Part of the beauty of Indonesia is that the country and islands are composed of hundreds of different cultures that have all come together to form one diverse nation. As such the food in Indonesia varies not just island to island but city to city. So now I present to you the Ultimate Indonesian Food Guide to Regional Dishes.
Even simple dishes like soto (a traditional soup) and sambal (chili paste) are so different from one city to the next that they often have different names. Trying each and every one of them is no simple task. This is exactly what I have been doing for the last year and I’m still not done.
This guide is a follow-up to my Indonesian Food Cheat Sheet For First-Timers
What To Know About Soto
Soto is a traditional meat, noodle and vegetable soup served with rice. Occasionally the rice is served already in the soup but most often it is presented on the side. There are two methods of eating it: either adding the rice into the soup or spooning the soup over the rice. (The more common method is the first one but I prefer the second method, much to the protest of my girlfriend.)
The beauty of soto is that it’s never the same twice. Every city and region has a different form of soto using slightly different ingredients. As some might say, “Same same but different.” Examples include Soto Betawi in Jakarta and Soto Madura, originally from Madura Island northeast of Surabaya but now found in various cities across Java.
Let’s Start With…
Regional Food Of Java
Indonesia’s capital is a city that people either love or hate, there is no middle ground. Unfortunately most travelers fall into the latter category and end up getting in and out of Jakarta as fast as possible. I was one of those at first. The traffic, pollution, and lack of worthwhile tourist sights begs one to ask themselves “What am I even doing here?” It wasn’t until several trips later that I actually settled down in Jakarta for a couple of months and learned to appreciate the few good things about the city — like the food.
This vegetable soup can be found throughout the city as well as in Bogor, about an hour south of Jakarta. It is a coconut milk based soup that contains vermicelli, shallots, lemongrass, coriander, bean sprouts, garlic and basil leaves.
Although most soto is made with chicken (ayam) this version contains beef (sapi). In addition to the obligatory noodles, sprouts, green onions, and cilantro, soto betawi has a key difference: it is made with coconut milk instead of chicken broth and as such is easily recognizable by its yellowish-orange color. It also has potato, tomatoes and — if you are lucky — a hard-boiled egg.
This mountaintop city is located three hours east of Jakarta and is a popular shopping destination of foreign tourists. It also has a few notable sites such as Tangkuban Perahu and Kebun Binatang Bandung. But when it comes to a culinary itinerary these are the dishes to look for:
Siomay / Batagor
Both are dumplings of fish, tofu, potatoes and vegetables topped with spicy peanut sauce and soy sauce. The only difference is siomay is steamed and batagor is fried. I have only tried the latter and unfortunately it is one of only two Indonesian dishes that I don’t like. However anyone passing through Bandung should definitely give this dish a try. Apparently most people love it, just not me.
A traditional soto with radish and beef instead of chicken. In my opinion this is one of the less tasty versions of soto…just don’t say that to anyone from Bandung 😉
This city is a favorite of travelers due to the overwhelming amount of sights and activities not just in town but also within an hour away, including Borobudur Temple and Banyu Sumurup. When it comes to lodging here look no further than Edu Hostel, a planned luxury hotel turned hostel that not only has a professional chef on staff but is also the biggest, cleanest AND cheapest lodging available in all of town. Tell ’em Derek sent ya for some extra lovin’ 😉
Truthfully I am not entirely certain what all is in gudeg despite the fact I’ve eaten it at least a dozen times. I know it contains boiled and seasoned jackfruit, chicken, rice, tempeh, a hard-boiled egg and sambal. However do you see that orange stuff in the photo? No clue what that is.
These small round sweet rolls are stuffed with various sweet fillings, including mung beans (the traditional ingredient), durian, chocolate and even cheese. All are delicious but chocolate is definitely my favorite. Be sure to swing by Bakpia 25 for a box or three before leaving town — you’ll instantly make local friends in the next city you arrive in with them.
Solo is Jogja‘s sister city and is located an hour northwest. Most tourists skip over the city as there is nowhere near as many exciting things to do there as in Jogja. However I recommend at least taking a day-trip there and making it a culinary day. It’s just a quick one hour motorcycle ride from Jogja, and buses run between the two cities all day.
Combine rice, noodles, chicken, chili peppers, hard-boiled egg (sometimes) and coconut sauce together inside of a banana leaf and voila, nasi liwet. It is ridiculously delicious and only costs $1 USD.
