Indonesian Cuisine

By Chef Nancy Berkoff, EdD, RD

Known as the Spice Islands, the archipelago Indonesia lies on the equator, neighboring Australia and Southeast Asia in the southern Pacific Ocean. Over the years, Indonesia has attracted everyone who had a ship. Traders from India, the Middle East, and Holland came for the spices and spread the word. At one time or another, Indonesia was ruled by the governments of Holland, China, Portugal, India, and the United Kingdom. Today, Indonesia has a population of about 180 million multicultural inhabitants, speaking about 250 dialects. "Unity in Diversity" is the Indonesian national motto.

Indonesia's native spices are very important to its history and to its menus. Over the span of history, the Spice Islands have supplied India, China, the Middle East, Portugal, Spain, Holland, and England with peppercorns, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, turmeric, chilies, and cardamom. In return, traders brought cumin, dill, caraway (the flavor of rye bread), coriander, and fennel to the Islands.

Besides adding interest and flavor, chilies and spices play an important role in Indonesian cuisine. The area's intense heat and humidity can put a damper on the appetite and can promote a lot of uninvited 'visitors' to grow on the food. Chilies, cinnamon, and ginger can both stimulate the appetite and act as a bacterial suppressant for stored foods. Sambal, served at every meal, can be either a sauce or condiment (like a chunky salsa) with a base of fiery hot chilies, flavored with citrus and spices.

Everyday Indonesian meals are seasoned with fresh chilies, ginger, lemon grass, and kaffir lime leaves. Palm sugar is used for sweetening and coconut milk for creaminess and to smooth out some of the "heat" from chilies. Many of the spices for which Indonesia is known are exported. You'll more likely find cloves used for cigarettes rather than for flavoring dishes.

Traders bartering for spices and tropical fruit in Indonesia shared their traditional dishes with the islanders. The Middle Eastern kebabs became satays, skewered meats served with peanut sauces and chilies. To make a vegan version of satay, skewer thin ribbons of tempeh or seitan instead of meat, and add the peanut sauce from the recipe later in the article. Dutch cuisine was fairly bland until traders from the country incorporated (and renamed) the Indonesian rijsttafel (rice table), an opulent buffet of delicacies served with pungent sauces and steamy rice. Religions influence menus, as does ethnic heritage. Many of the Indonesian islands are Muslim, with much of the population following the laws of Halal. The island of Bali is Hindu. You'll also see Chinese, Indian, and Portuguese influences in Indonesian food preparation.

Differences in geography affected the availability of items and therefore their dominance in the cuisine of certain regions. To the west, there are the Sunda Islands, the Greater Island, Borneo, Java, and Sumatra. Many of these islands have rain forests, lush coastal areas, mountains, rivers, and volcanoes. Rice, peanuts, spices, bananas, coconuts, mangosteens, and citrus fruit are common ingredients. In the south, there are Bali and Timor with mountains and rivers. Corn and spices are prevalent in local recipes, as are white and sweet potatoes. To the east are the Moluccas, known for their spices.

Easily available ingredients on most of the islands include rice and rice noodles, coconut, coconut milk and coconut oil, green onions, garlic and onions, ginger, lemon grass, chilies, basil, cilantro and mint, peanuts, and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Cooking techniques include steaming, boiling, parcooking (blanching), stir-frying, simmering, and braising. Leaves from edible plants, such as banana and palm, are used as food wrappers and as serving dishes. There is little to no baking in the traditional Indonesian cuisine.

Rather than native breads, rice is eaten three times a day and serves as the culture's primary source of starch. The traditional method of cooking yields a fluffy rice, with every cooked grain distinct. At many a selametan, the Indonesian term for ceremonial feast, a tumpeng is served. The tumpeng is a huge cone or pyramid of rice, representing a sacred mountain and spiritual purity. Seasonal delicacies showing the relationship between the human senses and spirituality are used to decorate the tumpeng. Each garnish has spiritual significance, such as red chilies representing anger, yellow squash or melon representing greed, and green vegetables representing jealousy. Also, glutinous rice is incorporated into desserts or ground into powder for use in sweet dishes.

Coconut milk is a staple Indonesian cooking ingredient. Coconut milk is not the thin liquid found when sipping on a coconut; that's coconut water or juice. And it's not the really thick, gooey stuff used to make tropical drinks. That's cream of coconut, made by adding lots and lots of sugar to coconut milk and boiling it. Coco-nut milk is a combination of coconut pulp and water. Most groceries carry canned coconut milk (always go for the unsweetened variety); try Asian or Latino stores. Or make your own. Dry, unsweetened coconut flakes or dried fresh, grated coconut can be combined with equal amounts of boiling water in a blender. (Be careful!) Purée, allow to sit for a minute, and strain, pressing to get all the liquid. Your coconut milk is ready to use.

