One of the best things about travelling is eating the local dishes and trying new tastes and flavors. Before I went to visit Bali, I actually didn’t know too much about Indonesian food, and the dishes I had tried before didn’t really wow me. Yes, I’m fully aware that eating the dishes outside their country of origin always pales in comparison to eating it there on the ground. There’s ingredients like fresh herbs and spices that are hard to find outside the country, which makes it difficult to replicate elsewhere.
Still, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but happy to report that I happily ate my way around Indonesia and wanted to share some of my favorites and must-eats in no particular order. I found Indonesian food to taste extremely vibrant with flavorful ingredients like chilies, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, lemon basil, turmeric (bright orange ginger-like root), ginger, galangal (another ginger-like root), palm sugar, and shrimp paste. I spent the majority of my trip in Bali so the list is slightly skewed towards Balinese food. In the future, when I visit other parts of the country like Java and Sumatra, I’ll definitely add to this list. Everything I ate was delicious and super inexpensive to boot!
1. Beef Rendang
This may arguably be the national dish of Indonesia and possibly the most well known too. Beef rendang is almost curry-like but without the broth. The beef has been slowly cooked for several hours in a stew of coconut milk and spices. The recipe for the spices are regarded as highly protected secrets. After stewing for so long, the beef is so tender that it breaks apart really easily.
2. Nasi Campur
Nasi means rice and campur means mixed. This dish is commonly eaten for lunch or dinner where rice is served with a mix of meat and vegetable side dishes surrounding it. I never really quite knew what I was going to get. It’s always fun ordering this to try different flavors and sides for a full complete meal. I enjoyed eating this since you got to taste and eat a lot of different things rather than order them individually as mains or sides. So by ordering this dish, you get to sample a little of everything. No two nasi campurs have been the same. However, downside is I still have no idea what the names of those side dishes were. I’ve mentioned some of the ones I do know below.
3. Nasi Goreng
Well, you already know what nasi means. Goreng means fried. So nasi goreng is essentially fried rice. It is fairly simple but utterly delicious and found everywhere. The steamed rice is cooked in a thick sweet soy sauce called kecap manis, which gives it a distinct flavor, slightly sweeter, different from fried rice found in other parts of Asia. Protein like chicken or egg is added along with some vegetables. Or pictured here with a fried egg on top and chicken sate on the side.
4. Mie Goreng
Can’t have fried rice without fried noodles! Mie means noodles as you can probably guess, especially if you’re familiar with the Chinese language. Like nasi goreng, these stir fried noodles are also commonly found everywhere. It’s usually prepared with yellow egg noodles but also popularly made with Indomie instant noodles. Although Chinese influenced, similar to nasi goreng, mie goreng also has a distinct Indonesian taste due to the kecap manis. The noodles are stir fried with vegetables like carrots and cabbage along with protein like chicken and egg. I love noodles so mie goreng was often my go-to dish!
Sate or satay are meat skewers or kebabs grilled over charcoal. They can be chicken, pork (less commonly found since Indonesia is a mostly Muslim country), goat, or fish marinated in a turmeric sauce, barbecued, and then eaten with peanut sauce. Sometimes it’s also served with rice cakes. My favorite was sate lilit, a Balinese specialty, made from spiced minced meat pressed onto skewers, which were often lemongrass sticks.
Gado-gado is a steamed warm vegetable salad topped with peanut sauce. It’s another dish that’s found all over the country. Veggies can include long beans, spinach, potato, corn, bean sprouts, cucumber, tofu and tempe. Don’t let the word salad fool you though – it’s actually quite filling and can be eaten as a main dish! I barely made a dent in mine when I ordered it.
Bakso are meatballs made from chicken, pork, beef, or some combination of minced meats. They’re usually served in a noodle soup. It is commonly found as street food. The meatballs are soft and springy due to the tapioca starch that’s mixed in with the minced meat. You can typically choose between vermicelli (thin white rice noodles) or yellow egg noodles.
This is a signature dish from the royal city of Yogyakarta on Java. It’s young jackfruit that’s been cooked for hours in coconut milk and palm sugar, making the fruit extremely soft and so tender that it falls apart easily. It was a little too sweet for my taste but definitely still worth a try! The locals did tell me that Yogyakarta food tends to skew a bit on the sweeter side. Gudeg is usually served with rice, a boiled egg that braised in the same stew, chicken or tempe, and crispy, fried beef skin.
Lawar is a traditional dish from Bali, that’s usually served with rice and one of the sides in a nasi campur. It consists of freshly grated coconut, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, shallots, and garlic. Some versions include green beans while others may include proteins like chicken (lawar ayam) or pork (lawar babi).
10. Tempe Manis
Tempe was surprisingly found everywhere. It is a preserved soybean cake that’s similar to tofu but uses whole soybeans and is fermented in a loaf sized shape. To me, tempe has a bit of a slight sour taste. Tempe is very nutritious, packed full of protein and fiber so it’s often used as a meat substitute. It’s a great option for all the vegans and vegetarians out there! One of the most common ways to cook tempe is to pan fry or deep fry it. A common dish is tempe manis which is deep fried tempe stir fried with kecap manis, garlic, shallots, chilies, and ginger to give it a robust flavor.
