Indonesian food is one of the most vibrant and colourful cuisines in the world, full of intense flavour. Over the centuries many different cultures have visited and left their stamp on the cuisine – Indian, Chinese, Arab, Portuguese, Spanish, English and Dutch.
1 Jul 2008 - 9:00 AM  UPDATED 31 Mar 2021 - 11:02 AM

With 6,000 islands, there are many regional specialties, but wherever you are in Indonesia, most meals, including breakfast, are based around rice. Literally meaning "fried rice", nasi goreng is considered the national dish of Indonesia and can be found everywhere from street hawker carts to dinner parties or restaurants. It is a meal of stir-fried rice spiced with kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), shallot, garlic, tamarind and chilli and accompanied by other ingredients, mainly egg, chicken, prawns or salted dried fish.

Sambals are also a cornerstone of the cuisine and these chilli-based condiments may be either freshly made or store-bought. There are many types of sambals, all of which combine a variety of chilli peppers with different combinations of spices, fruits or vegetables.

Indonesians believe in giving a "kick start" to their palate with the heat of chilli and the sour crunch of pickles, so meals generally comprise rice, sambal and pickles with small amounts of meats, seafood or vegetables, often in curry form. People eat either with their right hand or with a spoon and fork.

Some of the intense flavour in Indonesian food comes from very sweet and sour ingredients – such as the thick sweet soy sauce called kecap manis, which is used in countless dishes. The sour notes in the cuisine come from tamarind and lime and the aromatics from shallots, ginger, galangal, pandan, turmeric, lemongrass and lime leaves.

Two foods adored by Indonesians are tempeh – fermented soybeans usually found in block form that are high in protein and fibre – and krupuk, or deep fried crackers, made from prawn, seafood or vegetables, which are eaten at the start of a meal.

Because of the humid climate and volcanic soil, tropical fruits, vegetables and spices are found in abundance. Dried spices such as coriander seeds, cardamom pods, cinnamon quills, cumin seeds, cloves and nutmeg are used every day in many dishes and each curry has a number of dried spices as well as fresh herbs.

Desserts are some of the most exuberant in South East Asia, especially the favourite "eis cendol" which features shaved ice, tropical fruit, coconut milk and pandan flavoured "worms" made from mung bean flour.


View our Indonesian recipe collection here.

Indonesian Food Safari recipes
Kari ayam (chicken curry)

Creamy and vibrant yellow, this Indonesian chicken curry is something you can throw together on a weeknight or serve to really impress friends at a dinner party.

Satay sapi (beef satay)

This is the perfect satay recipe – the cooked meat is tender and perfectly spiced and the peanut sauce (katjang) is the best. So fire up the barbie!

Eis cendol

Pronounced "ess-chen-doll", this is a dessert or aperitif consisting of highly textural "green worm" noodles called cendol that are made of mung bean flour and coloured with pandan essence. (If you can’t find mung bean flour then rice flour will suffice but the cendol will be mildly different in flavour, more like the Malaysian version than the traditional Indonesian recipe.) The noodles are accompanied by a selection of fruit that you can vary as you please (this recipe includes tinned toddy palm seeds and jackfruit) and topped with coconut milk, shaved ice and palm sugar syrup.

Yum! If you have something of the child in you and a bit of sweet tooth, this wild confection is just right – and it’s so much fun to shave the ice. (Or you can bang ice cubes together in a tea towel until they’re crushed ... although an ice shaver can be found in Asian emporiums for under $20.)

Raw Balinese sambal (sambel matah)

Serve this raw Balinese sambal as a condiment for grilled fish or chicken. While the shrimp paste is very pungent, it does add a unique depth of flavour to the sambal. 

Balado sauce
Bebek betutu

A classic Balinese ceremonial dish that’s easy enough to cook in your barbecue. It’s full of flavour and incredibly moist. Thanks to Tjok Gde, a prince of the Balinese royal family, for the recipe. Serve with rice, steamed snake beans or Chinese greens, and a hot sambal.

Indonesian essentials
Featured businesses: Indonesian
Contact the businesses featured in the Indonesian episode of Food Safari.
Tips: Indonesian
These expert tips will help you achieve the perfect balance of flavours.
Utensils: Indonesian
Find out which special utensils you’ll need on hand during cooking.
Key ingredients: Indonesian
Make sure your kitchen is stocked with these essential ingredients.