Food Safari ~ Indonesian

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Maeve O’Meara plunges into the vibrant spicy world of Indonesian food and discovers dishes full of fresh flavor and chilli warmth.  Our main guide to ingredients is Maeve’s friend, chef Rohanna Halim, who heads a busy all-girl kitchen team at her restaurant Ratu Sari in Sydney’s Kingsford.  She shows us the key ingredients needed for Indonesian cooking, many of them fresh herbs and spices that are now widely available.  Rohanna makes a spicy chilli sauce called Belado which goes perfectly with everything from prawns to veggies. 

Fellow head chef and owner, Alina Lucas, from Jimbaran Restaurant cooks an easy mellow chicken curry, while Java Restaurant’s “Aunty” Wahwan whips up a healthy grilled fish with a sweet and sour vegetable sauce.  We even have a real prince cooking for us–Tjok Gde Kerthyasa is one of Bali’s royal family and cooks a traditional duck on the good old Aussie barbie and he serves it with a fresh spicy sambal

Also on the barbecue—some of the best satay from expatriate Dutch Indonesian Paul Rast who makes a wonderful peanut sauce to accompany it. To finish, young Indonesian Australian Ben Mochtar makes his favorite childhood dessert eis cendol which features shaved ice, tropical fruit, coconut milk and pandan flavored “worms” made from mung bean flour.

Click here for the recipes featured in this episode.

About Indonesia


Indonesia, officially the Republic of Indonesia, is a country in Southeast Asia and Oceania.  Indonesia comprises 13,466 islands and 33 provinces. With over 238 million people, it is the world's 4th most populous country, and has the world's largest population of Muslims.

Indonesia is a republic, with an elected legislature and president.  The nation's capital city is Jakarta.

The Indonesian archipelago has become an important trade region since at least the 7th century, when Srivijaya and then later Majapahit traded with China and India. Local rulers gradually absorbed foreign cultural, religious and political models from the early centuries of the first millennium, and Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms flourished. Indonesian history has been influenced by foreign powers drawn to its natural resources.  Muslim traders brought Islam, and European powers brought Christianity.

Ancient & Colonial Indonesia:

Fossilized remains of Homo erectus, popularly known as the "Java Man", suggest that the Indonesian archipelago was inhabited two million to 500,000 years ago.  Homo sapiens reached the region by around 45,000 years ago.

Austronesian peoples, who form the majority of the modern population, migrated to South East Asia from Taiwan.  They arrived in Indonesia around 2000 BCE, and as they spread through the archipelago, confined the native Melanesian peoples to the far eastern regions.  Ideal agricultural conditions, and the mastering of wet-field rice cultivation as early as the 8th century BCE, allowed villages, towns, and small kingdoms to flourish by the 1st century CE.

From the 7th century CE, the powerful Srivijaya naval kingdom flourished as a result of trade and the influences of Hinduism and Buddhism that were imported with it. Between the eighth and 10th centuries CE, the agricultural Buddhist Sailendra and Hindu Mataram dynasties thrived and declined in inland Java, leaving grand religious monuments such as Sailendra's Borobudur and Mataram's Prambanan. The Hindu Majapahit kingdom was founded in eastern Java in the late 13th century, and under Gajah Mada, its influence stretched over much of Indonesia.

Although Muslim traders first traveled through South East Asia early in the Islamic era, the earliest evidence of Islamized populations in Indonesia dates to the 13th century in northern Sumatra. Other Indonesian areas gradually adopted Islam, and it was the dominant religion in Java and Sumatra by the end of the 16th century. For the most part, Islam overlaid and mixed with existing cultural and religious influences, which shaped the predominant form of Islam in Indonesia, particularly in Java.

The first regular contact between Europeans and the peoples of Indonesia began in 1512, when Portuguese traders, led by Francisco Serrão, sought to monopolize the sources of nutmeg, cloves, and cubeb pepper in Maluku. Dutch and British traders followed. In 1602 the Dutch established the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and became the dominant European power. Following bankruptcy, the VOC was formally dissolved in 1800, and the government of the Netherlands established the Dutch East Indies as a nationalized colony.

