Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Ultimate Indonesia Food Post: 24 Indonesian Foods I Loved While Traveling in Java and Bali

Indonesian cuisine was familiar, but it was surprising nonetheless. It was familiar because Indonesia and the Philippines (where I'm from) are very close neighbors, and therefore, ingredients tended to be quite the same. How those ingredients were used, however, to form delicious culinary creations I could have never in my life imagined, now that surprised me.

In this post, let me recount some of the foods I encountered while traveling in Indonesia. Let me feature not one, not even two, and you can bet it is not even three, but 24! That's right. Twenty-four of the best foods I had while traveling in the islands of Java and Bali in Indonesia.

Nasi Goreng
The humble nasi goreng (fried rice). A breakfast staple in Indonesian cuisine.

To be clear, when I say Indonesian food, I am referring to the foods I found in the parts of Indonesia I traveled to: Java and a little bit of Bali. Friendly advice: You may want to have a full belly before you even think of scrolling down. Let's go.

1. Kerak Telor

Kerak Telor vendor, a Jakarta mainstay
The kerak telor vendor, a Jakarta mainstay

Upon arrival in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, kerak telor was the first food I kept an eye out for. I only had a couple of nights here and kerak telor can only be found here. The snack is a Betawi invention. The Betawi are the people who were descended from the ethnicities that came to live in the Dutch colony of Batavia (i.e., modern-day Jakarta). What is kerak telor then? It's a savory pancake made with soaked glutinous rice, set with an egg (the telor), and then topped with dried shallots, shrimp, and grated coconut. It's the perfect snack: savory and adequately filling.

Kerak Telor
Pancake Betawi-style: kerak telor

2. Batagor

I miss batagor every day I am not in Indonesia.

Batagor is easily one of my top three favorite Indonesian foods. One, it's cheap. Two, it can be a snack as well as a meat substitute for when eating rice. Batagor is a dish made with fish meat paste rolled into a ball, enclosed in dumpling wrapper, and deep fried. Crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside. It is then topped with a thick and chunky peanut sauce and a swig of kecap manis (sweet soy sauce). Batagor is a speciality of Bandung (where I got stupidly lost) and the rest of West Java. I miss it every day I am not in Indonesia.

3. Cilok

Cilok balls
Slimy and sticky balls as snack? Yes? No?

Now cilok is on the unusual side. It definitely put off the western travelers I was with. It is similar to the meatball in bakso (see below), only smaller and for some reason, slimier. It is almost like steamed dough, but moist, which I found weird. It has a small slice of hard-boiled egg inside, the white part of which sometimes stiffens up almost like a small piece of hard plastic due to constant heating, which again I found weird. What I like about it though is that it's a reliable snack. And being Asian, I wasn't put off by the texture. Weirded at first, sure, but definitely not put off.

4. Bakso

Bakso meatball so big it had to have a separate bowl and cut into manageable slices

Bakso is a staple almost. I found it everywhere I went in Java. It is basically soup with meatballs. The soup is usually a light broth served with rice vermicelli noodles and crisp wonton, while the meatball is made from meat paste (of the type that produces fish balls and squid balls, too). I went to a restaurant in the cool and pleasant city of Malang in East Java to have this. As you may see in the photo, the meatballs I was given in this restaurant was so huge (as huge as a baby's head) that it had to be sliced to be manageable. Did I finish it? No. Do I consider that failure? Yes.

5. Soto Betawi

Soto Betawi
It may not look much but soto betawi is packed with strong beef flavor.

Heading back to the Betawi heartland of Jakarta, we have soto betawi. In the simplest terms, it is beef broth. Pieces of beef meat or offal are thrown in there. The same goes for potatoes and tomatoes. The soup is made rich by the beef flavor, but cut by the tanginess of lemon or lime. If you are Filipino or familiar with Filipino food, bulalo would be a good reference, only less pepper, more tanginess. The soup is usually cheap and you can have it with rice. I promise no one will judge you for that.