If you want to get some of the fat out, an alternate way to prepare coconut milk is to simmer coconut with water over a low flame for about 30 minutes. Strain and let stand; a layer of "cream" will develop. You can skim this off and discard or save for later use. (Coconut cream is wonderful to use in baked dishes instead of soymilk or puréed tofu. It can also be added to coffee or used as a topping on hot or cold cereal.) You can make your coconut milk thicker or thinner depending on your preference; just add more or less water. If using for sauces or curries, you might want thicker milk. For smoothies or as a beverage ingredient, thinner milk may be best. If you want to store it, it must be refrigerated, as it is perishable and can support bacterial growth if left too long at warm temperatures. Coconut milk should last about three days in the refrigerator; if it separates, just shake or stir to mix. Coconut milk does not freeze well, so plan your amounts carefully.

Indonesian meal planners attempt to include sweet, salty, sour, and spicy tastes at each meal, with rice always the center of the meal. If eating authentically Indonesian, you don't have to worry about having enough silver. Traditionally, one eats with one's hands. Food is mixed with rice, rolled into a ball and eaten with the right hand.

Indonesian meals can begin with fritters, rempah or perkedel, that are fried or boiled. Ingredients can include combinations of corn, chopped white or sweet potatoes, peanuts, and coconut. Indonesian soups are either delicate broths called sop or meal-in-a-bowl, soto. Entrées can include vegetable combinations, white and sweet potato-based dishes, and hot salads. As much rice as a family can afford is served at every meal. Every meal includes a variety of condiments, which can include chopped fresh or pickled chilies, chopped onions, chopped tomatoes, sambals, soy sauce, pickled cucumbers and carrots, sweet soy sauce, and peanuts.

Desserts almost always include fresh fruit. There are many tropical fruits that are just becoming available on a limited basis in the United States, such as durian and mangosteen. If the cook has time, kelepon is prepared as small balls of sticky rice dough (powdered sticky rice mixed with water or coconut milk), filled with palm sugar and garnished with grated coconut. Dodol is a fudgy dessert, made with sticky rice, coconut milk, and palm sugar.

Tea is usually served with meals, hot or iced, depending on the climate. Many colorful drinks are made with flavored syrups, coconut milk, and fruit. Palm sugar and pieces of sticky rice dough are colored and added as garnishes. Es selasih is a combination of mixed fresh fruit and coconut water (the fresh juice drained directly from the coconut) served with sweet basil seeds. The seeds swell and become like tapioca in the bottom of the glass. Fresh juice drained from unopened coconut palm flowers is called tuak manis and is a thirst-quenching beverage. The tuak begins to ferment almost immediately in the hot climate. Within a day or two a beer-like drink, tuak wayah, is produced. Tuak can be distilled (sometimes in a backyard still) to make arak, an Indonesian brandy-like beverage.

Indonesian recipes traditionally call for frying and are heavy on coconut milk and oil. Using lower fat items, such as braised vegetables and fresh fruit served with flavorful condiments, would be a healthier approach to Indo-nesian cooking. The recipes below are traditional, with a bit of fat reduction. If we eliminated all the oil, coconut, and peanuts, you'd lose the true taste and texture of Indonesian cuisine. Plan your menus to include an Indonesian dish with steamed, baked, grilled, or other low-fat preparations. And be sure to include lots of rice!

Nasi Goreng

(Fried Rice)

(Serves 4-6)

Found widely in Bali, nasi goreng is traditionally flavored with shrimp, but we've used seitan. If you would like to be really authentic, hunt down kecap manis, Indonesian sweet soy sauce. If you can't locate it, use ketchup (originally a Chinese-Indian condiment!) instead.

  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup chopped red bell pepper
  • ¾ cup diced smoked seitan or tempeh
  • 1-½ cups shredded green cabbage
  • ½ cup fresh green beans, cut into small pieces
  • 2-½ cups cooked white rice (Start with ¾ cup uncooked rice.)
  • ½ cup chopped fresh tomato
  • 2 Tablespoons tomato sauce
  • 2 Tablespoons kecap manis or ketchup
  • 1 Tablespoon soy sauce

Heat a wok or deep frying pan and spray with vegetable oil. Add garlic and bell pepper, and sauté over high heat for 1 minute. Add seitan or tempeh and sauté, stirring briskly, for 1 minute. Add cabbage and green beans, and sauté until cabbage and beans are tender, about 4 minutes.

Lower heat and mix in rice, tomato, tomato sauce, kecap manis or ketchup, and soy sauce. Stir to mix well and allow to heat, about 4 minutes. Serve hot.

Total calories per serving: 206 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 35 grams Protein: 10 grams
Sodium: 356 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Jukut Urap (Balinese Vegetable Salad)

(Serves 5-6)

Balinese vegetarian cooking utilizes lots of seasonal vegetables. You can mix and match crunchy and leafy vegetables in this recipe.

