My arrival in Indonesia was not under the most pleasant circumstances. My plane from Borneo was delayed for nine hours, leaving me stranded at (probably) Malaysia’s tiniest airport after all the shops shut with nothing to eat except for the complimentary KFC offered by the AirAsia team when it became clear that, despite the assurances of the man in uniform waiting at the gate that the plane was ‘not delayed’ (he maintained this brave pretence for a good three hours after the time when the plane was supposed to have taken off), the plane was clearly not taking us anywhere anytime soon. I made friends with three very funny Malaysian boys who coaxed me intro trying some of their KFC and found my reluctance absolutely hilarious. I had to cave, after about seven hours. I was expecting this crossing over into the dark side to be sinfully delicious, to initiate me into the guilty pleasures of fast food that I have, for so long, abstemiously avoided. In actual fact, I ate the withered, flabby, tasteless chicken burger in dismay, finding it tasted of very little except the hard-to-place ubiquitous flavour of mass-produced spongy carbs and soggy batter.
Then I got on the plane, and ate an AirAsia nasi lemak (coconut rice with chicken rendang, hard boiled egg, salted anchovies and peanuts) which was so infinitely better than the KFC it was just devastating. In the best way. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten anything, in my life, at 2.30am before. It was an experience. Fortunately, Indonesia soon delivered far better eating experiences, starting with the tea and tropical fruit that the hostel owner in Jakarta kindly offered my sleep-deprived, unwashed, teary self when I arrived ten hours later than planned, as the sun was just rising. I’d been in Malaysia for a couple of weeks, so Indonesian food wasn’t entirely new to me, but at the same time it was a wonderful and surprising adventure in gastronomy. Without cataloguing methodically everything I ate, it’s quite hard to write about it in detail, but I’ve picked ten ingredients that Indonesian cooking made me rethink, love, and crave for months afterwards. Obviously, Indonesia is actually gigantic, and I only visited parts of Java and Bali, so this is a very small sample of what you can expect to enjoy in Indonesian cooking.
P.S. Accommodation and other recommendations are at the bottom of the post.
1. Tofu. Think tofu is just cubes of spongy white stuff that look as though they could be tasty chunks of feta or halloumi and always turn out, disappointingly, to taste of nothing? Think again. In Cianjur, western Java, they have turned tofu into a bit of an art form. There, it has the versatility that cheese does in European cooking. You could call it ‘Indonesian cheese’, except that is the term one of my Indonesian friends uses to refer to American-style garish orange cheese slices in plastic. So perhaps not. My first meal in Indonesia (if you don’t count the toast I practically inhaled at my hostel in Jakarta) was lontong, a dish of compressed rice cakes served with tofu in a creamy curry broth. Sticky rice, spongy tofu (I use the adjective in a positive way), fragrant spice and, of course, the ubiquitous prawn crackers – had you asked me there and then to agree never to eat anything but tofu for the rest of my life, I probably would have heartily consented. With my mouth full.
The following morning, I broke my fast with nasi uduk, a dish of steamed rice cooked in coconut milk. It was served on a banana leaf with strips of omelette, crispy onions, and a spicy cake made of tempeh. There was also a spicy, aromatic beancurd ‘paste’ alongside, which looked a little like beige scrambled eggs but tasted completely glorious, deeply savoury and spicy and beautiful once stirred into the rice. I continued to eat some wonderful manifestations of tofu throughout Indonesia, but this breakfast was definitely the highlight. It was a combination of ingredients I’ve never considered before, but perfect bolstering morning food. Especially perfect when it’s being used to set you up for a day exploring rural Cianjur, wandering through places that look like this:
2. Sugar. You know how Asian recipe books designed for Western cooks often put palm sugar in their ingredients lists, alongside a note saying ‘or brown sugar’? You’d think it was a simple swap, but then you go and watch palm sugar being made and suddenly it holds an irresistible magic, and no standard ‘brown sugar’ from a supermarket bag will ever quite work. I watched a lady in a house in Cianjur stir the thick sap from the palms in a huge wok over a searing flame until it turned the colour and texture of fudge, the wooden spoon leaving glistening valleys in its wake as it cut through the golden, molten sugar. It takes five hours to reach this state, and then it looks like the most perfect, inviting chocolate ganache. She poured it into hollow pieces of bamboo and left it to set until you could simply lift the bamboo away, revealing a perfect cylinder of glossy, burnished palm sugar. I bought some later from a market; wrapped in a fragile, papery skin of dried banana leaves, it sits in my kitchen cupboard, to have crystalline chunks sheared off with a sharp knife whenever I cook south-east Asian food. There’s something much more rustic and primitive about that than simply scooping sugar out of the bag with a spoon.
