Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Indonesian Cuisine

Culture Tuesday is a weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores different cultures’ cuisines across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. In today’s column, she is exploring vegan Indonesian cuisine. 

Culture Tuesday — Vegan Indonesian Cuisine

The Indonesian cuisine is an accumulation of the various traditional/cultural dishes of the ethnic groups across the 6,000 (out of 17,508) inhabited islands of Indonesia. They are mostly based on the cooking practices of the indigenous people of the islands. However, influences from other countries, cultures, and religion have had an effect on what is known as modern-day/contemporary Indonesian cuisine.

Prior to the international influences, the indigenous people of Indonesia prepared their meals using locally sourced ingredients and handcrafted cooking utensils and vessels made from local materials such as banana leaves, stone, and wood.

Their cooking practices were altered as a result of colonialism, cultural assimilation, international trade, and migration with influences mainly from Britain, China, India, the Middle East, Portugal, Spain, Turtle Island (North America and South America), and The Netherlands. The Europeans, mainly the Spanish and Portuguese introduced one of the signature ingredients of contemporary Indonesian cuisine to the islands — chillies. They had acquired the chillies from South America (in which they were colonizing most areas). They, and the British, also brought other produce from the American continents and Europe to Indonesia. These include cabbage, carrots, cassava, corn, cauliflower, peanuts, potatoes, pumpkins, and tomatoes. 

Vegan Indonesian Cuisine
Lepet Corn. Image credit: @indonesian_vegan. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

The Dutch eventually arrived in Indonesia and colonized the islands for over 300 years. During that time, they forced the Indonesian people into adopting aspects of their cultures including their food culture with regards to cooking methods and names of food. The Dutch’s influence on the naming of dishes can still be seen till this day in dishes such as Rijsttafel which is Dutch for ‘rice table’ and refers to a meal consisting of rice with an array of side dishes that feature different colors, flavors, spiciness levels, and textures. Other dishes include Soto Betawi which is ‘soup [of the] Jakarta people’ as the Dutch gave modern-day Jakarta the name, ‘Batavia,’ and referred to the people from there as Betawi.

Cooking practices of the indigenous people of Indonesia were altered as a result of colonialism, cultural assimilation, international trade, and migration.

China, India, and the Middle East’s influences came as a result of trade and migration. China’s influence is seen through the dishes and ingredients shared by the Indonesian and Chinese cuisine. These include the noodle dishes, fried rice (or making dishes out of leftover rice), and lumpia (spring rolls). However, the flavors of the dishes are more suited to the Indonesian palate with more intense flavors and some locally sourced ingredients. India’s influence is seen in the curried dishes in which herbs and spices indigenous to India might feature as well as the Indian handling or preparation of spices indigenous to Indonesia. As for the Middle East, its influences are seen in dishes such as satay, those containing ingredients indigenous to the Middle East, and spice combinations that resemble those from Middle Eastern cuisines.

Pepes Tahu Jamur. Image credit: @jrfood10. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

The nations that had culinary influences on Indonesia also brought their influences through religion as the traders, migrants, and colonizers introduced Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam to the Indonesian people. These religions influenced Indonesian cuisine by dictating which foods should be included or forbidden from the cuisine, which foods should be sacred, the symbolism of certain foods, as well as how those foods should be prepared and/or presented. For example, the dish, nasi tumpeng kuning (a turmeric-yellow cone-shaped garnished rice dish) is of Hindu influence. Its cone shape symbolized Meru, the mythical Hindu mountain and its color is that one of the four sacred colors for people who practice Hinduism symbolizing worship and royalty. The influence of Hinduism also caused rice to become one of the most important, valued, sacred, and symbolic ingredients/foods in Indonesian cuisine.

Flavors of Vegan Indonesian Cuisine

The basic flavors of Indonesian cuisine come from the (often fresh) use of aromatic alliums, roots, leaves, fruits, herbs, spices, and seasoning pastes (bumbu). These include:

  • black pepper (lada hitam)
  • candlenut (kemiri)
  • chillies (cabe merah/red chillies, cabe hijau/green chillies, and cabe rawit/bird’s eye chillies)
  • cinnamon (kayu manis)
  • cloves (cengkih)
  • coriander seeds (biji ketumbar)
  • cumin (jinten)
  • galangal (lengkuas)
  • garlic (bawang putih)
  • ginger (jahe)
  • lemon basil (kemangi)
  • lemongrass (serai)
  • makrut lime (jeruk purut)
  • nutmeg (pala)
  • onion (bawang)
  • pandan leaves (daun pandan)
  • salam leaves (daun salam)
  • shallots (bawang merah)
  • spring onion (bawang daun)
  • tamarind (asam jawa)
  • turmeric (kurkuma/kunyit)

Sauces such as kecap manis, or sweet soy sauce, are also used to add flavor to dishes. Kecap manis is as important as salt and pepper to most Western cuisines and an essential part of dishes such as nasi goreng (fried rice) and tahu goreng (a fried tofu dish). It is a thick, viscous soy sauce (fermented soybean sauce) that is sweetened heavily using palm sugar molasses to give it a sweet, caramel, umami flavor (a sweet and savory flavor). Some cooks also infuse their kecap manis with cinnamon, coriander seeds, and star anise.

Vegan Indonesian Cuisine
Tahu Gejrot. Image credit: @susan_mellyani. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Although kecap manis plays such an important role in Indonesian cuisine, like chillies, it was not part of Indonesian cuisine until the 19th Century — during the Dutch colonial era, specifically. Kecap manis was created as a way to make use of surplus amounts of palm sugar that might have otherwise been wasted from the overproduction of sugar caused by the Dutch. The palm sugar was combined with soy sauce which was introduced by increasing numbers of Chinese immigrants into Java also during the 19th century. It is a delicious condiment that was made through efforts to avoid food waste.