  • ½ cup cabbage, cut into small chunks
  • ½ cup packed fresh spinach leaves
  • ½ cup fresh green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • ½ cup fresh soybean sprouts
  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped onions
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh tomato
  • 3 Tablespoons seeded and chopped fresh hot chili peppers
  • 2 kaffir lime leaves (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon vegan granulated sweetener
  • 2 teaspoons cracked black pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh lime juice

Lightly parcook (blanch) cabbage, spinach, beans, and sprouts separately. Do this by bringing a pot of water to boil. Lower vegetables into the water for only one or two minutes, until the cabbage, spinach, and sprouts wilt slightly and the beans show a slight tenderness. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in a colander. Spray for several seconds with cold water to stop cooking. Set aside.

Spray a small frying pan with oil. Add onions, garlic, tomato, and chilies, and sauté until tender, about 2 minutes. In a large bowl, mix parcooked vegetables with garlic mixture, kaffir leaves, sweetener, pepper, and lime juice. Serve at room temperature.

Total calories per serving: 30 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 6 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 10 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Gado Gado (Vegetable salad with potatoes)

(Serves 5-6)

Traditionally served with peanut sauce, you can offer a variety of condiments, including mango and tomato salsas, chutneys, and chopped fresh fruit.

  • 1-½ cups cooked, peeled, and thinly sliced Russet-style potatoes
  • ½ cup fresh green beans, parcooked (blanched) and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • ¼ cup shredded carrots
  • 1 cup cauliflower florets, parcooked
  • 1 cup green cabbage, parcooked and shredded
  • 1 cup bean sprouts, parcooked
  • ½ cup extra firm tofu, drained and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • ½ cup peeled, thinly sliced cucumber

Attractively arrange vegetables, except cucumber, on a serving platter. Top with tofu and cucumber. Serve with peanut sauce or other sweet and sour dipping sauce.

Total calories per serving: 85 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 15 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 16 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Sambal Kacang

(Peanut Sauce)

(Serves 5-6)

Serve with vegetable salads, over rice, or as a dipping sauce for vegetables. Make it as fiery as you dare!
  • ¼ cup smooth peanut butter
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 teaspoon seeded and chopped fresh chilies
  • 1 Tablespoon vegan granulated sweetener
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1 Tablespoon coconut milk
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon kecap manis or ketchup
  • ¼ cup water

Place all ingredients in a small pot. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Lower heat to simmer, stir occasionally, and cook until thickened, about 15 minutes. Can be served hot or cold.

Total calories per serving: 90 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 6 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 129 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Gulai Daun Bayem

(Spinach in Coconut Milk)

(Serves 4-5)

You won't have any trouble getting everyone to eat their spinach with this creamy, spicy dish.

  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 1 Tablespoon seeded and chopped fresh green chilies
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • ½ cup chopped onions
  • 1-½ pounds fresh spinach (about 8 cups), cleaned

In a deep frying pan or Dutch oven, combine coconut milk, chilies, garlic, and onions. Bring to a boil. Allow to boil for 2 minutes. Add spinach, and cook quickly, stirring about 2 minutes. The spinach will cook rapidly in the hot liquid. When spinach is tender, serve immediately.

Total calories per serving: 53 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 9 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 177 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams


Fragrant fresh fruit and fruit juices are plentiful in Indonesia and make lovely desserts. However, when Indonesian cooks create a dessert, it's luscious and creamy.

KOLAK PISANG (Sweet banana compote)

(Serves 4-6)

From West Java, this compote is an indulgence. It is flavored with daun pandan, a fragrant, flat leaf whose closest relative is the pine.

  • 5 ripe, medium-sized bananas, peeled and cut into thick (about 2-inch) slices
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup vegan granulated sweetener
  • One 4-inch piece of daun pandan, or 1 teaspoon ground cardamom and 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • ½ cup coconut milk
  • 1 Tablespoon cornstarch mixed into 2 Tablespoons cold water

Toss bananas with lemon juice, cover, and set aside.

In a medium pot, boil water, sweetener, and seasonings (daun pandan or cardamom and cloves) until they are thick and syrupy, about 10 minutes. Lower heat and add coconut milk slowly, stirring. Add cornstarch and mix well to combine. Add bananas, lower heat to a simmer, and allow to cook until thickened (like a thin custard), about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve hot on its own or over a lemon sorbet.

Total calories per serving: 335 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 87 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 37 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Coconut Rice

(Serves 4)

It's creamy, it's smooth, it's sinful!

  • 2 cans (28 ounces) unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1-½ cups Jasmine rice
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 2 teaspoons vegan granulated sweetener

In a medium saucepan, combine milk and rice. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally so rice does not stick.

Uncover and continue to cook over low heat, stirring. Add ginger, cardamom, and sweetener. Stir and cook until rice is creamy and tender, about 15 minutes. If more liquid is required, water can be added (no more than ½ cup at a time).

Total calories per serving: 500 Fat: 42 grams
Carbohydrates: 30 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: 27 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE, is VRG's Food Service Advisor and the author of, most recently, Vegan Microwave Cookbook.