A Taste of the Archipelago

77 comments
Asia, Indonesia
Balinese Nasi Campur

Balinese Nasi Campur

It is easy to find Japanese, Italian, French, Middle Eastern, and even Thai restaurants in Jakarta, the capital and economic powerhouse of Indonesia and also home to 10 million people. However sometimes I wonder why it is not the case for Indonesian restaurants elsewhere in the world as its culinary selection is relatively less-known to most people outside the country. Its widely varying cultures might be one of the reasons as it is almost impossible to point out a handful of dishes to best represent the country.

Earlier this year on several trips I managed to make time to sample some more local dishes from the places I went in Indonesia – mostly from Bali and the neighboring province of East Java. Like many other Indonesian dishes, some of the best-kept secrets that I tried looked rather unappealing to most eyes for their dark colors and uninspiring plating. But on the other hand a few others did look astoundingly beautiful, and most importantly tasted really good.

Nasi Campur is a hearty concoction of rice surrounded by various side dishes depending on the region. The one that I tried in Bali came with stir-fried tempe and peanuts, telur balado (boiled egg with chili sauce), sate lilit (grilled minced chicken on lemongrass), shredded chicken, fried tofu, and green vegetables. In other regions it is also called Nasi Rames which is widely available from fancy restaurants to streetside vendors.

Ayam Betutu is one of my favorite Balinese dishes. As a matter of fact, each region in Bali has its own distinct way of preparing the dish, from steaming to roasting. The one that I tried in Ubud was the steamed version where a whole chicken was stuffed with spices and vegetables to make it taste rich and flavorful. Pak Sanur, the restaurant owner told us that he only provides chicken due to its cheaper price compared to duck so that regular Balinese can afford it.

For a more adventurous taste and look, East Java’s Rawon is the one to look for. The blackish soup is usually served with bean sprouts, salted preserved duck egg, shrimp crackers and sambal. While many Indonesians love its rich and earthy flavor, some might not know that keluak – the seeds from which Rawon gets its dark color – is highly poisonous if not processed properly as it contains the deadly hydrogen cyanide. But fear not as all keluaks sold at markets are ready to use in cooking. In addition to that, shallot, garlic, ginger, candlenut, turmeric, red chili, beef stock and beef slices, lemongrass, galangal, bay leaves and kaffir lime leaves are also added during preparation.

No gastro-adventure in Indonesia would be complete without a dose of sambal – ground chili with various spices used as condiment – which varies from one place to another. One of the latest sambals that I tried for the first time was Sambal Matah, literally raw sambal. Chopped shallot, garlic, red chili, shrimp paste, kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass proved to be the ideal companion for the grilled fish that I had in Nusa Lembongan. Unlike most other sambals which emphasize on their strong flavor and unsparing kick of the chili, Sambal Matah is more on the light and fresh note.

Bizarre, intriguing, spicy, rich, strong, bold, and fresh. No matter how one describes Indonesian food, most find it very addictive. With more than 17,000 islands, the country sure has so many hidden culinary secrets to explore.

Ayam Betutu

Ayam Betutu

Kepiting Cak Gundul

Kepiting Cak Gundul with Black Pepper and Padang-style Sauce

Nasi ...

A Less-known East Javanese Dish

Rawon and the Side Dishes

Rawon and the Side Dishes

Pecel Kawi

Pecel Kawi

Grilled ... with Sambal Matah

Grilled Fish with Sambal Matah

Kwetiau (Char Kway Teow)

Kwetiau (Char Kway Teow)

....

Vegetable Curry

Ote-ote

Ote-Ote (Vegetable Fritter with Chicken or Pork)

Bromo Chili

Bromo Chili

Stir-Fried Bitter Melon

Stir-Fried Bitter Melon

An Upgraded Version of the Ubiquitous Instant Noodles

An Upgraded Version of the Ubiquitous Instant Noodles

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

77 thoughts on “A Taste of the Archipelago”

  1. Wow! The food looks really intriguing especially the Kepiting Cak Gundul with Black Pepper and Padang-style Sauce and the shell-like things. What are they?
    I’m going to Indonesia next summer so I look forward to trying some of these menus out. I only hope we can find them….

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    • Actually those are giant crabs, literally the biggest crab I’ve ever had in my life! Which part of the country will you explore, Victoria? I wish you an incredible journey in Indonesia next year!

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      • Wow! We will be going to Bali. I’ve been to Bali before but it was 14 years ago and my husband and son have never been to Asia at all so I’m looking forward to introducing them to the wonder and beauty of Indonesia.

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      • In order your husband and son not to be overwhelmed by the mass tourism, I suggest you to stay around Ubud or somewhere other than the southern part of the island. Wish you a very great time in Bali!

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    • Maaf sudah membuat lapar. 🙂 Thank you! Hope you’ll try them yourself when you’re back to Indonesia one day.

