Updated: Jun 15, 2020
Indonesian cuisine isn't as famous as Chinese, Japanese, Thai or Vietnamese cuisine, but according to SBS Australia "Indonesian food is one of the most vibrant and colorful cuisines in the world, full of intense flavor." Indonesian cuisine has similarities to Malay, Singaporean, and Thai cuisine because, to a greater or lesser extent, the same herbs and spices are used. Like these countries, flavor balance in Indonesian cuisine is particularly important and can make or break a dish. Tasting mixtures and pastes, and adjusting ingredients until you taste the perfect flavor balance, can be challenging. In this post I will explain more about the flavors in Indonesian cuisine and how they are balanced to create a specific taste.
Influences of Indonesian cuisine
Over the centuries, Indonesia has been involved in local and international trade because of its location and natural resources. Before the arrival of Europeans, Indonesia's cooking techniques and ingredients were influenced by traders from the Middle East, mainland Asian countries such as India and China. Later, Spanish and Portuguese traders brought products from the so-called 'New World' (the name of the America's after Columbus' discoveries) before the Dutch colonized most of the Indonesian islands. The Moluccan islands (Maluku), also known as 'the Spice Islands', also contributed to the introduction of their native spices, such as cloves and nutmeg, to Indonesian and global cuisine.
A wide variety of recipes and cuisines exist in Indonesian cuisine because the country consists of approximately 6,000 populated islands. In total there are 17,508 Indonesian islands and therefore it is the world's largest archipelago. There are many regional cuisines, which are often based upon indigenous culture with some foreign influences. Sumatran dishes - like Rendang - often have Middle Eastern and Indian influences, featuring curried meat and vegetables, while Javanese cuisine is mostly indigenous, with some hint of Chinese influence. The cuisines of Eastern Indonesia are like Polynesian and Melanesian cuisine.
Flavors in Indonesian cuisine
Indonesian cuisine often demonstrates complex flavor, acquired from certain ingredients and bumbu spice mixtures. Indonesian dishes have rich flavors; most often described as savory, hot and spicy, and also combination of basic tastes such as sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Most Indonesians favor hot and spicy food, so sambal, Indonesian hot and spicy chili paste, is a staple condiment in Indonesian cuisine.
Just as important as in for example Thai cuisine, achieving a delicate flavor balance is key to Indonesian cuisine. In every condiment or dish a delicate balance between salty, sweet, spicy, and sometimes sour and/ or bitter is exhibited. Umami also plays an important role in Indonesian cuisine.
Salty and umami flavors in Indonesian cuisine
Pure salt, like the sea salt used in European cuisine, is used in Indonesian cuisine, but only in small amounts. Because they (and I) are such fans of fermented shrimp paste (trassi or terasi), adding extra salt is unnecessary in most cases. Trassi is primarily made from finely crushed shrimp or krill mixed with salt, and then fermented for several weeks. After fermentation, trassi is either sold in its wet form or can be sun-dried and either cut into blocks.
Trassi has a unique salty and savory taste and gives a deep umami flavor to all dishes and condiments it is added to. Next to trassi, Indonesians use kecap asin, the salty variant of Indonesian (sweet) soy sauce kecap manis. Because of these two salty key ingredients, adding extra salt is hardly needed in Indonesian cuisine.
Sweet flavors in Indonesian cuisine
For adding sweet flavors to foods, Indonesians prefer to use coconut milk, palm sugar (gula jawa) and of course sweet soy sauce kecap manis. Coconut trees are abundant in Indonesia, and since ancient times Indonesians developed many uses for this tree. The broad use of coconut milk in dishes is another common characteristic of Indonesian cuisine. Many Indonesian dishes use coconut milk to sweeten up a dish or as a counterbalance to their spiciness.
Indonesia is also famous for its own version of sugar called palm sugar or gula jawa. Palm sugar obviously comes from palm trees. It is produced by boiling collected sap from palm trees until it thickens. The boiled sap can be sold as palm syrup but can also be sold in bottles or tins. Then it tends to thicken and crystallize over time, giving it a deep caramel-like taste.