Later, we cut coconuts in half, sheared slivers of fudgy palm sugar off a log and sprinkled them over the jelly inside the fruit, then scooped the lot up with a spoon and ate it. I don’t even need to tell you how ridiculously good that was.
3. Jackfruit. I used to think there were only two things to do with this fruit. A) eat its tender, golden hearts raw, where they have a pleasant crunch and flavour like a slightly underripe peach and B) stand and gawp at the whole fruit on the tree in all its alien, intimidating, spiny magnitude, wondering idly whether it would kill you if it landed on your head. Thanks to a meal at the village in Cianjur, I can now add to my list C) eat the young fruit in an utterly incredible curry (gulai nangka), bathed in a slightly sweet sauce where its flavour is akin to an artichoke. It was probably the best dish I ate in the entirety of Indonesia, and when I can get my hands on some young jackfruit, I will make a big vat of it and rub my hands gleefully over the steam like a malevolent witch.
4. Green sweets. No, not lime-flavoured fruit pastilles. More the fact that if you order or purchase some form of baked good in parts of Indonesia, there is a fifty-fifty chance you will end up with something green. This is because they flavour a lot of sweet things with pandan, which is a plant with spiky, slender leaves that have the most incredible, complex aroma. Everyone has a different simile to describe the taste of pandan, it would seem – I think it smells and tastes like a mixture between cooked rice and vanilla, with a hint of coconut. You can infuse the leaves in hot water to make a beautiful, soothing tea that smells of fragrant jasmine rice, or knot them and throw them into a pot of gulai (curry), or crush them to get pandan juice, which is vivid green and lends that unmistakeable fragrance to whatever you put it in.
My two favourite sweet pandan dishes from my trip were very similar. One was a thick green pandan-scented pancake from Bali wrapped around shaved palm sugar and desiccated coconut, served with a huge bowl of tropical fruit. The other was bugis, little green pandan dumplings filled with palm sugar and coconut and then steamed in banana leaves. They have that glorious gooey texture of dim sum, but the filling is a beautiful sweet, crunchy, coconutty surprise. It’s a good thing I haven’t tried to recreate them at home, because if I did they would be my daily breakfast fare and I’d probably be in a sugar coma all day, every day. I also bought a packet of sweet buns to eat on the train from Bandung to Yogyakarta, and they were all green. It’s the norm. Two had jam inside, two had chocolate. Don’t let the green colour put you off; it’s actually quite a pleasant shade. I’m thinking of painting my conservatory in it.
5. Mush. Delicious, yes? When I put bubur ayam into my Indonesian-English translator app on my phone, it kindly told me that the breakfast dish I’d been enjoying that morning was none other than ‘chicken mush’. I’m not sure if this translation is correct but can we please pretend it is? Chicken mush is a bit like congee: it’s a savoury rice porridge served with some form of protein. I had it once in Cianjur and once in Salatiga, both times with shredded chicken. In Salatiga, at the Kayu Arum hotel, it also came with hard-boiled eggs (an Indonesian staple), crispy onions and a garlic-scented broth. In England I’m a sweet, oaty porridge aficionado, but I found my loyalties severely tested by chicken mush. It was comforting, piping hot, salty and delicious, and in Salatiga it was the perfect preamble to a day spent learning ‘natural horsemanship’: grooming and looking after the most beautiful horses I’ve ever seen in my life, learning to communicate with them and ride them through the countryside.
6. Bananas for dessert. Not something I’d normally go for – bananas, for me, are a pre-exercise snack food (in their raw state, I mean – I will happily devour a banana blondie for dessert). They’re quite filling, not that sweet, are never quite at the exact stage of ripeness you want and therefore don’t work particularly well as the end to a meal. That is, until you pan-fry them in lashings of butter and honey until the outside is almost crispy with burnished sugar and then serve them with vanilla ice cream. I ate this every night for three days at the Via Via café in Yogyakarta. Banana fritters, in a thick batter, are the more common form to be found in Indonesia (pisang goreng) if you’re craving a banana-based hit, but I couldn’t resist the Via Via version. The little Indonesian bananas were so much smaller and sweeter than those we get in the UK. I loved this dish so much I recreated it soon after coming home. It’s still quite a substantial dessert, but worth it.
