• Serving rendang at a Nasi Padang (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Packed with spices, chilli and intense flavours, nobody could accuse Indonesian cuisine of being bland.
Audrey Bourget

5 Feb 2020 - 11:29 AM  UPDATED 5 Feb 2020 - 11:51 AM

The concept of “Indonesian cuisine” is not quite accurate. With its 6000 populated islands (17,000 islands in total), the country doesn’t have one definitive cuisine, but many regional ones.

“Indonesia is a big archipelago. Within each area or region, there are specialties and a way of cooking. explains Gracia Seger, co-owner of Indonesian restaurant Makan in Melbourne with her sister Tasia. For example, she says there are differences between Balinese and Javanese food.

"The base of Indonesia cuisine is using different types of bumbu, which often include chilli, garlic and shallot.”

“There’s a big variety, but one of the most common things within Indonesian food are spices, or bumbu [spice blend]. The base of Indonesia cuisine is using different types of bumbu, which often include chilli, garlic and shallot.”

From the fresh gado-gado to the crisp ayam goreng, here are five Indonesian dishes that you need to try. 

Gado gado

1. Gado-Gado

Translating to “mix-mix”, gado-gado is the kind of dish that could convert the strongest salad-hater. It’s filled with blanched and raw vegetables like cabbage, snake beans and bean sprouts, as well as boiled potato, fried tofu and/or tempeh, rice cake, and hard-boiled eggs. The vegetables are mixed in with a thick fried peanut dressing and topped with crispy bits like fried shallots, and garlic, prawn or nut crackers. 

“It’s a very popular dish in Indonesia. It can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner,” says Tasia. “A lot of restaurants serve gado-gado, but it’s also something lots of people can do at home.”

Gado gado

This salad brims with treasures: boiled egg, fried tofu, potatoes, fried prawn crackers - topped off with a creamy peanut sauce.

2. Beef rendang

Probably the most well known Indonesian dish in Australia, beef rendang is made differently all over the country.

“Originally from Sumatra, rendang is deep-coloured. It’s slow-cooked very slowly in coconut cream [or milk] with lots of spices like garlic, chilli, tamarind, galangal and ginger,” says Gracia. “You cook it so long that all the liquid evaporates, and it turns the meat dark brown and caramelised.”

You can find rendang at many Nasi Padang restaurants - eateries serving a variety of prepared dishes with rice.

Just like gado-gado, beef rendang is considered to be one of Indonesia’s national dishes.

3. Sambal

Sambals are Indonesian chilli pastes, which can be served as a condiment with pretty much anything savoury; veggies, meat, fish, soup, etc. There are over 200 varieties across the country so be sure to take notice with each meal.

“I think this is quintessential Indonesian because the centre of the dish is always a protein … then you also always have sambals with it,” says host of Asia Unplated, Diana Chan.

During the series, Chan serves three variations with whole grilled snapper for a sambal tasting experience.

Stop, sambal time.
Grilled fish with sambal matah, hijau and balado

The recipe will make more sambal than you need for the grilled fish, but they'll keep refrigerated in an airtight container for a couple of weeks and you can prepare them well ahead of time.

4. Ayam goreng

“When you think of fried chicken, you might think of a thick batter like KFC, but Indonesians make ayam goreng, which doesn’t have a batter per se,” explains Gracia. “It’s cooked in a lot of spices like garlic, shallot, turmeric, lemongrass, tamarind, candlenut and galangal.”

After the chicken has absorbed the spices while marinating and simmering, it’s deep-fried until crisp and golden. The dish is often served with rice, sambal and cucumber. 

5. Cendol

This brightly coloured dessert is made of green strands of rice flour jelly, coconut milk, shaved ice and palm sugar syrup. In Indonesia, it’s usually served in a glass. 

In other countries like Malaysia and Vietnam, you’ll see more ingredients added to the cendol, like sweetened red beans, jackfruit, durian, black grass jelly and sweet corn. 

At Makkan, in Melbourne, Tasia and Gracia Seger have created a modern take on the dessert; a cendol pannacotta with palm sugar jelly, coconut foam and jackfruit gel.


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Catch Diana Chan and friends cooking and eating their way across Asia in Australia in the brand-new series, Asia Uplated with Diana Chan. Airs on SBS Food at 8pm Thursdays from 19 December 2019 to 20 February 2020, or catch up on SBS On Demand. Follow the five to try series here.

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