Indonesian cuisine is as varied as its culture.
With the world’s fourth largest population made up of 250 ethnic groups and spread out over 6,000 populated islands, Indonesia, as can be imagined, is a land of huge diversity. The archipelago once lay along the ancient trading routes between the Middle East and the Far East, a position that opened it wide to the influences from many far-off places.
All The Trading Partners
From the time that its Srivijaya kingdom commenced trading with China in the 7th century, Indonesia has been an important trade region with many foreign powers attracted by its wealth of natural resources.
The Indian merchants brought with them the Hindu and Buddhist religions as well as curries and dried spices such as cardamom, cumin and caraway. Chinese traders and immigrants contributed Confucianism, soybean, noodles and the technique of stir-frying; while Arab traders and scholars introduced Islam, kebabs and Arabian spices.
The Europeans, meanwhile, fought amongst themselves for control of the Spice Islands of Maluku; and Spanish and Portuguese traders brought produce from the New World before the Dutch finally colonized Indonesia for three and a half centuries. During that time, they imported potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, string beans and corn to remind themselves of home.
The Local Favorites
Today, Indonesian food is well-known for its fried rice or nasi goreng; its satay, the local version of the Arab kebabs; its beef rendang, chili condiment or sambal, and tempeh or roasted soybean cakes. There are many similarities between Malay food in Malaysia and Indonesian cuisine, but to the experienced palate the differences are just as noticeable.
As with the rest of Southeast Asia, rice is the staple diet in Indonesia, except in Irian Jaya and Maluku where people sustain themselves with sago, which is a type of tapioca, sweet potatoes and cassava.
Rice is usually eaten plain, combined with a meat dish, a vegetable dish, a sambal and crunchies like fried peanuts or fried anchovies. Sometimes, the rice is steamed in woven packets of coconut leaves to make what is called a ketupat; and sometimes it is steamed in banana leaves and served as lontong.
In Indonesia, it is common for dishes to be cooked ahead of time and later eaten at room temperature. This seems to suit Indonesian families, many of whom do not have set meal-times. This practice is also common in restaurants and public eating places in Indonesia.
Most Indonesian food is moderately spicy with a predominance of ginger, garlic and fresh turmeric.