Rendang

Rendang (or randang) is one of Indonesia’s official, and most internationally popular, dishes. It is from the Minangkabau region in West Sumatra. However, it has spread from that region to other regions which have altered the recipe using ingredients more accessible to people living in those regions or ingredients more suited to specific dietary requirements and preferences.

Rendang is often known to be non-vegan. However, traditionally, it is also known to be made with vegetables, fruits, and legumes without any animal products. Some of the plant-based versions of rendang in vegan Indonesian cuisine include: 

  • rendang cubadak/rendang nangka (unripe jackfruit rendang)
  • rendang daun pepaya (young papaya leaf rendang)
  • rendang jamur (mushroom rendang)
  • rendang jantung pisang (banana blossom rendang)
  • rendang pakis (pakis/wild fern leaf rendang)
  • rendang petai (stink/bitter bean and green bean rendang)
  • rendang daun singkong (cassava leaf rendang)
  • rendang tahu (tofu rendang)
  • rendang tempe (tempeh rendang)

Vegan Indonesian Cuisine
Vegan Rendang. Image credit: @h.graphid for @vowgroup.id. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Apart from the differences in ingredients, rendang can also be classified into three types, or categories, these are gulai, kalio, and rendang. In this case, rendang refers to the somewhat dry version of the dish which is also the most traditional version. The (dry) rendang is cooked longer than gulai and kalio up until most of the liquid (coconut milk) has evaporated, the color of the relatively little liquid left is darker (a very dark brown) and the dish appears oiler (from the fat left behind by the coconut milk evaporating). 

Gulai and kalio are more similar than they are to dry rendang. The process of making gulai is completed once the ingredients in it are fully cooked and the coconut milk is boiling. The resulting dish is rather brothy and light yellow from the addition of turmeric during the cooking process. On the other hand, kalio is cooked a bit longer than gulai, but not nearly as long as dry rendang. The liquid is partially evaporated resulting in a thicker, darker broth with a reddish-brown color from the addition of red chillies during the cooking process. Nowadays, rendang can be found as wet rendang (which is either gulai or kalio) and dry rendang as opposed to the three types being labeled separately.

Vegan Indonesian Cuisine
Vegan Satay with Padang sauce. Image credit: @veganindonesian. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Sate

Sate, which is more commonly known as ‘satay,’ internationally, is a grilled skewered meat and dipping sauce dish. Those who follow a plant-based lifestyle have substituted the more traditional animal products with tofu, wheat gluten-based meat substitutes, mushrooms, and, tempeh with the most common plant-based traditional versions being those made with tofu and tempeh.

The dipping sauce the sate is served with differs with regions and personal preferences. These sauces include the common spicy peanut sauce, kecap manis, a spicy ground tempeh sauce, a pineapple sauce, soup, and a sweet coconut milk sauce. Sometimes, sate is served with other condiments such sambal (a chili paste), cucumber relish, acar (pickled vegetables), and/or bawang goreng (fried shallots).

Vegan Indonesian Cuisine
Vegan Chick’n Satay. Image credit: @greenrebelfoods. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Martabak Manis

Martabak manis are very thick sweet-filled (or topped) pancakes with a crumpet-like texture. Martabak can be found as savory dishes. However, they are often also found as sweet desserts. This is more evident when they are labeled as ‘martabak manis.’ 

The most common filling for martabak manis is crushed roasted peanuts, chocolate sprinkles, and cheese (which can be found in its vegan form). However, there are other plant-based versions such as that filled with matcha (a green tea powder), and rice cakes infused with pandan leaves, palm sugar, and shredded coconut.

Vegan Indonesian Cuisine
Vegan Original Martabak. Image credit: @journalgastro. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Goreng 

Goreng is an Indonesian word that means, ‘fried.’ It is commonly seen in dishes such as nasi goreng (fried rice), tahu goreng (fried tofu), and pangsit goreng (fried dumplings), as well as condiments such as bawang goreng (fried shallots).

Pangsit goreng are fried dumplings. They are often deep-fried. However, occasionally, they can be found shallow-fried too. Its filling is usually non-vegan, but nowadays, there are vegan-friendly pangsit available with fillings such as bengkoang (jicama), carrots, mushrooms, tofu, herbs, and vegetables. They can be served plain, with a dipping sauce or mixed with a sauce and topped with a range of things such as sprouts, vegetables such a caisim (choy sum), and seasoned scrambled tofu.

Pangsit Goreng Le Gino. Image credit: @veganindonesian. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Nasi goreng is made by stir-frying precooked (day old) rice with a little oil or margarine, vegetables, kecap manis aromatics, bumbu spice pastes, and chillies. Its tan color comes from the kecap manis.

Tahu goreng is made by frying blocks of (plain or battered) firm tofu until they are golden then served with a dipping sauce such as a spicy peanut and chili sauce or made into a dish such as tahu gejrot by combining them with a sauce which can be made of a garlic and chili paste, kecap manis, and shallots. The dish can be garnished with bean sprouts, spring onions (green onions/scallions), cucumber, and/or celery leaves.

Vegan Indonesian Cuisine
Tahu Gejrot Kecap. Image credit: @byviszaj. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Author: Samantha Onyemenam.

If you loved this article on vegan Indonesian cuisine, you might also like…

Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Thai Cuisine

Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Cantonese (Chinese) Cuisine

Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Singaporean Cuisine

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