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  2. Bama, this is such a mouth-watering series of photos… thank goodness I saw it on a full stomach! I can’t wait to try the ayam betutu and sambal matah in Bali this December. No need for any meals at the hotel! 😛

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    • I can’t wait to take you to that ayam betutu vendor on a small alley in Ubud. And yes, we have the whole market to explore, why bother the meals at the hotel? 🙂

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  3. yummmmmmm…Indonesian foods not only delicious but also various. stir-fried bitter melon i love most…:D, thanks for sharing

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    • Makasih Ina! I started to like bitter melon only after my mom made a dish of it with small shrimps, julienned carrots, and red chili which when mixed together bring a nice sweet taste to the dish. Thanks for dropping by!

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    • I’m sorry and glad at the same time. 🙂 That Nasi Campur was indeed a nice one because it came with all those delicious side dishes.

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    • Haha, iya bener. Tapi namanya jalan-jalan sih harus nyobain sebanyak mungkin makanan setempat kan? Habis itu balik makan Indomie lagi (kalo saya sih, hehe)

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  4. Your food posts never fail to impress Bama! You could make a career out of this 🙂 One more vote for the Ayam Betutu and Sambal Matah.

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    • Thanks a lot Madhu! I’m flattered. 🙂 I guess I’ll eat much more before I make a career out of food photography (should I ever choose to). 🙂 I guess more and more people are getting interested in trying Sambal Matah. I’m glad I did give it a try because it was so good and perfect to complement the freshly grilled fish.

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  5. Wow, this just became my new favorite post of yours, Bama (and there are some great contenders in that category, too!). I love how you chosen to focus on some of the dishes local to your home as opposed to simply following international culinary trends. These dishes looks incredibly appetizing, and you have beautifully photographed them, too! This, again, gives me that much more reason to finally embark on my oft-wished-for trip to Indonesia!

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    • Thanks Andrew! We have seen far too many photos of the more well-known international dishes. So I think it won’t hurt to capture some local delicacies from the places I went in Indonesia. It took me several trips to try all those dishes, but I remember how much food you managed to try every time you travel. I’m really impressed! For now you have that Aromaku restaurant in Columbus, OH. But I wish you’ll find yourself exploring Indonesia sooner than you think! 🙂

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  6. Incredible Bama! I am totally starving now. Absolutely gorgeous photos with mouthwatering descriptions. I’m a big fan of Nasi Campur and Ayam Betutu, but so many of the other dishes are new to me. The last time I was in Ubud I took a great cooking class which involved shopping for all the ingredients, preparing all the dishes, grinding our own sambal (very similar to the one you described), and finally … feasting! I loved it! Thanks for the wonderful culinary tour. ~Terri

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    • Thanks Terri! I’m glad this post brings back some fond memories of your visit to Ubud. Actually this December I’m going back to Ubud and I won’t miss the chance to have another ayam betutu and nasi campur, along with other local dishes. I can imagine how fun it would be to take a cooking class which involves shopping all the ingredients at the local market. I assume you went to Ubud Market, didn’t you?

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      • Yes, we went to Ubud Market and got a great education on how to select the best chilies and vegetable for several dishes. I saw some unique vegetables I’d never seen before … or since. 🙂

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      • Aah, I’ve been to Ubud Market twice and enjoyed every single visit. I guess there’s no better place to go to understand how the locals live than a traditional market.

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  7. Bama, I just found your blog and am enjoying it, especially this post. I absolutely love Indonesian food and don’t think it gets enough credit or respect as a great global cuisine. If I could find some good Gado Gado here in the US I would be a happy man. Cheers – David

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    • Hi David! Thanks for dropping by! I couldn’t agree more with you that Indonesian food is one of Asia’s most underrated cuisines. What Indonesian dishes have you tried so far? And what’s your favorite? I hope you’ll find some Indonesian food there, and if you do I hope it doesn’t cost you that much. I’ve heard that in Canada nasi goreng could cost you more than C$10!

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      • Bama, I don’t remember the names of most of the Indonesian dishes I’ve tried except for gado gado (my favorite), nasi goreng, and mie goreng. But I’m vegetarian and I’ve always found that Indonesian food has great vegetarian options. Most of the Indonesian food I’ve eaten was when I lived in East Timor, on trips I’ve taken to Indonesia (Bali and Java), and when I lived in Taiwan (there is a strong Indonesian presence there, and that’s where I had the best gado gado I’ve ever tasted). I have yet to find good Indonesia food here in the US. Sometimes you will find an Asian restaurant with mixed cuisine and they will have one or two Indonesian dishes, and there is a Malaysian restaurant near where I live, but it’s just not the same. I think I just need to get back to Indonesia soon.