6. Ketupat

Steamed rice stuffed inside palm leaf pouches. That's ketupat.

Ketupat is a familiar food. For one thing, it is simply steamed rice. Another is that many parts of the Philippines have something similar. The most common name for it in my country is pusô. It is rice packed inside a pouch woven from palm leaves and then steamed. In the Muslim world of Southeast Asia, ketupat is popularly served during the special celebration of Eid al-Fitr, or the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

7. Lontong

Rice compacted into cylinders, wrapped in banana leaves, and steamed. I kind of prefer it over rice now.

Lontong is another steamed rice dish, only this time rice is formed, more like compacted, into a cylinder and wrapped in banana leaves. The rice usually comes out quite compressed, almost like rice dough sliced into disks when you eat it. The banana leaves lend a bit of fresh flavor into the rice, too. It is a great carb sidedish for a number of savory dishes. Which dishes? See the next five foods below.

8. Sop Kikil

Sop Kikil
The beefy, oily, and gloppy goodness that is sop kikil. Best eaten with lontong.

I had the wonderful opportunity to have sop kikil, or beef cartilage stew, during the Eid al-Fitr celebrations in Bondowoso, East Java. It was served to everyone by the family of the chief in my host's community. The soup has a rich beef flavor, enhanced by the fat from the beef cartilage and bone marrow. I mean, it is really fatty and oily, which makes it really flavorful (and sinful, maybe?). The lime juice effectively cuts that richness though. The soup is perfect with lontong.

Sop Kikil
Boiling sop kikil. That thick layer of oil is where the delicious flavor is really.

9. Opor Ayam

Opor ayam and bakso
Opor ayam and bakso are popular Eid al-Fitr foods.

Opor ayam is chicken cooked in a rich and creamy coconut milk-based sauce. The sauce is made flavorful by a combination of ginger, galangal, garlic, candlenuts, turmeric powder, coriander powder, and bay leaves. It definitely has layers of flavor in there. It can be eaten with lontong or better yet, ketupat given that opor ayam is also a popular food during Eid al-Fitr, also called Idul Fitri or Lebaran in Indonesia.

10. Lontong Cap Go Meh

Lontong Cap Go Meh
A Chinese Peranakan take on Indonesian favorites: lontong cap go meh

Now, where to begin with this complex dish? For starters, it is a creation of the Indonesia-born Chinese, a.k.a. the Chinese-Indonesian Peranakans. Basically, they took some of the best hits of Indonesian cuisine, put them all together in one single plate, and created a dish that is more than the sum of its parts.

The dish is made up of lontong slices, acar (pickled cucumber, the Filipino atsara), and hard-boiled egg. These are then mixed with saucy opor ayam (chicken in coconut milk) and also sometimes sayur lodeh (vegetable in coconut milk). It is finally spiced with sambal (chili paste) and liberally sprinkled with koya powder (soy and dried shrimp). It is quite a handful, but the combination of flavors is nothing short of amazing. Make sure to try it when traveling in Indonesia.

11. Sate Ayam

Sate Ayam
How can you go wrong with chicken skewers?

Now this is a no-brainer. Sate is small meat skewers grilled quickly over intense heat and then dipped in rich and creamy peanut sauce often with kecap manis (sweet soy sauce). I mean, unless you are a vegetarian, why would you not like sate? Java being predominantly Muslim and home to the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, the most popular sate here is chicken: sate ayam. Every city on the island has a stall selling it and you can get your fill in just under 2 USD. That includes the rice or lontong, too.

12. Sate Padang

Sate Padang and Teh Botol
Sate padang and teh botol (bottled tea) while watching the busy city woosh by. A perfect travel moment.

Another type of sate I had in Java actually hails from the neighboring island of Sumatra, specifically in the cultural heartland of the Minangkabau people—Padang. Sate padang is usually made with beef (being halal and all) and the one I had was tender and flaky even. The sate is drenched, not with peanut sauce, but with a rice flour-based sauce with garlic, ginger, turmeric, curry powder, and many other spices. I prefer the peanut sauce, sure, but this one is acceptable any day, if you ask me.