Following three and a half centuries of Dutch colonialism, Japanese occupation during World War II ended Dutch rule, and encouraged the previously suppressed Indonesian independence movement. Two days after the surrender of Japan in August 1945, Sukarno, an influential nationalist leader, declared independence and was appointed president.  The Netherlands tried to reestablish their rule, and an armed and diplomatic struggle ended in December 1949, when in the face of international pressure, the Dutch formally recognized Indonesian independence. Indonesia's history has since been turbulent, with challenges posed by natural disasters, corruption, separatism, a democratization process, and periods of rapid economic change.

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Wind & Weather

Modern Indonesia:

Indonesia is a republic with a presidential system. The president may serve a maximum of two consecutive five-year terms. In contrast to Sukarno's anti-imperialistic antipathy to western powers and tensions with Malaysia, Indonesia's foreign relations since the Suharto "New Order" have been based on economic and political cooperation with Western nations.  Indonesia maintains close relationships with its neighbors in Asia, and is a founding member of ASEAN and the East Asia Summit.  The nation restored relations with the People's Republic of China in 1990 following a freeze in place since anti-communist purges early in the Suharto era.  Indonesia has been a member of the United Nations since 1950.

The Indonesian Government has worked with other countries to apprehend and prosecute perpetrators of major bombings linked to militant Islamism and Al-Qaeda.  The deadliest killed 202 people (including 164 international tourists) in the Bali resort town of Kuta in 2002.  The attacks, and subsequent travel warnings issued by other countries, severely damaged Indonesia's tourism industry and foreign investment prospects.


Indonesia has a mixed economy in which both the private sector and government play significant roles.  The country is the largest economy in Southeast Asia and a member of the G-20 major economies. The Indonesian economy is the world's eighteenth largest economy by nominal GDP and fifteenth largest by purchasing power parity.  Since 2010, service sector has employed more people than other sectors, accounting 48.9% of the total labor force, this has been followed by agriculture (38.3%) and the industry sector (12.8%).  Agriculture, however, had been the country's largest employer for centuries.  Despite its large population and densely populated regions, Indonesia has vast areas of wilderness that support the world's second highest level of biodiversity. The country is richly endowed with natural resources, yet poverty remains widespread in contemporary Indonesia.

According to World Trade Organization data, Indonesia was the 27th biggest exporting country in the world in 2010, moving up three places from a year before. Indonesia's main export markets (2009) are Japan (17.28%), Singapore (11.29%), the United States (10.81%), and China (7.62%). The major suppliers of imports to Indonesia are Singapore (24.96%), China (12.52%), and Japan (8.92%).

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The population of Indonesia according to the 2010 national census is 237.6 million; 58% living on the island of Java, the world's most populous island.  There are around 300 distinct indigenous ethnic groups in Indonesia, and 742 different languages and dialects, but Indonesian is the official national language.  The largest ethnic group is the Javanese, who comprise 42% of the population, and are politically and culturally dominant.  The Sundanese, Malay, and Madurese are the next largest groups in the country.  A sense of Indonesian nationhood exists alongside strong regional identities.  Society is largely harmonious, although social, religious and ethnic tensions have triggered horrendous violence.

Chinese Indonesians are an influential ethnic minority comprising 3–4% of the population.  Much of the country's privately owned commerce and wealth is controlled by these Indonesians of Chinese descent, which has contributed to considerable resentment, and even anti-Chinese violence.  Other foreign ethnic minorities include Indonesians of Arab, Indian, Japanese, and Korean descent.

Although it is not an Islamic state, Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation.  Based on the 2010 census, approximately 85.1% were Muslims consisting of Sufis, Shias and Sunnis, 9.2% Protestant, 3.5% are Catholic, 1.8% Hindu, 0.4% Buddhist and other or unspecified. Most Indonesian Hindus are Balinese, and most Buddhists are ethnic Chinese.  With many different religions practised in Indonesia, conflicts between believers are often unavoidable.