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      • Yes, you’re right David. There are a lot of options for vegetarians who want to sample local dishes here in Indonesia. Speaking of the places you mentioned, as a matter of fact I’m going to East Timor this December and I really enjoyed Taiwan when I went there in April. But I would have never thought that the best gado-gado could be found in Taiwan! I don’t know where you live in the US, but if you happen to be in NYC, give this restaurant a try: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/21/nyregion/upi-jaya-restaurant-in-queens-anchors-an-indonesian-community.html?_r=0

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  8. This is a fantastic post, Bama! I enjoy spicy food but not burning my mouth or down my throat type of spicy. I’m really curious as to how the preserved egg smelled and tasted? I would be totally down for more of the hearty dishes vs veggie dishes and all of your pictures are spectacular! I think I would start with the grilled fish plate, then Ubiquitous Instant Noodles
    and go from there. I enjoyed the post! 🙂

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    • Thanks Mike! What was the spiciest food that you’ve ever tried so far? The thing is if you go to touristy places in Indonesia and order any spicy food, you will likely get a much toned-down spicy dish. Go where the locals go to taste the real one. 🙂 That preserved egg actually taste a bit salty and creamy. Very much to my liking. But not all Indonesians like it. I’m glad you enjoyed this post, Mike!

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    • Oh yes I should! 🙂 In fact I’ve been planning to write a post dedicated to those traditional snacks.

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  9. Hi Bama, I should never read your blog before having breakfast! There’s nothing I can have for breakfast right now that can match my cravings for most dishes you have here. How I’d love to feast on that Balinese Nasis Campur right now, the sambal with grilled fish for lunch later and the bitter melon (one of my fave veggies) and veg curry for dinner. Another delicious post (but frustrating as well:(

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    • Hi Bama, I just looked up if there’s any Indonesian restaurant in NYC. There’s actually one not too far from my office! It called Bali Nusa Indah. I have to drag some of my colleagues for lunch there one day this week.

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    • Lol! 🙂 I’m sorry for torturing you again with another food post. But I’m glad that you found out about Bali Nusa Indah because a few days ago when I was looking up Indonesian restaurants in the US, that name came up frequently. I guess it must be a nice restaurant. A few days ago I had Nasi Campur for lunch and apparently you can also find a nice and authentic one here in Jakarta, should you ever make your way to this city. 🙂

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    • Lol. 🙂 That only means one thing: it’s time for you to hit the road again and try those dishes yourself. Thanks Antoinette!

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  10. Pingback: Gurih Pedas Tahu Tek Jalan Pattimura Perum PGRI Jombang | The Jombang Taste

  11. These pictures bring back such good memories. We lived in Indonesia in the 90s, and in 20 years, I still haven’t come across a restaurant that makes Indonesian food the way I remember it. Thanks for the beautiful photos.

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    • Hi Nancy,
      I’m glad this post brings back some good memories to you. Were you in Jakarta during the height of the Asian financial crisis?
      In which part of the world do you live now? Apparently there has been quite a few Indonesian restaurants opening up around the world. But Indonesian cuisine is definitely underrated compared to other dishes from the region.
      Thanks for sharing your story!

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      • Unfortunately Paris is not a city I’m quite familiar with as I only spent 3 days there. However starting next year Air France will reopen its Paris – Jakarta route. Maybe that’s a sign for you to come back to Indonesia and have nostalgic moments. 🙂

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    • Hi Jessica,
      That’s the thing about Indonesian cuisine. They tend to look rustic and something of an haute-cuisine is a far-cry. However it can be so addictive once you’ve tried. 🙂

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    • Ooops, sorry! Ternyata banyak yang kebetulan buka post ini pas lagi laper. 🙂 Buat saya paling dahsyat rawonnya karena biasanya saya gak terlalu nge-fans sama rawon, tapi yang saya coba itu enaknya poll!!!

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  12. Looks delicious. I have to say that there aren’t that many Indonesian restaurants in Vancouver and Toronto where I’ve lived. How would you characterize any differences between the cuisine of Bali vs. other Indonesian islands?

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    • Since there are more than 17,000 islands, Indonesian dishes vary widely from one region to another. But to give you a perspective on how Balinese dishes are like, let me compare it with Javanese food, which I’m more used to. First, you’ll find pork in many Balinese dishes as opposed to the absence of it in Javanese cuisine. Then there’s sate lilit — Balinese version of sate (skewered meat) — which is usually made from minced fish wrapped around a lemongrass. Also you have sambal matah — Balinese version of sambal (ground chili and spices) — which is basically made from chopped shallot, chili, garlic, lime leaves and shrimp paste.

      However if I compare Balinese dishes with Padang/West Sumatran dishes, the latter use coconut milk in almost everything. I hope you can come to Bali in the future to try all the dishes yourself. 🙂

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    • If not cooked well the bitter melon would taste… bitter. 🙂 Cooking it with shrimps would help reduce the bitterness. Your food photos from Costa Rica look so refreshing! When I get a chance to visit Central America I will make sure not to miss Costa Rica.

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  13. Where’s Rendang? the world’s best food by CNN Travel
    based on the list above, my favorite is noodle 🙂
    btw i love all of those photos, nice shots!

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    • Hi Alvi,
      The dishes listed here were the ones that I tried during most of my travels in 2012. I didn’t have rendang while I was on the road, but I surely had it occasionally when I was in Jakarta, not traveling. 🙂
      Thanks Alvi!

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    • Thank you again for your kind words! I might need dozens of posts to share the images of Indonesian food due to its wide variety from one region to another. 🙂

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    • Indonesian dishes are some of the best the country has to offer, for sure. I myself can’t live without sambal. 🙂

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