Updated: Feb 26, 2020
Every Indonesian meal starts with rice after which small amounts of curries, meats and vegetables are added. Other condiments like sambals and pickles (acar) are added as well - to provide an extra bit of heat or sourness as counterbalance.
If you're familiar with cooking Indian or Thai food, most ingredients will be familiar to you. Either whole or ground cinnamon, coriander, cumin, laos and turmeric are some of the most-used spices. Herbs like ginger, lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaves and galangal are widely used as well. Clove and nutmeg, native to Indonesia’s Spice Islands (Banda archipelago and Maluku islands) are used regularly too. These spices are usually combined with onions or shallots and garlic, and blended into a spice paste called 'bumbu', the absolute foundation of Indonesian cuisine. Herbs like lemongrass stalks, Kaffir lime, salam and pandan leaves are tossed in while cooking and removed prior to serving.
Depending on where you live, most of these ingredients can be found at Asian supermarkets and specialty stores. If not, buying them online is the way to go!
Anise, fennel seeds and star anise (adas manis, biji adas, adas bintang)
Anise, fennel seeds and star anise are different spices but all with a slightly sweet taste and a very distinctive aroma. These spices are mainly used in Sumatran cuisine (in several Rendang dishes for example) due to influences from India and mainland Asian cuisines.
Candlenuts are round cream-coloured nuts with a very high oil content and mainly used for thickening sauces and curries. As a substitute you can use macadamia nuts or raw cashews. Kemiri's are toxic when eaten raw so make sure you cook them first (in a fried sambal or bumbu curry paste for example).
Cinnamon (kayu manis)
Did you know that Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of cinnamon? First cultivated in the Western part of Sumatra it is being used a lot in Indonesian cuisine on the island of Sumatra.
The clove is one of the original Indonesian spices known to the world because of Dutch trading from the Indonesian Spice Islands (Banda, Maluku). The dried flowers of the clove plant are mostly used and certainly not in all Indonesian regions. Cloves are mainly used in soups and curries in Sumatra, where the Padang region is most famous for its use.
In contrast to Indian, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves and stems are rarely used in Indonesian cuisine. When coriander is mentioned in Indonesian recipes it usually means using the seeds, either the whole seeds or the ground ones. A wide variety of Indonesian dishes uses coriander as one of its base ingredients and I use ground and whole coriander seeds a lot in my Indonesian cooking workshops.
Cumin (jintan or djintan)
Today, cumin is mostly cultivated in China and India, but together with coriander and pepper, this small beige elongated seed is being used in more refined Indonesian dishes, such as beef Rendang.
Galangal or galanga is a member of the ginger family and also looks alike. Galangal has a distinctive fragrance and flavor and is commonly experienced as fresher and less spicy than ginger. The root of the galangal can be used in pieces (peel first!) in curries and soups but also as root or in ground form in bumbu's (spice pastes). When using the root, look for the more tender young galangal that is pinkish in color.
Ginger (jahe or djahe)
Ginger is from the same family as galangal, turmeric and kardamom, and together with chillies and shallots it is one of the most widely used ingredients in Indonesian cuisine. After peeling and slicing the root it can be used in a variety of Indonesian dishes. The ground form is typically referred to as jahe or djahe. In my Indonesian cooking workshops, I grate the ginger - to remove the fibrous parts - and use it in bumbu's.
Kaffir lime leaves (daun djeruk perut)
Fresh Kaffir lime leaves and fresh lemongrass stalks are usually combined in many Indonesian recipes for their aromatic citrusy fragrance. Both are among my favorite ingredients of Indonesian cuisine because of their clean, fresh taste. Even a thick coconut curry or soup can become fresh by adding Kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass. Shredded Kaffir lime leaves (remove veins first!) are also often added to create a bumbu curry paste along with other herbs such as lemongrass, shallots and garlic.
Lemongrass is another favorite of mine and unlike other Asian cuisines which use finely chopped lemongrass, Indonesian cuisine uses lemongrass in whole - tied into a knot or buised and added as a length - then simmered to infuse its delicious flavor. Lemongrass can be found in lots of Indonesian dishes, such as Soto Ayam (chicken soup), Ayam Rica Rica (chicken curry) and Ikan Bali (mackerel). Once the dish is cooked, lemongrass stalks are always discarded. Did you know that lemongrass stalks can be used as substitues for skewers? The traditional Balinese satay dish Sate Lilit consists of spiced minced chicken meat wrapped around lemongrass stalks.
