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Indonesia - Food and Drink
The main staple is rice (nasi), served up in many forms including:
- bubur nasi, rice porridge with toppings, popular at breakfast
- lontong, rice packed tightly into bamboo containers
- nasi goreng, the ubiquitous fried rice
- nasi kuning, yellow spiced rice, originally a festive ceremonial dish
- nasi padang, white steamed rice served with numerous curries and other toppings, originally from Padang but assimilated throughout the country with lots of variations and adjustments to taste
- nasi timbel, white steamed rice wrapped in a banana leaf (looks pretty but doesn't add any flavor)
- nasi uduk, slightly sweet rice cooked with coconut milk, eaten with omelette and fried chicken; popular at breakfast
- bakmi, thin egg noodles usually served boiled with a topping of your choice (chicken, mushroom, etc)
- kuetiaw, flat rice noodles most commonly fried up with soy sauce
Soups (soto) and watery curries are also common:
- bakso/baso ("BAH-so"), meatballs and noodles in chicken broth
- rawon, spicy beef soup
- sayur asam vegetables in a sour soup of tamarind
- sayur lodeh, vegetables in a soup of coconut milk and fish
- soto ayam, chicken soup Indonesian style with chicken shreds, vermicelli, and chicken broth and various local ingredients
Popular main dishes include:
- ayam bakar, grilled chicken
- cap cay, Chinese-style stir-fried vegetables
- gado-gado, boiled vegetables with peanut sauce
- gudeg, jackfruit curry from Yogyakarta
- ikan bakar, grilled fish
- karedok, similar to gado-gado, but the vegetables are finely chopped and mostly raw
- perkedel, deep-fried patties of potato and meat or vegetables (adopted from the Dutch frijkadel)
- sate (satay), grilled chicken and lamb
Chillies (cabe or lombok) are made into a vast variety of sauces and dips known as sambal. The simplest and perhaps most common is sambal ulek, which is just chillies and salt with perhaps a dash of lime pounded together. There are many other kinds of sambal like sambal pecel (with peanut), sambal terasi (with shrimp paste), sambal tumpeng, etc. Many of these can be very spicy indeed, so be careful if you're asked whether you would like your dish pedas (spicy)!
Crackers known as kerupuk (or keropok, it's the same word spelled differently) accompany almost every meal and are a traditional snack too. They can be made from almost any grain, fruit, vegetable or seed imaginable, including many never seen outside Indonesia, but perhaps the most common is the light pink keropok udang, made with dried shrimp.
If you are daring enough to try the spiciest and even outlandish local foods, look for Batak eateries (Lapo) and Manadonese eateries. These two ethnicities have a different way of cooking than the standard Javanese and Padang style. Very hot and spicy, with unusual ingredients like wild boar, pork cooked in blood, dog and bat meat, all of which are "haram" (not halal) for Muslims. Since they usually cook with pork fat, tamed Muslim-friendly versions are availables in malls and food courts, but it's worth it to seek out the real thing.
While Indonesians happily eat anything that walks, crawls, flies or swims, vegetarians will be happy to know that tofu (tahu) and its chunkier, indigenous cousin tempeh are also an essential part of the diet. Vegetarianism as such is, however, poorly understood and avoiding fish and shrimp-based condiments is a challenge.
For Muslims travellers, Indonesia can be considered as safe as most of the times they would only serve "halal" food, so most of the eateries won't serve you pig, dog, frog, and other "haram" ingredients. But to be sure, you can look for "halal" sign if you're eating in restaurants, or just simply ask. Do this especially when you are eating in restaurant of Batak, Manadonese (Minahasan), Balinese, and Chinese cuisine. Most of big chain family restaurants such as McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut and others have halal certification.
Dessert in the Western sense is not common in Indonesia, but there are plenty of snacks to tickle your sweet tooth. Kue covers a vast array of traditional cakes and pastries, all colorful, sweet, and usually a little bland, with coconut, rice flour and sugar being the main ingredients. Es teler, ice mixed with fruits and topped with coconut cream or condensed milk, comes in infinite variations and is a popular choice on a hot day.
