Indonesia is a unique mix of religious history, heavy Chinese immigration, and historical trade routes with European and Middle Eastern cultures. Does it sound like we’re about to head into an essay on history? Well, we are and we aren’t. I’m here to tell you about the top 10 Indonesian street foods! Many of which claim special relations to the identity and history of Indonesia.
This dish originated from Yemen, traveling through India and out to Southeast Asia. You may find it spelt as Murtabak as well and is related to the Arabic word “Mutabbaq” which is the word for “folded”. This dish begins its journey as a large round piece of dough that is quickly spun and stretched out into a thin sheet. Ordering Martabak in Indonesia can mean you get both dinner and a show, since watching the rapid transformation is sometimes done with flair that would put Italian pizza parlors to shame. When the dough is translucent and large, the vendor will spread the ingredients of your choice on top of the fine layer. Indonesia generally includes two different distinctions of Martabak: Savory or Sweet.
Savory choices generally include a form of meat, usually duck or chicken, along with scrambled egg mixture, scallions, and possibly other small chopped veggies. We highly recommend the duck version! Otherwise known as Martabak Bebek. The fatty duck meat makes for a great fried dish. Sweet mixtures or Martabak Manis usually play host to a mixture of cheese (keju), chocolate sprinkles, condensed milk, peanuts, or other sweet ingredients. It is sure to please any sweet tooth.
The dough is then packed and folded over the ingredients into a tight square. This is lowered into a huge wok of hot oil. Many of the vendors splash the hot oil from the side onto the top, make a flip, then cut it all up for you into small serving size squares. It’s then wrapped up into a box, sometimes given a small bag of pickled peppers to go with the meal for savory orders and you’re ready to take your food home! Watch the process in action in this short video capturing the cuisine:
2. Nasi Goreng
Rice or nasi, as it is known locally, is a staple of the Indonesian diet. I may even go so far as to say it is beyond a staple, but really a meal unto itself. Everything else is just a side dish. If you need a quick fix for food look no further than a roundup of Nasi Goreng or fried rice. It’s a much spicier and tangy counterpart to the stereotypical Chinese fried rice served in fast food restaurants across America. This mix is made with a nice quick fry using oil, sweet soy sauce, garlic, shallot, egg, and perhaps a bit of meat like sausage, shrimp or chicken. Of course, the food is almost always Halal so don’t worry about accidentally ordering something with pork unless you’re in Bali.
This dish has been hailed as Indonesia’s staple food and the mix and matched sidekick ingredients will change depending on the area of Indonesia you’re experiencing. Of course, the adoption of this meal comes from the Chinese, noted for the use of a large frying wok in the course of the recipe. This recipe also makes great use of leftover rice! However don’t worry, food vendors who make their living selling this iconic meal are using the fresh stuff.
3. Ayam Goreng
I’m going to let you in on a little weird secret. KFC is a superstar in Indonesia. A trip to KFC is right up there with going out to a movie. It’s a somewhat special, a little more expensive than normal kind of meal. It’s not just the food too, it’s an experience. So much of Indonesian food is fried, most likely due to its history as an incredibly hot country since it is so close to the equator. Since refrigeration has only been a part of the world for a short period of time, it’s no surprise that fried foods combined with large thick amounts of spices would equate to tonnes of fried goods. It’s a great method for ensuring that food can be edible without having to stay fresh over a period of time.
So you’ll notice there are TONS of places to buy fried chicken or Ayam Goreng! The national love for KFC also comes at the price of plenty of rip off brands as well. California Fried Chicken, which has the picture of a tent caravan. Any small town or city may use that name followed by Fried Chicken. There is also Javanese Fried Chicken, another famous brand in the Yogyakarta area. Different breadings, spice mixes, and fried oils can make this popular item able to reinvent itself across the islands. A popular coloring of an Ayam Goreng street vendor will be yellow and red pinstripes, almost like a circus. Needless to say, it will be delicious and beloved whether you’re getting it from an international food chain or the guy right around the corner.
A small warning about eating fried food from stands! Some vendors add plastic straws to their oil batter. Why? It tends to make the chicken remain crispier for longer periods of time. There is no real way to detect this but it is suggested that you buy this staple from a reputable location or one that turns over product very quickly.
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Have you ever indulged in shish kebab? Have you torn through the roasted onions and peppers only waiting for the next bite of delicious meat? If so, then you’re ready for Satay. Another spelling variation includes Sate. Skewers of delicious, cubed meat which are hand-roasted over a small, often coal flame.