A sweet goat (kambing) and vegetable curry-like soup seasoned with coriander, garlic, pepper, lemongrass and bay leaves. It has a sweet spicy taste and is really satisfying.
The culinary capital of East Java is definitely the bustling Surabaya. Although it should be noted that Malang and Banyuwangi also have very similar cuisine. Malang is a much more of a tourist destination than Surabaya thanks to the nearby Mount Bromo. You can find the following east Java dishes at any of those three cities.
Also known as “black soup” (for an obvious reason) rawon is a beef soup that gets its dark color from black nut seeds. It results in a delicious soup that doesn’t have an overpowering nut flavor, as many people first expect.
Madura is a small island just off the coast of Surabaya. Truth be told, I’m not certain what ingredients distinguish soto madura from basic soto ayam. I only ate it this one time. However there must be something though because I remember seeing one or two Soto Madura spots even as far away as Sumatra.
Regional Food Of Bali & Lombok
Bali is by far the most well-known part of Indonesia. So well-known in fact that some foreigners even think Bali is its own country. (Of course some Balinese also like that think that.) 😉 And since most tourists love nothing more than feeling at home while abroad [gag] there is plenty of western food options on the island. Yes, even vaguely food-like options such as McDonald’s.
Lombok is the island to the east of Bali and although still touristy, it is much more subdued. Most travelers who take the ferry or fast boat over from Bali come here either to surf or climb Mount Rinjani.
This famous traditional Balinese dish is one of the most delicious foods in Indonesia. It’s suckling pig served with many other sides, including a caramelized piece of the skin that I always save for desert. Unfortunately Bali is a Hindu island in a primarily Muslim country, which means that it is rare to find babi guling outside of Bali and a few other non-Muslim majority provinces.
I prefer my babi guling dengan darah (with blood) and recommend trying this. Don’t worry, the blood is coagulated and cooked and comes in a little folded bamboo leaf pouch on the side. I simply mix in a little with every bite, although the blood tastes good by itself so it’s obviously seasoned. Don’t Worry, all foreigners are given babi guling tanpa darah (without blood) by default unless requested otherwise.
This dish is big on Lombok and while I recommend it, be forewarned it isn’t very filling. Taliwang is a whole baby chicken roasted in various seasonings. It is served intact, organs and all, on Lombok and West Nusa Tenggara (the island chain east of Lombok). Occasionally taliwang can be found at street vendors in other areas if it is a holiday or festival, albeit without any organs — which could either be a good or bad thing depending on your culinary taste and preferences. 😉
Regional Food Of Sumatra
This fish soup contains vermicelli, mushrooms, celery and other vegetables. It can be found Palembang and although good, it was far from the best soup in the country. Don’t make a special trip out of the way for tekwan but if you should find yourself in Palembang, definitely give it a taste.
Nasi padang is more a style of food than a particular dish itself. In fact it is Sumatra’s most famous food and even though it can be found elsewhere in the country, it’s never quite as tasty as in Padang city. Padang restaurants are easily distinguishable as they will have everything cooked and displayed in front of a glass window, almost like a buffet. Start with a plate of white rice, add on whatever you want, and pay by the piece. All dishes are characterized by coconut milk and chili, giving them an orange-red color.
Whatever you go with, I recommend pouring a spoonful of the broth over your rice to enhance the flavor. (Just pick broth from a chicken or veggie dish and not fish.)
This is another of Indonesia’s most delicious foods. Rendang is made by slow boiling meat (beef, goat or chicken) in coconut milk with a surplus of spices. Eventually all the milk and spices are soaked into the meat and you are left with a delectable dish with just the right amount of spice!
Dodol is an Indonesian sweet, sometimes similar to a brownie, that comes in a variety of flavors (chocolate, durian, etc) and can be found throughout the country. However Dodol Aceh can only be purchased in Banda Aceh.
What makes dodol aceh so special you ask? Why did I save the best for last? Not because dodol is a dessert food but because dodol aceh is made with marijuana, and lots of it!
Yes, dodol aceh is Indonesia’s “special brownie” and it will rock your world. These things are so strong that most people only eat a bite or two at a time. Of course I’m originally from Texas where the saying is “go big or go home” so needless to say self-control is not something I practice, either with my appetite or my wallet.
Wait…why is Aceh the only place in Indonesia you can find this and how is it even legal?!? Well forgive me but I’ll have to save that story for another day 😉
Oops, seems I didn’t have time to get to Kalimantan, Sulawesi or Papua. Guess those destinations will need to be covered in my next Indonesian food guide.