Indonesian Culture:

Indonesian culture has been shaped by long interaction between original indigenous customs and multiple foreign influences. Indonesia is central along ancient trading routes between the Far East and the Middle East, resulting in many cultural practices being strongly influenced by a multitude of religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Islam, all strong in the major trading cities. The result is a complex cultural mixture very different from the original indigenous cultures. Indonesian art-forms express this cultural mix.

Western culture has greatly influenced Indonesia in modern entertainment such as television shows, film and music, as well as political system and issues. India has also notably influenced Indonesian songs and movies. Despite the influences of foreign culture, some remote Indonesian regions still preserve uniquely indigenous culture. Indigenous ethnic groups Mentawai, Asmat, Dani, Dayak, Toraja and many others are still practising their ethnic rituals, customs and wearing traditional clothes.

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Tourism in Indonesia is an important component of the Indonesian economy.  In 2010, foreign tourists visiting Indonesia reached 7 million.  Both nature and culture are major components of Indonesian tourism.  The beaches in Bali, diving sites in Bunaken, Mount Rinjani in Lombok and various national parks in Sumatra are just a few examples of popular scenic destinations. These natural attractions are complemented by a rich cultural heritage that reflects Indonesia's dynamic history and ethnic diversity.  The ancient Prambanan and Borobudur temples, Toraja, Yogyakarta, Minangkabau, and of course Bali, with its many Hindu festivities, are some of the popular destinations for cultural tourism.

Surfing is also a popular water activity in Indonesia and the sites are recognized as world class.  The well-known spots are mostly located on the southern, Indian Ocean side of Indonesia, for example, the large oceanic surf breaks on southern JavaSumatra is the second island with the most number of surf spots, with 18 altogether.  Two well-known surf breaks in Indonesia are the G-Land in the Bay of Grajagan, East Java, and Lagundri Bay at the southern end of Nias island.

Indonesia has a well-preserved, natural ecosystem with rainforests that stretch over about 57% of Indonesia's land, approximately 2% of which are mangrove systems.  There are 50 national parks in Indonesia, of which six are World Heritage listed. The largest national parks in Sumatra are Gunung Leuser National Park, Kerinci Seblat National Park and Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, all three recognized as Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra on the UNESCO World Heritage list.  Other national parks on the list are Lorentz National Park in Papua, Komodo National Park in the Lesser Sunda Islands, and Ujung Kulon National Park in the west of Java.  Many native species such as Sumatran elephants, Sumatran tigers, Sumatran rhinoceros, Javan rhinoceros and Orangutans are listed as endangered or critically endangered, and the remaining populations are found in national parks and other conservation areas.

Hiking and camping in the mountains are popular adventure activities. Some mountains contain ridge rivers, offering rafting activity. Though volcanic mountains can be dangerous, they have become major tourist destinations. Popular active volcanoes are the 2,329-metre (7,641 ft) high Mount Bromo in the East Java province with its little desert, the upturned boat shaped Tangkuban Perahu on the outskirts of Bandung, the most active volcano in Java, Mount Merapi and the legendary Krakatau with its new caldera known as anak krakatau (the child of Krakatau).

Indonesian Cuisine

Indonesian cuisine reflects the vast variety created by the people who live on the 6,000 populated islands that make up the modern nation of Indonesia.  There is not a single "Indonesian" cuisine, but rather, a diversity of regional cuisines formed by local Indonesian cultures and foreign influences.  Indonesian cuisine reflects its complex cultural history.  Regional dishes vary greatly from region to region and combines many different influences.

Throughout its history, Indonesia has been involved in trade due to its location and natural resources.  Additionally, Indonesia’s indigenous techniques and ingredients were influenced by India, the Middle East, China, and finally Europe.  Spanish and Portuguese traders brought New World produce even before the Dutch came to colonize most of the archipelago.