Nutmeg comes from a dark-leaved tree cultivated for two spices derived from its fruit: nutmeg, from its seed, and mace, from the seed covering. Indonesian cuisine uses both spices but nutmeg is the most common. Nutmeg is an expensive spice and used to add a spicy and distinctive flavor to bumbu's. Nutmeg is mostly produced at the Moluccan 'Spice Islands' and was once one of the most expensive and desired spices in Europe.
Palm sugar (gula jawa or djawa)
Indonesian palm sugar can be bought in solid blocks or in granulated form. It is made from the juice of the arenga palm (and sometimes coconut palm), and tastes a bit like molasses. It is a perfect sugar to balance flavor in savory dishes. Before use, make sure you shave or grate pieces off the block. If you can't find palm sugar, granulated coconut sugar or dark brown sugar make good substitutes.
Pandan leaves (daun pandan)
Pandanus is a tropical plant first described by people from the Moluccan Spice Islands. Pandan leaves are highly valued for both their fragrance and bright green color. In Indonesia, pandan is seen as their vanilla, because it is used in almost every dessert. When used in Indonesian dishes a wonderful scent will fill your kitchen. In my Indonesian cooking workshops I always use it in rice dishes, soups and chicken dishes like Ayam Rica Rica.
Salam leaves (daun salam)
Salam leaves, or Indonesian bay leaf, are traditionally used as food flavouring in South-East Asian cuisines and in Indonesia it is mostly used in Balinese, Javanese and Sumatran cuisine. The leaf gives a slightly a 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 seen as similar to them. You can find lots of recipes stating that salam leaves can be replaced with regular bay leaves but this isn't the case. If you can't find them, omit, but don't replace with regular bay leaves.
Shrimp paste (trassi or terasi)
Trassi or terasi shrimp paste is a fermented condiment commonly used in Southeast Asian cuisines. Every cuisine has its own kind of shrimp paste but primarily it is made from finely crushed shrimp or krill mixed with salt, thereafter fermenting it for several weeks. Trassi is an essential ingredient in many Indonesian curries, soups as well as sambals and adds a salty, savory and umami taste to those dishes. Raw Indonesian shrimp paste is sold in solid blocks and in a cooked, granulated form, which is more convenient to use. There are a lot of different forms of shrimp paste available, typically every cuisine has its own. The regular Indonesian shrimp paste has an intense odor that is perceived by many people as nasty. Because of that I prefer Surinam trassi from Faja Lobi in my Indonesian cooking workshops.
Sweet soy sauce (kecap manis)
Soy sauce was introduced by the Chinese, but Indonesian people quickly made their own delicious sweet version, kecap manis. This sweet version of soy sauce contains the usual soybeans, wheat and salt but Indonesians included molasses and generous amounts of palm sugar. Therefore kecap manis is much thicker and sweeter than regular soy sauce - which is called kecap asin. Kecap manis is used in several Indonesian dishes and condiments, such as Ayam Kecap or Babi Kecap (chicken or pork cooked in sweet soy sauce) and of course Sambal Kecap. Indonesian people tend to dip their prawn crackers (krupuk or kerupuk) in kecap manis too which gives the savory prawn crackers a delicious sweet taste. The Bango brand is commonly experienced as the most tasteful kecap manis, although it is more expensive than other brands.
Tamarind (asam jawa)
The tamarind tree originates from Africa but is nowadays one of the most common trees in Indonesia and especially on the island of Java, hence the name 'asam jawa'. The tamarind tree produces pod-like fruits that contains a brown, edible pulp used in cuisines all over the world. In fresh or processed form tamarind adds an acidic or sour flavor to many Indonesian dishes. Tamarind is usually added to curries, soups and sambals but also to traditional Indonesian dishes like Rujak Manis. Rujak manis is a dish made of (unripe) tropical fruits like pineapple, combined with trassi for a savory, salty flavor, sweet soy sauce kecap manis for a sweet flavor, sambal for some heat, and of course tamarind for a bit of sour counterbalance.
Turmeric is part of the ginger family of edible roots and is native to India and Southeast Asia. Turmeric gives Gulai (curry sauce) its distinctive yellow color and its been widely used in all sorts of traditional Indonesian dishes like Rendang, Soto Ayam and Nasi Kuning. Turmeric root can be used in soups but also in curry pastes as well as in ground form. This spice stains very easy so watch out for your clothes!
If you are not accustomed to Asian or Indonesian cooking these ingredients may seem exotic and hard to find. Their specific use and quantities can be even more challenging. Rest assured, in my Indonesian cooking workshops I will teach you all about which ingredients and what quantities should be used in specific dishes. Looking forward to meeting you! David - Amsterdam Cooking Workshops