Indonesia has one of the world's great cuisines, its influences originating
from all corners of the globe. Located at the crossroads of the ancient
world, astride the great trade routes between the Middle East and Asia,
wave after wave of traders, adventurers, pirates, and immigrants have,
since the Middle Ages, been drawn by the riches of these Spice Islands.
Thus, nature and history have conspired to give Indonesia a cuisine as
varied and highly seasoned as its thousands of islands and its hundreds
of ethnic groups.
From India came curries, cucumber, eggplant, Indian mustard, cowpeas. The Chinese brought the wok and stir-frying, Chinese mustard, and vegetables such as brassica and Chinese cabbage. From Arabia came typical Middle Eastern gastronomic techniques and dishes such as kebab and flavorful goat stews. Peanuts, avocado, pineapple, guava, papaya, tomato, squash, pumpkin, cacao, soybean, and cauliflower have all been introduced by Europeans. During their occupation of Indonesia in WW II, the Japanese inroduced rice paddy fish and improved methods of planting rice. Yogurt and milk were introduced by Westerners in the 1970s due to the Balinese repugnance for dairy products. More recent additions have surfaced due to tourist demand: cheeses, ham, good meat, pickles, and locally grown citrus fruits.
Just a few years ago the only chicken one could find was the skinny, sinewy kampung variety, but today there are juicy drumsticks, Javanese-style fried chicken, ayam suharti, ayam chichi, ayam timbungan with curry, as well as such exotics as California fried chicken. In Denpasar, new eateries on the Kuta-end of Jl. Imam Bonjol serve ayam taliwang, a superb chicken receipe from Lombok. Beef consumption is limited, particularly on Bali, because cows and buffaloes are needed as draught animals in the rice-growing lowlands. Pork is produced and avidly consumed by the Balinese, the urban Chinese, and the non-Malay population. Goats, the Muslim staff of life, are the favorite animal protein of Bali's Indian population. Other main sources of protein are fish, poultry, and eggs. The soybean, the yellow vegetable cow of Indonesia, provides such hearty organic foods as tahu (tofu, or soybean cake) and high-protein tempeh (fermented soybean cake).
National Indonesian Dishes
From a few hundred in the early 1980s to several thousand today, restaurants have proliferated on Bali. Consequently, all Indonesian national dishes are available in Bali's restaurants. Anything with the word nasi in front of it means that it's prepared or served with rice. An old standby in any Padang- or Javanese-style restaurant from one end of Indonesia to the other is nasi campur, a heap of steamed rice topped with vegetables, meat, pickles, and krupuk-an excellent value for Rp1500-3000. A criticism of the Padang-style restaurant is that the ingredients are fresh only in the mornings and that the meat tends not be "tourist quality," i.e., it is stringy, fatty, and tough. Very popular with tourists and Indonesians alike is nasi goreng, a soft and crunchy fried rice dish offered by many restaurants as standard fare. Mie goreng means noodles fried in coconut oil with eggs, meat, or seafood, plus tomato, cucumber, shrimp paste, spices, and chilies. Both nasi goreng and mie goreng are common Indonesian breakfast dishes. If istimewa ("special") is written after either dish, it means it comes with fried egg on top.
Javanese-style sate is widely available on Bali. On Java, sate are marinated mini-kebabs of chicken, beef, or mutton impaled on skewers of coconut palm, grilled over an open charcoal fire, then dipped into a spicy peanut sauce. The Balinese make their sate by mixing minced meat laden with freshly grated coconut, prawn paste, garlic, chilies, lemon leaves, and salt to make a sticky dough-like mixture. Wrapped around a thick vein of bamboo or sugarcane, it is then charcoal-grilled and served with either a mild or peppery sauce. Pork, shrimp, bowel (usus, jerohan), egg, dog meat, and turtle meat sate, absent on Java, are popular on Bali.
A frequently encountered Indonesian dish acquired from the Dutch and found mostly in Bali's hotel restaurants is rijstaffel ("rice table"), a sort of Indonesian smorgasbord. In colonial days, a ceremonial rijstaffel could embrace as many as 35 courses. Today, five to 10 courses is more the norm. The total meal offers a variety of dishes, some sweet, others spicy, all to be eaten with boiled rice and condiments. The Balinese-style rijstaffel is made up of well-spiced regional fish, vegetable, and meat dishes and black rice pudding for dessert. The dishes are served in handmade pots, often accompanied by a haunting tingklik orchestra.
The rijstaffel presented at the Tanjung Sari Hotel in Sanur for Saturday and Sunday lunch is nothing short of spectacular. Many other big hotels serve their own versions of this popular dish, for example the Kartika Plaza (tel. 0361-751067) in Kuta and the Pesona Bali (tel. 0361-753914) in Seminyak for Rp30,000. The Beluga Restaurant (tel. 0361-71146) on Tg. Jl. Segara Windu, Tanjung Benoa, serves rijstaffel in the original style on antique plates by young Indonesian girls.
Gado-gado is a healthy Javanese salad combining potatoes and other vegetables. Peanut butter-loving Americans are particularly fond of this dish because it's served with a good quantity of rich, spicy peanut sauce on top. Luckily for vegetarians, it is available in almost every tourist restaurant on Bali at a very reasonable Rp1000-3000.
Another widespread, nourishing dish is the Chinese cap cai, a kind of Indonesian meat and/or vegetable chop suey. Soto means that thick santen (coconut cream) is added to a soup; this is also a breakfast dish. Sop is similar to a meat and vegetable stew, except only that water is added.
Krupuk is a big, crispy, tangy, oversized cracker made from fish flakes, crab meat, shrimp paste, or fruit mixed with rice, dough, or sago flour. After being dried to look like thin, hard, colored plastic, when fried in oil the krupuk unfolds and blossoms. Since bread is seldom eaten, being too expensive and not to their taste, Balinese eat krupuk instead. Emping is another type of cracker made from melinjo which you crush krupuk-like over your food. When hungry, grab one of these delicious and nutritious crackers. It'll tide you over until you can get a proper meal.