11. Pepes Ikan
Ikan is fish and pepes means steaming in banana leaves. Before steaming, the fish is marinated in a sauce made up of ginger, galangal, ginger, garlic, shallot, chillies, coriander, lemongrass, palm sugar, and shrimp paste. When you first unwrap the banana leaf and smell the steam, there’s nothing else quite like the mouthwatering aroma that comes out!
Martabak is crispy savory pastry with egg, leek, and minced meat folded in. This is a common street food that’s made to order on the spot. I tried it when I was in Yogayakarta. It was a little different than what I expected having tried martabak in Singapore before, but both had the delicious flaky crust on the outside with meat inside. Singaporean martabak is usually served with a curry sauce for dipping.
Less of a dish and more of a condiment, sambal is a chili-based sauce that’s served as a side to everything. I loved putting it on all my food! It can be pretty spicy so if you can’t handle the heat, be careful of how much you add. Sambal can vary from region to region and no two chefs will prepare sambal the same way. It’s usually made with chilies, sharp fermented shrimp paste, tangy lime juice, shallots, garlic, salt and pepper.
14. Pandan Crepe
A common dessert is the pandan crepe. The crepe is made with flour, coconut milk, and pandan leaf to make it appear green. The crepe is then rolled to hold a freshly grated coconut and palm sugar liquid filling on the inside. It’s a highly addictive sweet snack!
15. Smoothie bowls
I have never seen so many options for healthy smoothie bowls ever in my life. And I live in California! Bali, especially Canggu – a hipster surfer beach town, had so many cafes serving so many options and variations of smoothie bowls that anyone can find at least one they like. There were endless combinations of tropical fruits like dragon fruit, coconut, papaya, pineapple, watermelon, avocado, and mango topped off with fresh fruit, granola, freshly grated coconut, etc. The list goes on. Everything is also arranged all prettily, making it an Instagram-worthy shot. Guilty as charged! I did refrain from posting every single smoothie bowl I ate though. #healthyeating
Jamu is a traditional herbal medicinal drink. Herbs and natural ingredients are combined together into a health tonic for different medicinal properties. It is commonly found to consist of turmeric, ginger, galangal, tamarind, and palm sugar. Some of the medicinal properties include being lots of anti-xyz like anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, antiseptic, anti-tumor, and antioxidant. A local Balinese told me that many Indonesians drink this daily. Women traditionally drink it for beauty, and men drink it mixed with raw egg yolk for strength.
17. Kopi Luwak
Kopi luwak (luwak coffee) is also known as civet coffee or cat poo coffee. Yes, that’s right – poo! Basically, civets are cat-like or weasel-looking animals who love to eat coffee berries for the fleshy pulp surrounding the coffee beans. You can visit a couple coffee farms or plantations in Bali where the civets are allowed to run free. They choose the best berries to eat, which are the most ripe. The civet is a nocturnal animal who sleeps during the day and ventures out at night to find coffee berries to eat.
While the beans are in their digestive systems, fermentation occurs. The beans are then pooped out whole and still covered with the berry’s fleshy pulp since the civet doesn’t fully digest it. Farmers then collect the beans and thoroughly wash and clean them. Afterwards, the beans are then roasted over fire before being ground and brewed for coffee.
There was nothing gross about the coffee at all! The entire cleaning and roasting process effectively kills any potential harmful bacteria. It smelled and tasted just like normal coffee but with stronger and bolder flavors. To me, it also had a less acidic and more smooth robust taste. You could also see the texture of the residual coffee grounds were different too. It was much more fine, appearing almost mud-like rather than the coarse flakes found from regular coffee.
18. Kopi Jos
Only found in Yogyakarta, kopi jos is the Indonesian version of an espresso. It’s a cup of coarsely ground Java coffee where a piece of glowing charcoal is added in right before being served to you. Definitely some strong stuff! It was impressive to see a piece of red-hot charcoal go straight into a glass of coffee without shattering it!
Arak is the local traditional spirit of Bali. You may see it on the menu in cocktails. Arak is a clear liquor distilled from rice or palm tree sap. Arak is available almost anywhere, but it comes with a warning. It is commonly referred to as the moonshine of Indonesia so it comes in many qualities, and the alcohol by volume (ABV) percentage ranges from 20-50%. Many warungs, small local restaurants, sell arak that is locally distilled. Now here comes the warning – there have been incidents where people have died from drinking home distilled arak due to methanol poisoning. So be careful where you are buying arak from. Make sure it is from a reputable place. It has an extremely strong taste but like vodka, once mixed, is hardly noticeable. If you befriend any locals, you’ll be sure to taste some arak during a night out on the town, and they’ll also know the good places to procure arak from!
20. Bintang Beer
Bintang is the local beer in Indonesia that can be found nationwide. It is a pilsner and tastes very similar to Heineken. Bear in mind though that Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country so alcohol is actually hard to find outside of Bali, the most touristy island, which is also mostly Balinese Hindu. I personally liked the Radlers, a shandy style beer, which came in orange or lemon flavors. It was light and would be refreshing to sip on the beach or a great way to end the day!