13. Mie Goreng

Mie Goreng
Egg noodles stir-fried with veggies and meat. Simple. Classic.

In the Philippines, we have a similar, very popular dish—pancit canton guisado. So you can say I am very familiar with mie goreng. Both versions use egg noodles that are fried with fresh veggies like cabbage, carrots, and bok choy. You can toss some fish cake slices, shrimp, or chicken in there, too, if you are feeling extra indulgent (as you should always be). You can find this dish anywhere in Indonesia, heck, anywhere in Asia.

14. Nasi Goreng

Nasi Goreng (Fried Rice)
Indonesia's version of fried rice: nasi goreng. Best in Asia, if you ask me. Seriously.

At No. 14, we have yet another Pan-Asian dish: nasi goreng, or simply fried rice. Being from this part of the world and having traveled many places in this part of the world, I have had many fried rice plates in my life. There was something special about nasi goreng though. It is easy to consume just as it is. It is made sweet and savory by kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), and a host of ingredients for flavor like garlic, shallots, fish sauce, and sometimes, shrimp paste. It is great with sambal (chili paste), krupuk (prawn crackers), and scrambled egg.

15. Nasi Goreng Jawa

Nasi Goreng Jawa
Fried rice the Javanese way: nasi goreng jawa.

One special variation of nasi goreng is nasi goreng jawa or Javanese fried rice. As with many nasi goreng recipes, there isn't a definitive version of this. The version I was served with in Malang, East Java was quite generous with the sweet soy sauce kecap manis (hence, the darker color and the deep sweet flavor) and had slices of hard-boiled eggs and chicken strips as toppings. Nasi goreng and all its variations are the Indonesian breakfast staple.

16. Nasi Mawut

Nasi Mawut
A messy plate of nasi mawut, just the way it is supposed to be.

Yet another variation of nasi goreng is what Indonesians call nasi mawut. You basically take your usual nasi goreng and throw a lot of veggies in there: cabbage, celery, cucumber, leeks, spring onions, spinach, and what have you. You also add egg noodles and egg (fried or hard-boiled). It's messy and tasty and healthy (because of the vegetables maybe?) and I like it. I had it for dinner and for breakfast in the eatery we went to near the spectacular Mount Bromo in East Java.

17. Nasi Campur

Nasi Campur, Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Indonesia
Depending on where you are and what's available, you will be served a different nasi campur every time. I love that.

The next three dishes are made with white rice plus a whole lot of different savory components. Nasi campur, which basically means "mixed rice," is the most basic of these dishes. That means depending on where you are or what's available, the nasi campur served to you will vary. Usually, however, these will be present: krupuk (prawn crackers), fried egg, sate (meat skewers), rendang (dry curry), veggies (fresh or stir-fried), and sambal (chili paste).

18. Nasi Padang

Nasi Padang, Masakan Padang style
A meal I composed myself when I first headed into a wonderful world called the Masakan Padang restaurant: fried tofu, chicken rendang, fried chicken, omelet, and some greens.

Nasi padang is the meal you compose yourself when you head inside a Masakan Padang restaurant. Like the sate padang, this dish (really, a style of eating) comes from the city of Padang, West Sumatra. However, Masakan Padang joints can be found everywhere in Java and Bali, too. These restaurants usually have people dine buffet-style. Fried meats, tofu, veggies, and curries are involved. Here's my guide to eating Masakan Padang style. Highly enjoyable activity. Totally recommended.

19. Nasi Timbel

Nasi Timbel
A dish of many components. Aside from rice, you get chicken, tempeh, tofu, beef, and veggies.

