Indonesian Food, Culture and Community
17,508 islands, 300 ethnicities, and a long history of trade with the Middle East, China, India, and Europe: Indonesia is a melting pot of culinary influences and ingredients! The largest island in the Indonesian archipelago is Java and almost 150 million people squeeze onto this volcanic island with fertile rice fields and tropical fruits and wondrous spices. It is home to the capital, Jakarta, and the world’s largest Buddhist temple, Borobodur, near the regional capital Yogyakarta.
It is also home to an indigenous cuisine that reflects the history and culture of this vibrant, tropical trading nation. The sheer variety of ingredients added to dishes regionally throughout the island is staggering. What people eat, how they eat, and who they eat with tells us what is important to a culture or society. Read on to discover what Javanese food tells us about Indonesia and Indonesians.
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The Tastes of Java
The Javanese, like the cultures of the nations close by (such as Myanmar), like to identify strong sweet, sour, salty, and bitter tastes in any meal. The overall or lingering sense of the meal should be a hot and spicy flavor. A milder version of these tastes has become popular in nearby Singapore and Malaysia, but it is Indonesia that brought the world wondrous spices such as nutmeg and clove. Tempeh (fermented soybeans) also originated in Java.
Javanese food is slightly sweeter than the other parts of Indonesia. This is due to the sweet soy sauce and palm sugar (kepac manis and gula jawa) that is used in many of its simple dishes. It is also because of the use of coconut in wonderful dishes and Indonesian desserts you can find in roadside stalls like coconut pancakes and curries that use a coconut milk base. Dishes here use a little less chili than in other parts of the country.
Tamarind, turmeric, and shrimp paste balance flavors and spiciness in dishes and the sweet notes of peanut satay and coconut add smoothness to key Javanese dishes, making for unforgettable sauces such as the peanut sauce, gado gado.
What the Javanese Eat
In Asia, people feel strongly that a contented, full and satisfied feeling occurs if a meal contains rice. Whilst this holds true in Indonesia, other starches often substitute for rice in many places in Indonesia, especially noodles which are used extensively in Indonesian dishes as well as cassava. The goddess of rice, Shri Dewi is honored by the Javanese by ensuring that they eat all the rice placed on their plates.
The particular meats, seafood, and plants are grown on the island are unsurprisingly present in everyday dishes. Water buffalo, eels, yams, jasmine, jackfruit, eggs and fresh-water fish have been a part of traditional Javanese cuisine and continue to give Javanese dishes unique flavors. Leftovers constitute dinner later that evening.
A proper meal also has to contain a number of dishes and this is also common in Asia (otherwise it’s a snack!) Meat (not pork) and fish, vegetables, rice, and soup would be the minimum dishes to make up a satisfactory meal. In the image below you can see me tucking into such a midday meal on a weekday (all this, just for me!)
Indonesian Food Culture: Typical Javanese dishes
Nasi gudeg is a great example of Javanese cuisine. Gudeg means jackfruit. It has a base of coconut milk and uses indigenous ingredients such as buffalo and of course, jackfruit. The dish includes spiced buffalo skin crackers (kuchek), a spiced egg that is cooked in coconut milk (opor telur pindang), baby jackfruit also cooked in coconut milk (gudeg) and fried chicken (ayam goreng). In this dish, you can see how the produce and slight sweetness of Java come through, as well as the interest in having several different textures in a single meal.
Note: Fried and grilled chicken is often localized using spices or techniques indigenous to a particular island or region. Ayam taliwang, for example, is similar to ayam goreng but is a specialty of Lombok.
Sambal is a dish that comes from Java and has spread through neighboring countries. Of the 212 known variations, almost all come from Java. Sambal is essentially a chili paste where one or more kinds of chili are mixed with other flavorings. The most common additions are garlic, ginger, shrimp paste, lime juice and the palm sugar that is added to so many Javanese dishes.
The main ingredient of this popular accompaniment to pretty much anything fried in Java came from Europe. Cabya was a long pepper that was found in Java and Bali, but it was supplanted by the capsicum that was brought by the Spanish and the Portuguese to Java in the 1500s.
Soups (soto), satays (sate), rice (nasi) and vegetable (sayur) dishes abound, often containing herbs or spice grown locally, such as soup with lemongrass or rice with turmeric. Offal is used extensively, especially chicken innards, and tempeh can be found throughout the island.
