Indonesian cuisine: An unduly underappreciated taste

558003904_1372247404-1Traditional Indonesian food is a delectable, rich, deeply satisfying cuisine; but this is, strangely, still something of a secret. That is, if you live in the Western world. Despite having a diverse assortment of original dishes that are every bit as unique as Thai or Indian food, Indonesian food has not yet achieved much international popularity.

The diversity of Indonesian food derives from the size and diversity of the country itself. Indonesia consists of 18,000 islands in the world’s largest archipelago, only 6,000 of which are populated. Thus Indonesians over the centuries have had an unusually varied assortment of flora and fauna to choose from and make recipes out of.

Indonesian cuisine was also shaped by the country’s history of international trade, due to its location and abundant natural resources. Indonesian cuisine was influenced by everyone from the Chinese, to the Indians, the Persians, and the Dutch.

A common dish in Indonesia is Nasi Goreng – a meal including stir fried rice in a small amount of cooking oil or margarine, typically spiced with kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), shallot, garlic, tamarind and chili and accompanied with other ingredients, particularly egg, chicken, prawns, or ikan asin (salted dried fish). Nasi Goreng has been called the national dish of Indonesia and can typically be found in any Indonesian restaurant. Nasi Goreng is to Indonesia as Pad Thai is to Thailand.

Another common Indonesian dish is satay, which is internationally popular but usually only encountered by Westerners in Asian fusion restaurants. Satay is a dish of seasoned, skewered and grilled meat, served with some kind of spicy sauce, or which there is a large variety. Satay may consist of chicken, goat, mutton, beef, pork, fish, or tofu. The more authentic restaurants prepare satay with skewers from the midrib of a coconut palm frond.

Indonesian food is typically eaten with a spoon in the right hand and a fork in the left, to push the food onto the spoon. Eating with one’s hands is also common. Eating with chopsticks is generally only found in food carts or places serving Indonesian adaptations of Chinese food.

Westerners traveling in Indonesia are often struck by how good the food is. It can be intensely spicy and delightfully sweet, and is utterly unlike anything that Westerners are used to. The rarity of Indonesian restaurants in the West is a bit of a mystery. For instance, there are only two in Chicago and around ten in New York City, though these two cities are home to the best and widest variety of restaurants in America, each with a hundred or more Thai and Indian restaurants and hundreds of Japanese and Chinese places.

The rarity of Indonesian restaurants in the West, however, should not lead anyone to conclude that the food is unremarkable. It is a delight unlike any other, and it seems likely that increasing globalization will remedy its current lack of international popularity.