Nasi timbel comes from the Sundanese who are the original inhabitants of West Java (capital city Bandung). The rice of nasi timbel is wrapped in banana leaves and then steamed, almost like lontong. To eat the rice, you get various meats and veggies in there. There's fried chicken, fried tempeh (soy bean cake), fried tofu, and fried beef. A whole lot of fried stuff, eh? What's not to love? There's sambal, fresh cucumber, lettuce, and string beans, too.

20. Ayam Lalapan

Ayam Lalapan, Malang, East Java, Indonesia
Crispy fried chicken tossed in spicy, tangy, and a little bit pungent sambal. I mean, revelation!

Another Sundanese favorite is ayam lalapan. It comes from lalap, which is basically a salad of raw vegetables dressed with a special sambal called sambal terasi. This sambal is made with red and green chili, shrimp paste, sugar, and lime juice, and then fermented giving it a strong flavor. Composing the dish, you fry the chicken (really crispy) and throw in the sambal in there. Serve it with the raw veggies and you're done. I basically wolfed this dish down as soon as I ordered it. The spicy, tangy sambal was perfect on the fried chicken.

21. Babi Guling

Babi Guling, Bali, Indonesia
The perfect ode to pork: babi guling

Having transited in the Hindu island of Bali just one day, I only had time to try its most famous culinary creation: babi guling. It is an ode to pork this one. You get babi sate (pork skewers), crunchy pork rinds, crispy pork skin, juicy pork meat, pork blood sausage, and lawar (a vegetable stir-fry with pork and coconut meat). I mean, if you are into pork (as I am), then babi guling is a no-brainer. It is a pork-lover's dream.

22. Kopi Jawa

Java Coffee, Malang, East Java, Indonesia
Notice the finely ground coffee powder lining the side of the cup. It enhances the coffee flavor really.

I am so glad to have found another culture in Southeast Asia which takes their coffee seriously (Vietnam being the other one). And it's so fascinating how Indonesians drink kopi jawa, or Javanese coffee, in Java. Coffee beans are ground very finely into a very smooth powder. It's so fine that you can easily and conveniently add the powder into hot water and you are good. No need to strain and drip or press. Ask for milk or cream and you may get laughed at. A little bit of sugar is all you need to really taste that dark, almost chocolatey, coffee flavor.

23. Es Degan

Es Degan, Malang, East Java, Indonesia
The best refreshment during a day of sightseeing in Indonesia: es degan (iced coconut juice)

If you want to be simple and straightforward about it, es degan is just iced coconut juice. Mobile stalls peddle this refreshing drink anywhere you are in Java. It can as simple as iced coconut juice. Usually, there's coconut meat in there, too. Sometimes, coconut jellies (what we Filipinos call nata de coco) are used as well. In some variations, dark palm sugar is used giving the juice depth and a little bit of color.

Es Degan, Malang, East Java, Indonesia
A sight for sore eyes (and overheating bodies) in a typically warm tropical day in Indonesia: the 'es degan' vendor.

24. Es Buah

Es Bua
Es buah in Yogyakarta. Sweet and refresshing. The perfect Asian dessert.

Finally rounding up our long list is es buah, which is simply iced fruits. It's a light, very sweet, and refreshing dessert, as most desserts are here in Southeast Asia. Watermelon balls, pineapple slices, melon strips, dragon fruit cubes, and many other fruits are used. Sugary syrup and crushed ice on top and it's done. Sometimes, milk is involved, too, making es buah a doppelganger for that Filipino summer refreshment called halo-halò.

Thus ends this list of Indonesian food favorites. Even with more than 2,000 words in this post, I believe I only scratched a very, very small surface of Indonesian cuisine. Indonesia is after all a large archipelago with each region bearing a distinct culture, and therefore, cuisine. What I liked about Indonesian food is that the cuisine is accessible and I did not need a lot of money to sample the best. Having had all these foods in Java, it made me curious as to what delicious creations the other regions in Indonesia have. What do they eat in Sumatra, Sulawesi, Bali, Lombok? I want to taste them all and I'm sure now I'd go back for seconds.

Anything in this list tickled your fancy? What is your favorite Indonesian food?

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