Finally, probably the most famous Indonesian sweetener is of course Indonesian sweet soy sauce or kecap manis. Kecap manis is a sweetened aromatic soy sauce, which has a darker color, a viscous syrupy consistency, and a molasses-like flavor because generous amounts of palm sugar are added. Kecap manis is an ingredient in many Indonesian dishes and Indonesian people even tend to dip their prawn crackers (krupuk or kerupuk) in kecap manis to give the savory prawn crackers a delicious sweet taste.
Spicy flavors in Indonesian cuisine
Spicy flavors in Indonesian cuisine obviously come from massive use of chilies. Whether its fresh chilies, dried chilies, sambal chili paste or peppercorns, Indonesians do know how to spice up their food! Before Portuguese traders introduced chili peppers to Indonesia in the 16th century, Indonesians mainly used peppercorns and ginger to spice up their food. These spices were known to Indonesians because of trading with mainland Asian countries like India.
Indonesians quickly made chilies an integral part of their cuisine and nowadays the country is world famous for its sambal chili paste, which appear in many varieties. Apart from sambal, chilies are widely used in Indonesian spice pastes (bumbu), a key element of Indonesian cuisine.
Sour flavors in Indonesian cuisine
Sour flavors are also popular in Indonesian cuisine. In a whole range of acar dishes (pickled vegetables) sour is the main flavor, often combined with some palm sugar and chilies as counterbalance flavors. Sour flavors in Indonesian cuisine usually come from either tamarind, (kaffir) limes and (rice) vinegar. Tamarind is one of the most common trees in Indonesia and especially on the island of Java, hence the name 'asem jawa'. The tamarind tree produces pod-like fruits that contain a brown, edible pulp and is used in cuisines all over the world. Indonesian dishes like Rujak Manis, Rendang Daging and Sayur Asem all use tamarind as either its main ingredient or as a sour counterbalance.
Like in every cuisine around the world, sourness in Indonesian dishes also comes from citrus fruits. However, Indonesians prefer a different citrus fruit than the one we know. All over Asia people prefer the Kaffir lime tree for their citrus fruits. Indonesian cuisine uses the limes of the Kaffir lime tree to add sourness to their dishes, but they really love to use the leaves, which give a citrus fragrance and flavor to food. Even a thick coconut curry or soup can become fresh by adding Kaffir lime leaves!
Rice vinegar is the main ingredient of a variety of acar dishes. Acar varieties are usually made from vegetables such as cucumber, carrots, cabbage, shallot, and chilies, which are pickled in rice vinegar. Acar is usually served as a condiment or side dish next to heavy dishes such as a coconut curry. Like the pickles we know in the USA and Europe, the sour taste of acar is meant to freshen up a meal. Acar is also is a good companion to oily dishes because it neutralizes the fat.
Bitter flavors in Indonesian cuisine
Bitter is the least favorite flavor in Indonesian cuisine. Bitter in Indonesian cuisine usually comes from salam leaves (daun salam) or bitter melon. Indonesians do love their vegetables and one of them is the bitter melon. These gourds are very popular throughout Asia and in Indonesia the small version is commonly eaten raw, whereas the larger bitter melon is usually boiled and used in a variety of dishes as a bitter counterpart to other flavors.
Salam leaves, or Indonesian bay leaves, are traditionally used as food flavoring in South-East Asian cuisines and on the Indonesian islands of Bali, Java, and Sumatra. The leaf gives a slightly bitter taste to dishes and is used the same way Americans and Europeans use bay leaves in their dishes. Although salam leaves are commonly referred to as Indonesian bay leaves, they cannot be substituted by them.
Many dishes in Indonesian cuisine often demonstrate a distinct balance of these flavors. Even a simple dish, like Rujak Manis, made of (unripe) tropical fruits like pineapple, is combined with trassi for a savory, salty flavor, sweet soy sauce kecap manis for a sweet flavor, sambal for some spiciness, and tamarind for a bit of sour counterbalance. More challenging dishes, like Rendang Daging, incorporate all flavors.
Tasting mixtures and pastes, and adjusting ingredients until you taste the perfect flavor balance, can be challenging. In my Indonesian cooking workshops I guide my guests in this tasting process and let them find out what flavor needs to be added, after providing them with my tips & tricks of course.