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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Indonesia

Historic Diet

Indonesian Food - Chicken satay
Chicken satay

Indonesia is the native home to a number of foods that are commonly consumed throughout the world today including sugar, bananas, and breadfruit. Numerous other foods are also indigenous to the islands or arrived with some of the earliest people to the region, giving the region a diverse historic diet, much of which is still present today.

Among the indigenous and early arriving fruits and vegetables were oranges, bananas, breadfruit, mangos, guavas, durian, taro, cassava, wheat, rice, spinach, garlic, shallots, beans, and melons. Like the diverse plant life, animals were also present in large numbers and some of the most common meats that were historically consumed include chicken, duck, boar, and water buffalo. However, it was and still is the fish and other sea life that dominates the diet of the locals when it comes to proteins. Mackerel, tuna, red snapper, anchovy, shrimp, and crab are all prevalent in the ocean while carp, catfish, and others are common freshwater fish.

Culinary Influences

Indonesian Food - Nasi goreng
Nasi goreng

Through early history Indonesia experienced the arrival of numerous foods from nearby regions, most of which arrived via Southeast Asia and the Malay Peninsula from that immediate area as well as far off lands such as India, China, and even the Middle East. These new foods arrived slowly over time until the Indians arrived in greater numbers in the 300s.

In the 300s and for years after the Indians arrived to the region of Indonesia in fairly large numbers. With the Indians came numerous new spices and new dishes. Curries arrived in great numbers and after numerous Indians converted to Islam, pork was reduced in the islands. This spread of Islam though didn't entirely take over the islands of Indonesia for years so pork was consumed by the majority for some time.

The Chinese also had a large impact on the food of Indonesia, which can still be seen and tasted today. The Chinese began to arrive in the 600s, but their immigration to the region has continued since that time and even continues today in small numbers. The Chinese brought numerous dishes to the islands, but it was soy sauce that made the greatest impact as this makes an essential component to numerous dishes and sauces.

In the 1500s the Spanish and other Europeans arrived to Indonesia with new foods. Most of these new foods came from the Americas via the Spanish, including maize (corn), potatoes, chili peppers, peanuts, tomatoes, and sweet peppers. Foods were also brought in from Europe, primarily from the Portuguese and Dutch, who introduced cheeses, breads, pastries, cakes, and some dairy products, including butter. In addition to the foods the Europeans brought, Indonesia became a center of the spice trade going east and west. This led to the introduction or the increase in popularity of spices and foods from the Far East as well as from India, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

In more recent times, Indonesia has continued to receive influences from all over the world as new technologies and food concepts have arrived and been accepted widely. Frozen foods and fast foods are growing in popularity, especially in the cities. However, these places have not taken over the local foods, restaurants, and street vendors yet. None-the-less, it is easy to find fast food, frozen foods, and even many "ethnic" restaurants in the large cities and resort towns in Indonesia.

Staple Foods

Rice: rice is cooked in numerous styles and accompanies most meals
Root Crops: numerous root crops, including potatoes, taro, sago, and cassava, are popular and found in many dishes

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Gado Gado: vegetables served in a peanut sauce
Mee Goreng/Nasi Goreng: fried noodles and fried rice respectively, these dishes served with vegetables are regular items on most menus
Nasi Campur: the national dish is really a sampling of dishes, all based on rice
Satay: simply grilled meats seasoned with local spices
Java: this island is known for foods that are sweet, both desserts and main dishes, although in some areas the sweetness is covered by spice; fish is very popular
Papua: this island tends to rely more on boar and potatoes than the rest of the country
Sumatra: more international flavors, most notably from the Middle East and India are common as this island was a center of trade for years; buffalo and fish are popular proteins

Dining Etiquette

As a primarily Muslim country, there are a few rules you must know and understand prior to eating in Indonesia. First, dress on the conservatively side (see our Indonesia Culture Page for more details). Second, in conservative homes and even some restaurants, it is not acceptable to eat with a person of the opposite sex unless it is your child, sibling, or spouse. While this is very uncommon today (especially on tourist islands), to some conservative Muslims this is important so observe the local restaurant's situation and follow their lead. Lastly, many conservative Muslims don's eat pork or drink alcohol and if in their company you should do the same. Again, it is easy to find these items on tourist islands and few people will look at foreigners consuming these items with any contempt; if the restaurant serves these items there is little issue, but don't order these items in the company of a local if you don't know their personal stances. If you are eating with Hindus, most of who are Indian, cattle are sacred so you should avoid eating beef. If in doubt, or just to be cautious, order chicken, fish, or a vegetarian meal.

