Indonesian cuisine was influenced by traders from India, the Middle East, China, and, later, Spain and Portugal. The Dutch, who colonized many of the 6,000 islands that make up Indonesia, adapted the buffet eating style of the native peoples, into the famous rijstaffel (or rice table). Sambals and tempeh, an adaptation of tofu, also originated in Indonesia.
Indonesia taught the world the use of exotic spices and herbs. Indonesian cuisine is known for its deliberate combination of contrasting flavors (spicy, sour, sweet, hot) and textures (wet, coarse, spongy, hard). Indonesians have developed original gastronomic themes with lemongrass and laos, cardamom and chilies, tamarind and turmeric. In complex Javanese dishes, vinegar and tamarind are added to palm sugar to produce a sweet-sour spiciness.
Surprisingly, you seldom come across the spices—nutmeg, pepper, mace, and cloves—that gave the "Spice Islands" their name. Some areas of Indonesia lack spices and food tends to be bland and unappetizing.
Indonesian saffron (kunyit) is used to color rice dishes an intense yellow and provide rice with spicy flavoring. Terasi, a red-brown fermented shrimp paste with a potent aroma, is used in small amounts in most sauces. It's considered absolutely essential to a successful rijstaffel (smorgasboard). There are many kinds of hot chili pastes (sambal) invariably made from red chilies, shallots, and tomatoes; the sambals from Padang in West Sumatra are some of the hottest in Indonesia. If the dish is too hot, squeeze a little lemon with salt over it.
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This page modified January 2007
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