Prior to a recent Java trip, we confess to not having travelled in Indonesia for a long time and last time we did, it was to some further-flung parts of Sumatra where frankly, the Indonesian food on offer was rather limited. Well, no offence to the friendly residents of the neighbouring island – and apologies to chefs on the 13,000 plus islands we didn’t visit – but meals on our Java tour were on a whole other level. To be fair though, rather than being a pretty clueless, first time, independent traveller, on our last trip we did travel with a local guide and so had someone suggesting where to eat, what to order, deciphering menus and seeking out recommended local specialities. If you want to really get to know the local cuisine then that’s the only way to go!
Here’s one we did manage to find ourselves, the ubiquitous soto, and while we had no clue what it was and the owners couldn’t explain either – it was the only dish on the menu so…
It’s actually a local variation on the classic Asian rice soup – here served with a side order of crispy tempeh – so simple, but totally delicious and a spot-on lunch. Both tofu and tempeh are common features of Indonesian cooking. Tofu may not be on everybody’s list of faves but the Indonesians certainly know how to prepare it while tempeh – made from fermented soya beans and either accompanying dishes or as a snack in its own right – may well be unfamiliar but will soon have you converted.
A popular style of eating is the mixed dishes such as nasi campur (see also Malaysia’s nasi lemak) where rice and maybe chicken, prawn or beef are served on individual plates with a selection of accompanying side dishes. Each region will have its own version with accompaniments varying widely. Below is a Yogyakarta version we came across in just one of the town’s myriad excellent cafes.
Another style of Indonesian food you’ll come across frequently is the; grab a plate of rice and help yourself one where you peruse an array of pre-cooked dishes and take a spoon of whichever ones you fancy. The famous, and also ubiquitous, Padang food – named after the city in Sumatra – is generally eaten this way and includes the signature beef and coconut curry dish, rendang.
We came across the fantastic, and spotless, display above in a simple road-side cafe. These are all the side dishes with various curries in the pots and, as this was served for brunch, you’ve got to wonder what time in the morning the chef started work! (There was rendang in there somewhere although after spending the first few days experimenting to see if man can live on rendang alone our guide, Ari, persuaded us there were, in fact, plenty of other excellent dishes to try.)
One of which was this seriously tasty goat curry which, due to a lack of vocabulary, we’d never had found on own, in another local cafe on our way up to the Dieng Plateau. Consisting of chunks of goat slow-cooked in a thin but rich stock which you spice up to your own taste with a side dish of sambal – this was a great find.
Moving on – with a short boat ride taking us to a remote corner of Bali – we again tried the local speciality where, with pork being off the menu in Java for obvious reasons, the Balinese go to great lengths to compensate. Although we sampled a few babi gulings on the island none came close to this one (don’t worry we got the address!) in a simple cafe in Permuteran.
Consisting of nine various pig products cooked in different ways including crispy crackling and a superb black pudding style sausage the chef clearly had a strong pork statement to make!
We’ll leave you with something a bit different – but of course, something the island of Java is world-famous for – a very fancy cup of locally grown coffee at the Losari Plantation.
Didn’t have a bad meal in 2 weeks and even with hotel buffet breakfasts, we didn’t have a bad cup of coffee in 2 weeks either!
If this brief description of a few of the dishes that make up Indonesian food has tickled your tastebuds our next Java Overland tour – everything permitting – is scheduled to start in October in Yogyakarta. Bon appetit!