Before entering a house or restaurant check to see if others have left their shoes at the door; if so you should do the same then greet everyone personally, elders first. If meeting Muslims, don't touch, or shake the hand of a person of the opposite sex unless the woman initiates the contact by extending a hand. Again only very conservative Muslims believe people of the opposite sex shouldn't make physical contact, but if in doubt let the local lead. Let your local counterpart arrange the seating and many cases your local host will order food for the entire table so you have multiple dishes to try.

Prior to eating you may notice a small bowl of water on your table; this is for cleaning your fingers so follow the lead of others as you may be asked to wash your hands before you begin eating. Food is often served family style and accepting all food that is offered to you is a must. Once the host invites you to begin eating you may notice the lack of a knife on most occasions. The Indonesians tend to eat with both a fork and spoon; the spoon is held in the right hand and the fork is used to push food onto the spoon. Other times the Indonesians will eat with only their right hand and you should do the same. No matter what is present, only use your right hand to eat and only bring food to your mouth with your right hand.

When you finish eating, leave a little food on your plate (but finish all of your rice) then place your fork and spoon face down on the plate, with the spoon crossed over top of the fork (or if eating with chopsticks, place your chopsticks back on the chopstick rest on the side of your plate). After the meal you may be offered a beverage (drinks are usually not served before or with meals); if so you again must accept the drink, but receive it with both hands. If you are eating in a restaurant, you will probably find that a service charge has been added to the bill, in which case there is no need to leave an additional tip. If no service charge has been added, leave a tip of about 10% of the bill.

Celebrations & Events

Trying to attach particular foods to particular events in Indonesia is a challenge as regional differences are vast and people from varying islands may celebrate the same occasion with very different foods. However, there are a couple foods that are usually served in times of celebration and there are a couple celebrations that are focused on food, although the food from family to family or region to region may differ greatly.

Arguably the two most significant celebrations in Indonesia that are centered around foods are Eid al Fitr (or Hari Raya Aidilfitri) and Eid al Adha (or Hari Raya Aidiladha). Eid al Fitr is a celebration that occurs immediately after Ramadan and hence is celebrated with vast quantities of foods; Ramadan is a religious holiday that requires fasting for 30 days. Eid al Adha is also celebrated with foods and often times the slaughter of an animal; this event is celebrated after a pilgrim returns from haj, the mandatory journey for every able Muslim to go to Mecca.

At the above, and at many celebratory events, the people will eat differing foods; however two of the most popular celebratory foods are tumpeng and rijsttafel. Tumpeng is rice served with vegetable dishes, meat dishes, seafood dishes, potatoes, vegetables, and more in an organized and coherent presentation that has enough food to serve everyone present. Tumpeng is most common in Java and the surrounding islands. The second important dish is rijsttafel, which is clearly Dutch in origin, but Indonesian in every other way. Rijsttafel is again centered on rice, but includes 40 dishes and today this is more often served as a buffet at large gatherings such as weddings.

Drinks

Indonesian Food - Dawet
Dawet

In Indonesia the drinks of choice are tea and coffee, both of which come in numerous varieties and can be served very sweet. Juices are also popular and in the right season are freshly squeezed. Numerous juices exist including orange, guava, mango, avocado, and coconut milk. Numerous regional drinks are popular as well, including wedang ronde, which is a hot drink with balls of sweet potatoes. Soft drinks, milk, and other internationally popular drinks are also available anywhere in Indonesia.

As a primarily Muslim country, Indonesia has little alcohol available, however most of the people have few issues with drinking and the tourist trade relies on alcohol to some degree. Outside the resorts and large tourist destinations (like Bali) alcohol is more limited and difficult to find, but is still available. Due to Islamic extremists and more conservative Muslims, it is best to follow the lead of locals when deciding to drink alcohol when in Indonesia. Some islands have nightclubs and resorts where the consumption of alcohol is a way of life, while in other areas it is uncommon and drinking may be somewhat offensive.

The tap water is generally not safe to drink in Indonesia, but in limited areas it might be safe. The most cautious course of action is to entirely avoid the tap water and items that could be made from or with the water, such as ice, fruits, and salads. If you do decide to drink the local tap water first check with your local hotel or guesthouse to learn the cleanliness of the water in that area. If the water is safe, remember that many people may have trouble adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to if you are not from the region.

This page was last updated: March, 2013