Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Indonesian Cuisine

  1. There is no such thing as ‘Indonesian cuisine’

Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago comprising over 17,000 islands, and is home to over 300 distinct ethnic groups. Naturally the nation’s rich geographical and cultural diversity creates a dizzying array of cuisines. Batak cuisine and Padang cuisine, for example, are both from the far western island of Sumatra, but they couldn’t be more different – the first is a pork lover’s dream, while the latter is strictly halal. While the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism declared five ‘national’ foods last year (nasi goreng, rendang, sate, gado gado and soto), it really is impossible to reduce the nation’s culinary kaleidoscope into one distinct cuisine.

  1. Indonesian cuisines are influenced by many cultures

From Middle Eastern and Indian influences in the West, to Polynesian and Portuguese influences in the East, Indonesia’s indigenous cuisines reflect the archipelago’s expansive history of trade, migration, and colonialism. The fiery dishes of North Sulawesi sing with Portuguese flavours, while Dutch inspired pastries and cakes are prevalent in many parts of the country. From North Sumatra, across Java, to Kalimantan and beyond, Chinese influences are strong. Balinese cuisine, with its various dishes prepared for ceremonial purposes, is imbued with Hindu spiritualism.

  1. Tempeh is an Indonesian invention

From Melbourne to Manhattan, tempeh is swiftly becoming a coveted vegetarian ingredient, though few are aware of its origins – it’s been a staple source of protein in Java for centuries. Sometimes described as ‘Indonesia’s gift to the world’, it’s the only traditional soy food not originating from China.

  1. It’s easy to be vegetarian or vegan in Indonesia

Besides the prevalence of tempeh and tofu, most regional cuisines are abundant with vegetable dishes. Sundanese cuisine in West Java, for example, is renowned for its fresh or steamed salads, and so the saying goes, “Leave a Sundanese person in a garden and they’ll be happy.”

  1. Indonesian food is often ‘ugly delicious’

With street food especially, not much importance is given to presentation – Indonesians don’t need appearance to work up an appetite. It’s safe to say some dishes are visually unappealing, but aroma and flavour are far more important.

  1. Sambal is essential

Sambal is chili sauce or paste, and is an essential condiment for almost every savoury dish – and some sweet dishes too. Researchers from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta recently listed 322 different sambal recipes.

  1. One must never return home without oleh-oleh

When traveling, Indonesians most often return home with copious quantities of regional specialties (oleh-oleh) for their family, friends, and colleagues. From sweet and savoury snacks, to preserved meats and seafood, the variety is truly unfathomable.

  1. Indonesia is one of the world’s top producers of vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves, and was once the centre of the spice trade

The fabled Spice Islands are an archipelago of 1,000 small islands called the Moluccas in Eastern Indonesia, and for centuries they were the only known source of nutmeg and cloves. In the 15th century nutmeg was worth more than gold, and so the Moluccas became the centre of a long and brutal battle between the Portuguese, Dutch and British for spice superiority, which ravaged the local population.

  1. Indonesia is the world’s third largest cocoa producer, and its chocolate is divine

Despite its cocoa heavyweight status, Indonesia was never known as a competitive producer of chocolate until recently. A chocolate revolution has taken place, with luxurious handmade, hand-painted, single origin, organic creations pouring like liquid gold into the marketplace. Shelves are now lined with beautifully packaged blocks in innovative flavours such as banana chips and clove, and rosella flower and cashew.

  1. Indonesia is the world’s fourth largest coffee producer, and the same applies

Indonesia is the world’s fourth largest coffee producing nation, the world’s fastest-growing coffee retail market, and the fifth largest by retail volume. Indonesians take coffee very seriously, so a really good cup is never hard to find.

For more information about the Ubud Food Festival, interviews of images, please contact Fiona Brook at Zilla & Brook 0407 900840/03 9690-7000 fiona@zillaandbrook.com.au