Indonesian meals are commonly eaten with the combination of a spoon in the right hand and fork in the left hand, although in many parts of the country (such as West Java and West Sumatra) it is also common to eat with one's hands.  Eating with chopsticks is generally only found in foodstalls or restaurants serving Indonesian adaptations of Chinese cuisine.

Key Elements:

The Indonesian fondness for hot and spicy food was enriched when the Spanish introduced cabai (chili pepper) from the New World to the region in 16th century.  After that hot and spicy sambals have become an important part of Indonesian cuisine.  Soy sauce is also an important flavorings in Indonesian cuisine.  Kecap asin (salty or common soy sauce) was adopted from Chinese cuisine, however Indonesian developed their own kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) with generous addition of palm sugar into soy sauce.  Sweet soy sauce is an important marinade for barbecued meat and fish, such as satay and grilled fishes.

Introduced from Mexico by Portuguese and Spanish merchants in 16th century, peanuts assumed a place within Indonesian cuisine as a key ingredient.  One of the main characteristics of Indonesian cuisine is the wide application of peanuts in many Indonesian signature dishes, such as satay, gado-gado, karedok, ketoprak, and pecel Peanut oil is one of the most commonly used cooking oils in IndonesiaBumbu kacang (peanut sauce) represents a sophisticated, earthy seasoning rather than a sweet, gloppy sauce.  It should have a delicate balance of savory, sweet, sour, and spicy flavors, acquired from various ingredients, such as fried peanuts, coconut sugar, garlic, shallots, ginger, tamarind, lemon juice, lemongrass, salt, chilli, peppercorns, sweet soy sauce, ground together and mixed with water to form the right consistency. The secret to good peanut sauce is “not too thick and not too watery.”

The broad use of coconut milk in many Indonesian dishes is another common characteristic of Indonesian cuisine.  It is used in many recipes, from savory dishes such as rendang, soto, sayur lodeh, and opor ayam (chicken cooked in coconut milk), to desserts such as es cendol and es doger (an ice cream-like dessert).

Shop Taste of Home (Readers Digest)


Rice is a staple for all classes in contemporary Indonesia, and it holds a central part in Indonesian culture.  Rice is served in most meals as a savory and sweet food.  It is most often eaten as plain rice with just a few protein and vegetable dishes as side dishes.  Rice is also served, however, as nasi uduk (rice cooked in coconut milk), nasi kuning (rice cooked with coconut milk and turmeric), ketupat (rice steamed in woven packets of coconut fronds), lontong (rice steamed in banana leaves), intip or rengginang (rice crackers), desserts, vermicelli, noodles, arak beras (rice wine), and nasi goreng (fried rice).  Other staple foods in Indonesia include maize, sago, cassava, and root tubers (especially in hard times).

National Dishes:

Some popular Indonesian dishes such as nasi goreng, gado-gado, satay, and soto are ubiquitous in the country and considered as Indonesian national dishes.  The most popular dishes that originated in Indonesia such as satay, beef rendang and sambal, are now common across much of Southeast Asia.  Soy-based dishes, such as variations of tofu (tahu) and tempe, are also very popular.

Known throughout the world as the "Spice Islands", the Indonesian islands of Maluku contributed to the introduction of its native spices to world cuisine.  Spices such as pala (nutmeg/mace), cengkeh (clove), and laos (galangal) are native to Indonesia.  It is likely that lada hitam (black pepper), kunyit (turmeric), sereh (lemongrass), bawang merah (shallot), kayu manis (cinnamon), kemiri (candlenut), ketumbar (coriander), and asam jawa (tamarind) were introduced from India, while jahe (ginger), daun bawang (green onions) and bawang putih (garlic) were introduced from China.

Tropical Fruits:

Tropical fruits are an important part of the Indonesian diet, either eaten raw, made into desserts, cooked in savory and spicy dishes like rujak, fried like pisang goreng (fried banana), or processed into kripik (crispy chips) as snacks like jackfruit or banana chips.  Many of these fruits such as mangosteen, rambutan, jackfruit, durian, and banana, are indigenous to Indonesian archipelago; while others have been imported from other tropical countries.