Perhaps the cheapest, tastiest and healthiest option, though, is to buy some fresh fruit, which is available throughout the year, although individual fruits do have seasons. Popular options include mango (mangga), papaya (papaya), banana (pisang), starfruit (belimbing) and guava (jambu), but more exotic options you're unlikely to see outside Indonesia include the scaly-skinned crisp snakefruit (salak) and the alien-looking local passionfruit (markisa). Durian (from Indonesian word "duri"=spike or thorn) is an exotic, light green, spiny, melon-like fruit with strong odor. Durian is prohibited in most hotels and taxis.
Eating by hand
In Indonesia eating with your hand (instead of utensils like forks and spoons) is very common. The basic idea is to use four fingers to pack a little ball of rice, which can then be dipped into sauces before you pop it in your mouth by pushing it with your thumb. There's one basic rule of etiquette to observe: Use only your right hand, as the left hand is used to clean yourself in the bathroom. Don't stick either hand into communal serving dishes: instead, use the left hand to serve yourself with utensils and then dig in. Needless to say, it's wise to wash your hands well before and after eating.
Eating by hand is frowned on in some "classier" places. If you are provided with cutlery and nobody else around you seems to be doing it, then take the hint.
Eating on the cheap in Indonesia is cheap indeed, and a complete streetside meal can be had for under US$1 (Rp 10,000). However, the level of hygiene may not be up to Western standards, so you may wish to steer clear for the first few days and patronize only visibly popular establishments.
The fastest way to grab a bite is to visit a kaki lima, literally "five feet". Depending on who you ask, they're named either after the mobile stalls' three wheels plus the owner's two feet, or the "five-foot way" sidewalks mandated during British rule. These can be found by the side of the road in any Indonesian city, town or village, usually offering up simple fare like fried rice, noodles and porridge. At night a kaki lima can turn into a lesehan simply by providing some bamboo mats for customers to sit on and chat.
A step up from the kaki lima is the warung (or the old spelling waroeng), a slightly less mobile stall offering much the same food, but perhaps a few plastic stools and a tarp for shelter.
Rather more comfortable is the rumah makan or eating house, a simple restaurant more often than not specializing in a type of food or style of cuisine. Nasi Padang restaurants, offering rice and an array of curries and other toppings to go along with it, are particularly popular and easily identified by their soaring Minangkabau roofs. Ordering at these is particularly easy: just sit down, and your table will promptly fill up with countless small plates of dishes. Eat what you like and pay for what you consumed.
Another easy mid-range option in larger cities is to look out for food courts and Indonesian restaurants in shopping malls, which combine air-con with hygienic if rather predictable food.
Major local chains include EsTeler 77, best known for its iced fruit desserts (es teler) but also selling bakso (meatball), nasi goreng (fried rice) and other Indonesian staples, and Hoka Hoka Bento, for localized Japanese fare. Bakmi Gajah Mada (GM) is a famous Chinese noodle restaurant chain.
KFC, Texas Fried Chicken, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Wendy's, A&W, Krispy Kreme, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Haagen Dazs (ice cream), JolliBee hamburger (from Philippines) and the usual suspects plus copies thereof are also abundant in large cities, but better out once you go east of Lombok.
A restoran indicates more of a Western-style eating experience, with air-con, table cloths, table service and prices to match. Especially in Jakarta and Bali, it's possible to find very good restaurants offering authentic fare from around the world, but you'll be lucky to escape for under Rp 100,000 a head. Famous local restaurant chains are Gandy Steakhouse and Hanamasa Japanese restaurant.
Tap water is generally not potable in Indonesia, but any water served to you in restaurants will be purified and/or boiled (air minum or air putih). Bottled water, usually known as aqua after the best-known brand, is cheap and available everywhere, but do check that the seal is intact. Most hotels provide free drinking water.
