The Top Food Experiences in Indonesia

When it comes to food, Indonesia is a country of extremes. Whether you’re choking down smoked sago with hunter-gatherer nomads or enjoying fine dining, food in Indonesia is never dull. World Nomad Theodora dives in.

Photo © iStock.com/Nikada

Explore Fine Beans and Coffee Plantations

Java is one of the world’s top coffee producers, with growers in Bali, Sumatra, Papua and beyond, creating impressive single-estate brews.

Whether in Bali or Java, a coffee plantation tour is a spectacular way to pass the morning. While on the tour, you'll typically see the coffee "cherries" on the plant, watch the different stages of processing (from soaking away the skin and pulp, to sun-drying and roasting), and then taste the finished product.

Note: please don’t support the kopi luwak (or civet coffee) trade. Traditionally, kopi luwak was produced by wild palm civets (small mammals), which chose the finest and ripest cherries (or coffee fruit) as part of their mixed diet, then pooped out the pits or beans to produce a mellow, balanced coffee flavour. Today, civets – intelligent, sensitive animals that love to roam – are caged and fed only coffee beans. It’s cruel and it makes (literally) crap coffee.

Coffee farmer in Indonesia. Photo Credit: iStock.com/musicphone1

Try Cooking Classes or Foraging for Food

As you’d expect of an archipelago with around 18,000 islands and 700 languages, Indonesian food is highly regional, and cooking classes are a great way to discover the flavors.

In remote areas, ask the owner of your guesthouse (or your guide) for their recommendation. I learned to cook tangy, spicy Minahasa food in bamboo – a highlight of my trip to Sulawesi. Try foraging for a rice-field salad in the terraces around Payangan, outside Ubud. The thrill of discovery, as your guide points out edibles hidden in the jungle, never gets old.

Foodies will love Bali. Street food chef Will Meyrick offers cooking classes that start with a market tour, plus a memorable street food and culture tour of Bali’s less-visited capital, Denpasar. At Bali Asli, Penelope Williams works with local fishermen, farmers and foragers on immersive, all-day culinary experiences.

Ubud Village Plate can connect travelers with local families for cooking classes, which are then shared together. All the families in the program have different skills and expertise to share, and each village has its own unique heritage.

Embrace Street Food

From the bizarre (to most western travelers, at least) foods on offer at Tomohon Market – rat on a stick, anyone? – to the succulent flavor of babi guling (roast sucking pig), fresh from the spit, Indonesia tempts the adventurous with myriad flavors.

At a typical streetside warung (family restaurant) you can eat for a dollar, feast for two dollars, and make new friends for free. You will learn to love chili – sambal hijau (green sambal) is a good place to start – IndoMie noodles, the breakfast of champions, and sate, which comes in almost infinite variations across the islands.

A street food vendor in Jakarta. Photo credit: iStock.com/zodebala

Savor Indonesia's Many Flavors

One type of food you’ll find everywhere is Padang food, which originates in Sumatra but has Arabic and Indian influences. This translates into rich curries – beef rendang, the smooth curry with intense caramelized coconut flavors, is a Padang signature – served with oodles of sambal and rice.

Java, which has a larger population than Japan, has a range of distinct cuisines. In Yogyakarta, look out for gudeg, a mild, sweet coconut-jackfruit curry; rawon, a thick black beef soup with intense umami flavors from the kluwak nut, is a Surabaya speciality; and Madura sate, which is famous for its tasty flavor beans and peanut sauce.

Further afield, Maluku has some excellent fish dishes, Makassar in South Sulawesi is a culinary destination for soups and seafoods, while Hindu Bali’s many ceremonies fuel a rich source of dishes that focus on pork. Om nom nom nom!

Want to know more about Indonesia? Listen to the World Nomads podcast. With around 17,000 islands to choose from, where are the must visits, and if you have your surfboard, best surf breaks? Hear the tale of a man chased by headhunters, and tips for traveling the world solo.

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