While it’s easy to find Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese food in the U.S., Indonesian cuisine is more elusive. With the exception of fried rice, tempeh, and satay, I really didn’t know what to expect. Naturally, I was pleasantly surprised, both because I like to eat everything and more importantly, Indonesian food is absolutely delicious!
Being an archipelago of over 17,000 islands, there is, of course, a lot of regional variation. We were in Bali first, which is notably a majority-Hindu island. The cuisine doesn’t feature beef at all. The country as a whole, however, is majority Muslim, so there is very little pork production. Chicken, fish, eggs, and soybeans are the main sources of protein. Actually, we agreed that Indonesia makes THE BEST fried chicken we have ever had. It’s so tender and juicy, never dry or chewy. I don’t know how they do it. Maybe it has something to do with all chickens being free-range; that is, nobody has bothered to build any coops and they just peck around yards all the time.
This being Asia, rice and rice noodles feature prominently. And being a tropical country, there is a wonderful variety of exotic fruit. This snakeskin fruit has a taste that is somewhere in between an apple and a pineapple. It was very refreshing and makes a very good snack or dessert. For those who prefer sweeter desserts, Indonesia delivers.
Their cakes are made with sticky rice or rice flour, and are usually flavored with palm sugar. They’re really not as sweet as they look. Shopping for fruit and cakes in the market is enough to work up an appetite! Restaurants in Indonesia come in several different forms: indoor, outdoor, air-conditioned, fan-cooled, naturally cooled, portable stalls, or sometimes just a grill on the street.
This was the only pork we saw in three weeks- being grilled Balinese satay-style. When many people think of satay, they think of the classic peanut dipping sauce, but actually there are more styles. This one was marinated in a very spicy sauce and eaten with sticky rice. (You’ll also notice this friendly guy has no fridge- we suspect that’s what made us ill. Our Western stomachs were not strong enough.
Advice (that I should have listened to myself): Look for food that is being freshly cooked, and if you’re still suspicious, only eat a little bit. Other than that, I don’t really worry about hygiene standards. The food-stall people have woks with huge fires underneath, which is pretty much guaranteed to kill any nasties. Rice- and noodle-based dishes are safer, because bugs are more likely to be hiding out on meat. Yes, that fried rice may still contain some chicken, but it’s only a tiny bit. Eating whole skewers of sketchy satay is worse.
My favorite day in Bali was the day I attended the Paon Bali cooking class. I won’t give away any of Wayan and Puspa’s recipes, but if you ask me nicely, I’d be happy to cook up some of the dishes I learned! This stir-fried tempeh, in particular, was amazing. I had eaten tempeh before, in the US and Japan, but that stuff is nothing like homemade tempeh in its country of origin. It was so much more flavorful-not bland or dry at all. For this dish, we fried the tempeh pieces in coconut oil and allowed them to cool before cooking them with the chilies.
Wayan, our teacher, told us we could try a piece of plain fried tempeh- big mistake. We all kept going back for more, and it was looking like there would be none left for the dish! Served with perhaps a tzatziki dipping sauce or some salsa, this would be an amazing snack.
Speaking of snacks, here are some that I found in a grocery store- these were totally mysterious to me. I must admit I wanted to try Singkong Garlic, whatever it is.