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Indonesian foods we can’t live without

(CNN) — At a poll CNN did a few years ago, our readers voted rendang the most delicious food in the world. Now it’s high time to give culinary credentials to that islands-sprawling nation of Indonesia. Its food deserves some time in the limelight.
Here we run through a mouth-watering array of broth-soaked noodles, fiery curries, banana-wrapped fish and vegetable salads with sweet peanut dressing.
Here are 40 dishes we just can’t live without.

1. Sambal

While technically more of a condiment, the chili-based sauce known as sambal is a staple at all Indonesian tables.
Dishes aren’t complete unless they’ve a hearty dollop of the stuff, a combination of chilies, sharp fermented shrimp paste, tangy lime juice, sugar and salt all pounded up with mortar and pestle. So beloved is sambal, some restaurants have made it their main attraction, with options that include young mango, mushroom and durian.
Pedas Abis, Waroeng Spesial Sambal, Jl. RM. Said No.39, Solo, Surakarta

2. Satay

These tasty meat skewers cook up over coals so hot they need fans to waft the smoke away. Whether it’s chicken, goat, mutton or rabbit, the scrappy morsels get marinated in turmeric, barbecued and then bathed in a hearty dose of peanut sauce.
Other nations now lay claim to sate, but Indonesians consider it a national dish conceived by street vendors and popularized by Arab traders. Each vendor seeks distinction, but “sate madura” — served with rice cakes (ketupat) and diced cucumber and onion — is distinguished by its boat-shaped street carts.
Sate Ragusa serves legendary satay that dates to the 1950s. Its signature spaghetti ice cream is a perfect dish to cleanse the palate after a meal.

3. Bakso

A favorite among students, this savory meatball noodle soup gained international fame when U.S. President Barack Obama remembered it as one of his favorites during a visit to Jakarta.
The meatballs — springy or rubbery, the size of golf balls or bigger — are made from chicken, beef, pork or some amorphous combination of them all. Sold mostly from pushcarts called kaki lima, bakso comes garnished with fried shallots, boiled egg and wontons.

4. Soto

This traditional meat soup comprises a broth and ingredients that vary across the archipelago.
Common street versions are made of a simple, clear soup flavored with chicken, goat or beef. In Jakarta, home of the indigenous Betawi, soto Betawi garners fame with its sweet, creamy, coconut-milk base. It’s usually topped with crispy shallots and fried garlic, and as much or little sambal as taste buds can take.

5. Nasi goreng

Considered Indonesia’s national dish, this take on Asian fried rice is often made with sweet, thick soy sauce called kecap (pronounced ketchup) and garnished with acar, pickled cucumber and carrots. To add an element of fun to the experience, diners can try nasi gila (or “crazy rice”) and see how many different kinds of meat they can find buried among the grains — yes, those are hot dog slices.

6. Gado-gado

Literally “mix-mix,” the term gado-gado is often used to describe situations that are all mixed up — Jakarta, for instance, is a gado-gado city.
As a food, however, it’s one of Indonesia’s best-known dishes, essentially a vegetable salad bathed in the country’s classic peanut sauce. At its base are boiled long beans, spinach, potato, corn, egg and bean sprouts coupled with cucumber, tofu and tempe.

7. Nasi uduk

A perennial favorite among native Betawi, nasi uduk is rice cooked in coconut milk and includes a pinwheel of various meat and vegetable accoutrements. It almost always includes fried chicken, boiled eggs and tempe (soybean cake) with anchovies and is topped with emping (melinjo nut crackers). It’s cheap, fast and popular among lunchtime crowds.
Nearly four decades old and still going strong, Nasi Uduk Babe Saman packs in everyone from students to celebrities morning, noon and night.

8. Nasi padang

Singaporeans may say they can’t live without it, but nasi padang, named after its birth city in Sumatra, is 100% Indonesian.
Nasi padang is a meal with steamed rice accompanied by more than a dozen dishes — goopy curries with floating fish heads or rubbery cow’s feet — stacked up on the table. The best way is to chuck away the cutlery and dig in with hands then wash the spice away with a sweet iced tea.

9. Ayam goreng

The key to Indonesian fried chicken is the use of small village birds, whose freedom to run around the yard makes them tastier than the big chunks of meat at KFC. Variations on that chain have cropped up across the country — rumor has it that one of these was founded by a polygamist, so franchisees must have multiple wives.

10. Bakmi goreng

Noodles compete with rice for carbohydrate of choice in Indonesia, ranging from broad and flat (kwetiau) to scrawny vermicelli (bihun).
The best are bakmi — pencil-thin and, in this case, fried with egg, meat and vegetables. Vendors add their own special spices for distinction, but the iconic Bakmi Gajah Mada garners a cult following. More modern outlets now make noodles from spinach and beets.

11. Gudeg

Fit for a sultan it may not be, but gudeg is certainly the signature of the royal city of Yogyakarta.
The sweet jackfruit stew is boiled for hours in coconut milk and palm sugar, making the fruit so soft and tender it falls apart with little chewing. Other spices are thrown into the mix but teak leaves give it a brown coloring. Like nasi uduk, it’s served with rice, boiled egg, chicken and crispy, fried beef skin.

12. Rawon

A beef stew from East Java that goes heavy on the keluak nut to give it a nutty flavor and a deep, black color. The soup base also mingles with garlic, shallots, ginger, turmeric and red chili to make it nice and spicy. The most famous variant is called Rawon Setan (Devil’s soup) in Surabaya.

13. Pecel lele

The sight of fried catfish may surprise first-time diners since it looks almost the same as it does living. Served with rice and red and green sambal, this is simple street fare that fills the belly, which may be why it’s a standout across Jakarta.

14. Opor ayam

Small diners, called warungs, now sell this traditional dish of braised chicken in coconut milk on a daily basis. Still, it remains a staple on tables around the end of Ramadan, when it’s served with packed rice cakes (ketupat). A little like a mild, slightly chalky curry with less prep time required, it’s filled with Indonesia’s signature spices — garlic, ginger, cumin and coriander.

15. Mie ayam

For this dish, bakmie is boiled in stock and topped with succulent slices of gravy-braised chicken. Chives and sambal add extra flavor — but if it’s done right little else is needed. Unlike most Indonesian cuisine, where the secret is in the sauce, the clue to a good mie ayam is the perfect al dente noodle.
Bakmi Orpha, a hole in the wall in west Jakarta, draws Ferrari-owning clientele for its deceivingly tasty mie and wontons.

16. Gulai

Gulai is the common name for curry dishes, namely those from north Sumatra. Indonesian curries have regional variations that depend on the types of meat and fish available — though gulai almost always incorporates cinnamon. Opor and rendang can be considered gulais, but better to try out the rainbow of other options. Pagi-Sore is a national franchise serves a tangy fish-head curry.

17. Bubur ayam

From blue-collar workers to government ministers, almost everyone starts their day with this rice gruel, a savory porridge served with soy sauce, fried shallots, shredded chicken, beans and crackers. Outside Java variations can include corn, cassava and fish, while a sweeter version — for those who prefer not to start their day with a blast of chili — is made with mung beans.
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