I also ate some wonderful banana pancakes in Bali: normally I’d either slice bananas and serve them alongside plain pancakes, or mash the bananas to a puree and add them to the mixture. After visiting Bali, I now slice my bananas thinly and add them to the batter in the pan in a single layer, so you end up with a lovely thick crepe in which you’ve embedded little coins of sweet fruit. Next step on my mental agenda is to add some pandan to the batter, and I might just get confused and think I’m in Bali. Obviously until I either look outside, go outside or catch sight of myself in the mirror wearing three jumpers.
7. Shrimp with your fruit salad. Rujak, coming from the Malay word for ‘mixture’, is a dish of fruit pieces which you dip into a sauce of shrimp paste, sugar, chilli and lime juice (you can also get it from street vendors pre-mixed). You can also get savoury versions with various fritters and vegetables for dipping. Fruit rujak is traditionally eaten in Java as part of a prenatal ceremony called Tujuh bulanan and served to the mother-to-be; if the overall dish tastes sweet, it is believed that the child is a girl; if spicy, a boy. I’m not sure what that suggests about stereotypical gender roles in Indonesia. What if you want to be a spicy girl?
I ordered rujak from a menu which advised ‘Only for those who have been in Indonesia a month or more’, because it is so very, very spicy. Don’t worry, this isn’t a humble brag as I show off my seasoned traveller credentials and laugh in the face of chilli. I hadn’t been in Indonesia a month or more, but I still enjoyed it because I discovered the key is to simply dip the tiniest, most miniscule corner of your piece of mango, pineapple, starfruit, guava, et cetera, into the saucy inferno that accompanies it. Do this as your Indonesian travelling companion sits beside you, swamping his fruit in the sauce without a care in the world or a bead of sweat on his brow. It’s OK. I won’t judge. I’ve been there.
8. Pineapple and mushrooms. I often have pineapple with south-east Asian savoury food, but I usually stir-fry it with some fish sauce, soy sauce, brown sugar and greens and have it as a side dish. It works well with meat and rich, creamy, coconut-based sauces, but I’d never thought about using it in a vegetarian dish. In Yogyakarta, at a restaurant called Kedai, I ate a stir-fry of green beans, baby corn, mushrooms and pineapple which changed my mind. It was similar to cap cai, a Chinese-Indonesian dish of vegetables in a thick, deeply savoury liquor made from soy, onion, garlic, sugar and oyster sauce. The vegetables were barely-cooked and crunchy, the flavour almost meaty from the mushrooms, and the pineapple provided a lovely burst of fresh contrast and sweetness. I’m all for putting fruit in as many dishes as possible, and this was a lovely, nutritious plate of vegetarian goodness, very different to some of the classic Indonesian dishes which are animal protein-heavy. Soaking up all of that sauce with a bowl of rice is the best part. Even better if you can eat this after a wonderful day exploring Borobodur and Prambanan temples, having woken at 3.30am to catch the ‘sunrise’ (read: chilly grey mist and rain).
9. Turmeric pudding. I know, right? You’re thinking this should never happen. What next? Coriander ice cream? Cumin jelly? But imagine a gentle, quivering, golden custard tasting like a crème caramel with the slight earthiness of turmeric, nestling alongside a delicate slice of moist, cinnamon-scented banana cake, drizzled with a thick ribbon of coconut cream. Imagine eating the two together: the dense, damp, spicy cake lifted by the airy, caramel pudding, the whole sensation pervaded with the fragrance of coconut. It worked, for reasons I will probably never understand but I’m sure Heston Blumenthal would.