A Javanese Meal
I find the way in which Javanese people eat at mealtimes to be fascinating (or maybe I’m just nosy!) During the day, when not grazing on small snacks, Indonesians may eat three meals with lunch being the largest. What interests me is that there is no ritual about family or friendship and community although this necessarily occurs more these days during holidays and it was the case traditionally in Java.
For the most part, on weekdays, you just tuck in and eat, often alone. In almost all human societies, past and present, eating is a communal affair and loaded with significance to do with politics, religion, status, and gender and kinship relationships. In Indonesia, meals are traditionally eaten without utensils whilst sitting on a mat on the floor. In this sense, the indigenous Javanese traditions are similar to the indigenous traditions of the other countries of Southeast Asia. But Indonesia is also a highly populated and urban nation. In cities, lunch can be a quick food hall meal, or eaten on stools outside food carts in cities, towns, and villages. There is no ceremony, just getting some food into your stomach during your lunch break!
Of course, you don’t need to wait for meal-times when you need a snack! The two most common Indonesia street food snacks in Java are kue and gorengan. Both words can be used to mean “snack.” Kue lempur is glutinous rice wrapped in a banana leaf. Inside the rice are different fillings including fish and chicken. The scent of the banana leaf infuses the dish. Gorengan refers to a fried fritter that often uses vegetables as its base. And of course, everywhere you go there is nasi goreng, Indonesian fried rice topped with a fried egg.
The complete opposite of the solitary and unfussy meals of daily life is the ritualistic Slamatan. This is a ritual that occurs each time something significant occurs for a family or an individual. Marriage, moving house, funerals, significant birthdays, new jobs or promotions, and births might all call for a Slamatan. Communal eating at significant times bonds communities together and it is often a sign of the status of the person giving the ritual feast. That’s not quite what happens in Indonesia though! To begin with, there is secrecy about the fact that Slamatan is about to occur. If your neighbors are holding a Slamatan because they have just moved into the neighborhood, someone, often a child, will come to your house and tell you that you’re invited to a Slamatan in twenty minutes. You need to rush right over BUT only if you are an adult male. Women and children do not attend Slamatan.
There are often one or more quite formal speeches that explain the reason for the Slamatan and the significance of the dishes chosen. Tempung, which is yellow rice served in the shape of a cone, is the one required staple for a Slamatan. The food prepared for the men attending the ritual feast was once laid out for people to help themselves but these days it is often a table that contains disposable cardboard boxes that hold individual portions of the Slamatan meal. The unusual thing about the meal is that the participants then eat quietly, in silence, and after a few minutes, they stand up and leave the house, taking the food back home with them!
This ritual is becoming less formal and lavish, but it persists in busy modern lives. In fact, you can even order online a traditional Slamatan meal and have it delivered in the quantities you need!
The enduring nature of the Slamatan tells us that it remains important for Indonesian men to gather to eat together in order to mark all the important occasions and small wins in everyday life. As they always have, Indonesian women remain partially hidden behind screens able to peek at the Slamatan and having done the hard work of preparing the feast. This tells us that the gender division reinforced by their Islamic faith also persists as a dominant organizing principle of everyday life.
When the anthropologist Clifford Geertz first wrote about the Slamatan ritual, he naturally focussed upon the “action,” that is, the things the men were doing! Eventually, female anthropologists began to work on the Slamatan ritual in Java and began documenting what they saw as the “whole” ritual – the gathering of ingredients, preparation, serving and the women watching the men eat the meal they had cooked through bamboo slatted walls. This gave a more balanced understanding of how the whole community came together to mark important occasions.
I love that food remains central to all celebrations about the happy occurrences in Javanese life, but it is also fascinating to learn about the different ways Indonesian people interact with food and use food as part of their everyday private and public lives.
Once you’ve tried Javanese food, you’ll also want to try some Indonesian food recipes! This book is written by two of the most accomplished chefs in Indonesia. The recipes are for those with little cooking experience and the flavors are authentic.
Further Links and Information
For a comprehensive post about the spectacular and must-see premier Indonesian temple, see the world’s largest Buddhist temple, Borobodur here
More detailed information on how to book transport, airfares, accommodation, and travel insurance is available on my Travel Resources page
Planning travel to Southeast Asia? See my detailed travel planning guides for Myanmar here.
And for a comprehensive guide on how to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda and what it all means, see my post here: Shwedagon Pagoda: The Best Pagoda in Myanmar
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