Want to learn about Indonesian food? Looking for Indonesian recipes? Read Lara Lee’s guide.
Lara Lee is an Indonesian-Australian chef, caterer and food writer. Her debut cookbook Coconut & Sambal: Recipes from My Indonesian Kitchen (£26, Bloomsbury) is out now.
It is the fragrance of Indonesia that hits first: the citrus perfume of lemongrass, the peppery heat of ginger and galangal, and the caramelised sweetness of shallots that weaves through the air at the local night markets. Burning coconut husks fuel fires that grill the skewered meats and seafood, which are glazed with spices and a fermented sweet soy sauce named kecap manis, producing aromas of earth and smoky caramel.
Spice pastes, known as bumbu, are flavoured with garlic, chillies, lime leaf and turmeric, and then sautéed in woks with coconut oil until it splits from the paste, a signal to progress to its next stage of cooking to be transformed into fried rice, soups, noodles or curries.
Indonesian cuisine is as diverse as its 17,500 islands and each region celebrates distinct local flavours, influenced by its landscape, migration and the country’s rich history. Nationally loved dishes, such as the fragrant chicken soup soto, have hundreds of regional variations and countless unofficial ones, as home cooks commit recipes to memory, using instinct rather than measurements to cook.
Feasts across the archipelago are sensory experiences, with varying textures and crunch, and a melody of sweet, sour, bitterness, heat and piquancy. Indonesians take great pleasure in variety, so a selection of vegetables, tempeh and tofu, fried snacks, fish and meat adorn the table, framed by generous helpings of rice and at least one or two sambals – a spicy condiment that Indonesians cannot live without.
What to eat in Indonesia
Bouncy, spiced meatballs served in a flavourful beef and noodle broth, seasoned with kecap manis, vinegar and sambal.
Seaside restaurants and markets serving seafood are ubiquitous in Indonesia. Here you’ll find ikan bakar, a marinated fish barbecued in banana leaves and served with fiery sambal.
Creamy chunks of ripe bananas and plantain melt in the mouth in this deep-fried snack. My favourite version uses palm sugar and honey, producing a caramelised fritter that is crisp and heavenly to eat.
Eaten with most meals, kerupuk is a cracker with hundreds of varieties across Indonesia. Rempeyek (peanut and kaffir lime kerupuk) is gluten-free and made with rice flour, ginger, garlic, coriander and fragrant lime leaf.
A salad of cooked and raw vegetables, gado-gado is dressed in a spicy peanut sauce flavoured with tamarind and kecap manis. Served with boiled eggs, tofu and tempeh, it is a hearty dish that is loved by Indonesians everywhere.
Find recipes for the above dishes in Lara’s cookbook, Coconut & Sambal: Recipes from My Indonesian Kitchen (£26, Bloomsbury). Photography by Louise Hagger and Lara Lee.