essential experiences. In this part of the world the term “street food” (or “hawker food,” as it’s referred to in Malaysia and Singapore) denotes not just a cheap and quick way to fill one’s belly. It also describes a repertoire of dishes prepared by experienced specialists, dishes rarely duplicated successfully in restaurant kitchens. Eating on the Asian street offers the opportunity to observe cooking techniques up close and to engage with strangers over a meal in a way that would be difficult in a proper brick and mortar eatery.
The square is filled with people out enjoying the sunshine, some sketching the historic buildings, some (of course) picking up a snack from the street stalls, like this one serving hot battered breads.
To one side of the square, a restaurant spills out onto the pavement, as places do around the world. Indonesia’s cuisine has been heavily influenced by early Dutch and Portuguese colonists. Being at the crosswires of the spice trade brought ships with crew from every country in the world, and while Java was instrumental in changing the cuisines of many countries, so too was theirs affected with foodstuffs and techniques that came with the visitors. We have rounded up few of Indonesian street food must try!
Nasi Goreng has been everyone’s favourite it is as close to a national dish as you can get in Indonesia, fried rice, usually topped with a fried egg. Nasi means rice, goreng is fried.
Durian, the king of fruits, is as popular here as it is in other south-east Asian countries. If you can’t face the smell, there are many other tropical fruits (buah) in this country. The local grey-fleshed passionfruit, the makisa is especially fragrant and delicious. Look for jambu (a sort of guava) and of course, coconut!
Where would this cuisine be without chillies? Watch out for locals chewing them between mouthfuls of fried tofu. And in case you are wondering, this New World produce came here with traders who were more than happy to swap these fiery critters for handfuls of black peppercorns, nutmeg, cloves and much more.
Vegetarians can breathe a sigh of relief: they can still enjoy Indonesian street food by ordering the salad known as gado-gado. The name literally translates to “mix-mix”; after all, the dish is a mixture of blanched and fresh vegetables, tofu, and tempeh, bathed in a peanut-based sauce. The dish can be garnished with hard-boiled egg slices and sautéed onions, and served with a side dish of kripik (deep-fried, starchy crackers).
One of the most difficult things when eating in another country is decoding the different names of dishes. Fortunately street vendors often thoughtfully provide a picture on their signs. Even if they don’t, you can usually get an idea by looking at the ingredients laid out ready to go – and if all that fails, wait until local orders and watch carefully how the dish is prepared. Less risky, as far as tummy troubles go, is to only order food that is cooked at a high heat to order.
But street stalls also boast an advantage over restaurants: transparency. At a street stall everything is prepared right in front of the consumer, which makes it easier to gauge food safety. The risks involved in grazing at Asia’s street food smorgasbord are real. But the rewards are great, and if one treads smartly dangers can be minimized. As Powell notes, in the long run, “the biggest risk is not eating at all, or eating too much”.
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