The most common and popular Indonesian drinks and beverages are teh (tea) and kopi (coffee).  Indonesian households commonly serve teh manis (sweet tea) or kopi tubruk (coffee mixed with sugar and hot water and poured straight in the glass without separating out the coffee residue) to guests.  Jasmine tea is the most popular tea variety drunk in Indonesia, however recent health awareness promotions have made green tea a popular choice.  Usually coffee and tea are served hot, but cold iced sweet tea is also frequently drunk.  Kopi Luwak is Indonesian exotic and expensive coffee beverage.

Fruit juices (jus) are very popular.  Varieties include orange (jus jeruk), guava (jus jambu), mango (jus mangga), soursop (jus sirsak) and avocado (jus alpokat), the last of these being commonly served with condensed milk and chocolate syrup as a dessert-like treat.

As a Muslim majority country, Indonesian Muslims also share Islamic dietary laws that prohibit alcoholic beverages.  Nonetheless, tuak and palm wine continue to be popular in the Batak region of North Sumatra where a majority of the people are Christian.  In Surakarta, Central Java, ciu (a local adaptation of Chinese wine) is also known.  Bottled brem bali (Balinese rice wine) is popular in Bali. Indonesians also developed local brands of beer, such as Bintang Beer and Anker Beer.


AFRICAN:  Wherever you are in Africa, no meal is complete without a starchy porridge known as fufu.

BRAZILIAN:  An exuberant, colorful mix of Portuguese, African and native foods including some from the Amazon.

CHINESE:  Two thirds of households own a wok and use it regularly, but not everyone knows how to use it properly.

EGYPTIAN:  Beans are used extensively and creatively as a source of protein, fibre, and comfort.

ENGLISH:  "Meat & three veg" originated in the UK with dishes like roast beef, steak and kidney pie, and many more.

FRENCH: The French have elevated food into an art form. Nowhere else is so much attention paid to what people are going to eat and how.

HUNGARIAN:  A fusion of simple peasant food & the elegant, highly developed cuisine from the days of the Austro Hungarian Empire.

INDIAN:  A vibrant, intensely colorful cuisine. Each region of India has its own style of cooking and distinct flavors.

ITALIAN:  An long-awaited introduction to the kitchens and restaurants of Australia’s top Italian chefs and home cooks.

JAPANESE:  Refined and elegant, its preparation and presentation honed over the centuries so its flavors are pure and delicate.

JEWISH:  While flavors of the Jewish palate are influenced by geography, the constant for Jews all over the world are the Kosher laws.

KOREAN:  Some of the healthiest food on earth, with a near obsession with the fermented vegetable kimchi.

LEBANESE:  Lebanese cuisine is generous and abundant, and this is some of the most exquisite food in the world.

MALTESE:  The rocky island of Malta is home to some beautiful rustic recipes that sing of Mediterranean flavor and freshness.

MEXICAN:  Authentic Mexican food is vibrant, spicy, delicious and fun. It varies according to which region its from.

MOROCCAN:  One of the most cleverly balanced cuisines on earth; spices are used to enhance the flavor of dishes.

PAKISTANI:  Full of marvelous and diverse dishes, it incorporates elements from its neighbors India, Afghanistan and Iran.

PERSIAN:  From simple dips to hearty stews, food preparation is taken very seriously in Iran and is often a labor of love.

SOUTH AMERICAN:  A fantastic fusion of culinary traditions from indigenous Indians, imported Africans, and the Spanish and Portuguese colonist.

SRI LANKAN:  This beautiful spice island is a rich melting pot of every nationality that has visited and traded with it over the years.

SYRIAN:  One of the highlights of Syrian food is mezza, a generous spread of small dishes and the prelude to even more food!

TURKISH:  Nestled between Asia and Europe, Turkish food is an unique and exotic fusion with influences from many countries.


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