If you’re cruising on the back of your hired motorcycle (called locally an ojek) and see a small waft of smoke and flame on the side of the road, you’re most likely about to get a smell of delicious roasting meat. Vendors typically fan the flames of their roasting food in order to waft the smell into the street and attract customers. The meat used in Indonesia is traditionally beef. You’ll find its counterpart in Thailand as well and is smothered in peanut sauce. You can get it on a plate with a helpful portion of rice, and maybe a few sliced raw cucumbers or tomatoes. Or order it to go and get it wrapped up in waxed butcher paper. You might want to get some from a few different vendors just to see how it goes. Peanut sauce can range from the sweet and tangy to the salty and robust. Vendors create their own desired mix of peanut sauce, soy sauce, sugar, or peanut texture to stand apart from one another. Feeling a little adventurous? Look out for rabbit, chicken, lamb, goat, or even turtle versions! Perhaps even some organ, skin, or pieces of fat which will burst with flavor once you bite, and melt in your mouth. Yum!
5. Aneka Gorengan
Tempe, meatballs, mushrooms, banana, jackfruit, cassava, and more! These stands are found just about everywhere and piled high with small fried food items in small push carts. Small items covered in batter and fried. Pieces generally cost anywhere from a mere 500 rupiah (barely .05 USD) to 100 (.10 USD).Dig up some of the loose change you’ve made in between your travels, and grab a couple of these fried snacks. Some carts distinguish themselves between savory fried foods that stick to vegetables, tempe and tofu. Sometimes they come in more doughy thick forms like bala-bala. Other iterations will have the same ingredients but bigger, thinner, crunchier textures. Other sweet stands will stick with bananas, cheese, jackfruit, and chocolate fried foods. One thing you can count on, however, is they will all play host to traditional tapioca starch and egg batter.
6. Goreng Tahu
This is fried tofu. You can usually catch these at any restaurant, and a single piece is often served with main entrees in the form of a cube. But these tofu pieces also live another life, on the back of trucks! Many even travel to different sites throughout the day to catch waves of high-end traffic like outside major grocery stores, neighborhood entrances, or schools when the day is over. What sets these fried tofu (tahu) stands out from the competition is their mobility and their often musical accompaniment. You can tell a tahu truck is nearby because you’ll hear their catchy chant often reminding nearby customers that they’re in the area.Typically sold at 500 rupiah (less than .05 USD) a piece, they’re generally sold in batches of 5. Most vendors will then stick a wooden skewer into their batch, plop them into a plastic bag, and ask you what kind of seasoning you’d like. This is often the same kind of powdered seasoning we find on popcorn. The most common flavors are spicy pepper, cheese (keju), and pepper.
7. Batagor Ikan
Fish meat wrapped in a square of dough, fried and served with peanut sauce and sweet soy sauce. Sounds delicious? Because it is. This dish is largely sold in West Java and is said to have originated from Bandung. As such it is largely considered a Sundanese dish, which is one of the major ethnic clans of West Java. It is the fried counterpart to the Chinese Siomay dish, which is made of the same ingredients but steamed instead of fried.
8. Jagung Bakar
A simple treat, but considered a rather festive or touristy type of food. Roasted corn on the cob (Jagung Bakar) is a complete corn cob, roasted over a small fire in the same fashion as Satay. This is not often sold on the side of the road, but you can often find it being sold near tourist attractions like national parks, landmarks, and sold more frequently during festivals or celebrations. The finished roasted product is often given a nice glaze of margarine and salt. There are more upscale places that may leave their corn marinating in butter, honey, or coconut milk before roasting. But keep in mind butter is quite expensive in Indonesia so don’t expect to find it more often than not.
If Nasi Goreng is the national staple food, then Bakso is its younger sibling. Bakso is a delicious warm bowl of meatball soup. Most of the soup is served with both egg noodle and vermicelli noodles, scallions, and a sprinkle of fried onions as the base. Bakso comes in all sorts of varieties, fillings, and textures. The meatballs are almost always made with beef meat, egg, and a mix of tapioca flour. The mixtures are then boiled. Sometimes you might find small quail eggs, cheese, or other types of meat mixtures pressed into the middle of the Bakso.
The soup base itself also can be host to many extra ingredients like egg, beansprouts, or other veggies like bak choy. Many Bakso locations will make available a series of condiments including sambal (chilli sauce), vinegar, and sweet soy sauce (kecap manis).
10. Durian ice cream
Everyone has heard of the tasty, yet stinky fruit called Durian. It’s made into a variety of candies, eaten raw, and even baked in Dunkin Donuts. But you’ll often see a small ice cream pushcart selling single servings to the masses. The durian ice cream is a welcome way to beat the heat in between the tropical heat of Indonesia.
Foodie of the streets
Now that you’re armed with our list, you can make sure you’ll hit up the best of Indonesia’s street food. Not only will you be able to navigate meals between the plentiful temples, landscapes, and beaches, but your stomach will thank you for it! Plenty of options between the savory, sweet, and downright delicious. You’ll find plenty of vendors sprinkled around both tourist and residential areas. There are tonnes of local twists or unique offerings all throughout Indonesia. Not surprising considering Indonesia comprises of over 237 people, and over 300 ethnic groups! We’ve only scratched the surface here and hope you get a chance to taste all these and more.
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