Do not use tap water for brushing your teeth. Also beware of dirty ice which may not have been prepared or transported in hygienic conditions.
Fruit juices — jus for plain juice or es if served with ice — are popular with Indonesians and visitors alike, although the hygiene of the water used to make them can be dubious. In addition to the usual suspects, try jus alpokat, a surprisingly tasty drink made from avocadoes, often with some chocolate syrup poured in!
Coffee and tea
Indonesians drink both coffee (kopi) and tea (teh), at least as long as they have had vast quantities of sugar added in. An authentic cup of Java, known as kopi tubruk, is strong and sweet, but let the grounds settle to the bottom of the cup before you drink it. Last and least, no travel guide would be complete without mentioning the infamous kopi luwak, coffee made from beans which have been eaten, partially digested and excreted by the palm civet (luwak), but even in Indonesia this is an exotic delicacy costing upwards of Rp.200,000 (US$20) for a small pot of brew.
Tea (teh) is also quite popular, and the Coke-like glass bottles of the Tehbotol brand of sweet bottled tea are ubiquitous.
The label jamu covers a vast range of local medicinal drinks for various diseases. Jamu are available in ready-to-drink form as well as in powder satchets or capsules. Most of them are bitter and drunk for the supposed effect, not the taste. Famous brands of jamu include Iboe, Sido Muncul, Jago, and Meneer; avoid buying jamu from the street as the water quality is dubious. Some well-known jamu include:
- galian singset — weight reduction
- beras kencur (from rice, sand ginger and brown sugar) — cough, fatigue
- temulawak (from curcuma) — for liver disease
- gula asem (from tamarind and brown sugar) — rich in vitamin C
- kunyit asam (from tamarind, turmeric) — for skin care, canker sores
- Wedang Serbat - made from star anise, cardamon, tamarind, ginger, and sugar. Wedang means "hot water".
- Ronde - made from ginger, powdered glutinous rice, peanut, salt, sugar, food coloring additives.
- Wedang Sekoteng - made from ginger, green pea, peanut, pomegranate, milk, sugar, salt and mixed with ronde (see above).
- Bajigur - made from coffee, salt, brown sugar, cocount milk, sugar palm fruit, vanillin.
- Bandrek - made from brown sugar, ginger, pandanus leaf, coconut meat, clove bud, salt, cinnamon, coffee.
- Cinna-Ale - made from cinnamon, ginger, tamarind, sand ginger and 13 other spices.
- Cendol/Dawet - made from rice flour, sago palm flour, pandanus leaf, salt, food coloring additives.
- Talua Tea/Teh Telur (West Sumatera) - made from tea powder, raw egg, sugar and limau nipis.
- Lidah Buaya Ice (West Kalimantan) - made from aloe vera, french basil, javanese black jelly, coconut milk, palm sugar, pandanus leaf, sugar.
Islam is the religion of the majority of Indonesians, but alcohol is widely available in most areas, especially in upscale restaurants and bars. Public displays of drunkenness, however, are strongly frowned upon and in the larger cities are likely to make you a victim of crime or get you arrested by police. Do not drive if you are drunk. The legal drinking age is 18.
Indonesia's most popular tipple is Bintang beer (bir), a standard-issue lager available more or less everywhere, although the locals like theirs lukewarm. Other popular beers include Bali Hai  and Anker. A can costs upward of Rp 5,000 in a supermarket and as much as Rp 50,000 in a fancy bar.
Wine is expensive and only available in expensive restaurants and bars in large hotels. Almost all of it is imported, but there are a few local vintners of varying quality on Bali.
Various traditional alcoholic drinks are also available:
- Tuak — sugar palm wine (15% alcohol)
- Arak — the distilled version of tuak, up to 40%
- Brem Balinese style sweet glutinous rice wine
Exercise some caution in choosing what and where to buy — homemade moonshine may contain all sorts of nasty impurities.
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