I ate this at a glorious place called Café Pomegranate, which delivered one of the most memorable eating experiences of my life. To get there, you leave the tourist-strewn madness of central Ubud via a little street that appears to lead nowhere. You wander past several houses, feeling lost and confused, until you emerge onto a path that winds through the rice terraces, under palm trees and past springs of water, into the countryside. The green is so bright it hurts your eyes; just a single block of colour as far as you can see, fragmented by the slender outlines of rice stalks protruding from the ground. Take this path for about fifteen minutes, and you end up at Café Pomegranate, a giant beige tepee where you sit on cushions and look out at the verdant vista as the staff, at the ring of a little gold bell provided on your table, take your order. They offer a strange mixture of Indonesian, modern European and Japanese food. Intrigued, I ordered a sort of pan-Asian mezze platter: pork dumplings, sushi, green beans with tofu sauce, stir-fried morning glory, fried calamari, sticky rice grilled in a banana leaf, and a single gelatinous cube of sweet, spiced slow-cooked pork belly, which was utterly divine. It was one of the most beautiful meals I’ve ever eaten (see the picture at the top of this post), and definitely the most beautiful location. I sat there, shoes off, toes curling in joy, devouring sticky rice in the green glow of the rice paddies, savouring the final few days of my trip in peace and solitude over a steaming pot of lemongrass tea. It’s a memory I still treasure to this day.
10. Fish bones, fins and tails. Not parts you normally eat. But when you saw your fish swimming around in the river about half an hour before you tuck into it for lunch, and when it’s been deep-fried as a whole then put on your plate alongside some steamed rice and very spicy sambal, believe me, you’ll want to eat the whole damn creature. This was at the ‘floating village’ in Cianjur, where you could walk along bamboo planks between the fish pens in the river, and sit with your feet dangling in the water for an impromptu – and free – ‘fish pedicure’. I think the difference being that when you go for a proper fish pedicure, the fish are tiny and so deliver only a mild tickling sensation. When their mouths are the size of a pound coin, the experience is excruciatingly ticklish and you will squeal girlishly and only stand it for about twelve seconds, I guarantee. But I still felt a pang when the fisherman lifted a bucket of the creatures out of the water and took them to the kitchen for our lunch.
I had quite a few whole crispy fish in Indonesia; my favourite was the gurame I had in Salatiga at the Kayu Arum hotel (I wonder if the fish is a larger version of the gourami I keep in my tropical aquarium in England?). This was magnificent: a huge, whole fish on a big platter, its skin, fins and head crispy and slightly caramelised, served with a sweet chilli sauce and sliced melon. We also had a beautiful honey-glazed duck, sticky with anise, soy and ginger, alongside: the Indonesian do duck very well, especially in Bali where it’s a speciality. We cycled through a Balinese village as they prepared for a funeral, and there were woks full of sizzling oil as a whole vat of duck carcasses lay on a table ready for frying.
The Cianjur Adventure Homestay programme is the way to explore rural Indonesia, make friends with the locals (and get invited to weddings and karaoke if you're lucky like me...!), learn to cook Indonesian food and generally have an absolutely incredible time off the tourist trail. The homestay staff are lovely and will take excellent care of you (and provide you with delicious meals and juice). It's about four hours from Jakarta, but they will pick you up in a minibus, and you can then take the train from nearby Bandung to Yogyakarta for the next leg of your trip (a very comfortable seven-hour ride with incredible scenery).
In Yogyakarta, Via Via is a lovely friendly travellers' cafe with excellent local and European food. They also have live music, and of course the incredible fried bananas. I also loved the food at Kedai - there's a huge selection (try the opor ayam, a sweet, creamy, coconut chicken curry, and the mendoan tempeh fritters, as well as the rujak, of course). In Yogyakarta, Delta Homestay and Duta Garden Hotel (both owned by the same group) are lovely little hotels built around communal pools. They bring you tea and cake in the afternoon. Yes, you heard.
Learn natural horsemanship at Havana Horses in Salatiga, and stay at the utterly gorgeous Kayu Arum resort, with rooms in a gorgeous colonial-style mansion, beautiful food, and an infinity pool surrounded by lush tropical garden.
In Ubud, Bali, eat at Cafe Pomegranate (mentioned above), visit Taman Saraswati temple for traditional Balinese dance, and if for any reason you're craving Thai food, Fair Warung Bale does it very well (their red fish curry is excellent) and donates proceeds to their clinic next door. Bali Baik Tours organise a morning-long cycling trip around central Ubud, giving you a great chance to see Bali outside the tourist trail. They also give you an amazing buffet lunch afterwards. Melting Wok restaurant is run by a lovely French lady and produces fabulous French-Indonesian food (think crêpes with chocolate and banana smothered in coconut cream).