Indonesia is the largest and most populous nation in Southeast Asia, and while in the United States it may be best known for its picturesque landscapes, the seemingly endless beaches of its more than 17,000 islands, its delightfully tropical climate, and magnificent ancient temples, its vast and varied cuisine remains relatively obscure. In part, that's due to a lack of exposure: there are just over 100,000 Indonesians living in America and fewer than 100 Indonesian restaurants in the country. But it also has to do with how incredibly diverse Indonesia is. The islands were the center of the international spice trade after the Dutch arrived in the late 16th century, and they became a cultural crossroads as the many, many indigenous communities mixed with immigrants, traders, and colonizers from countries near and far, producing a cuisine that's as clearly influenced by Indian, Arabic, Malay, Chinese, and Dutch traditions as it is defined by the indigenous spices, preparations, and ingredients.
I was lucky enough to experience some of the incredible variety of the cuisine during a 10-month teaching grant program in Semarang, Central Java. Whether at warungs—small, usually outdoor, family-owned cafes—or at restaurants, I had the opportunity to learn about Indonesian culinary culture with the help of my Indonesian students, co-teachers, and friends.
During my time there, I learned that meals are nearly always accompanied with kerupuk, deep fried crackers made from starch that feature different flavors like garlic, onion, fish, and prawn; that rice is eaten at almost every meal (even with noodles!); that tahu, or tofu—a bit of Chinese influence that Indonesians have adopted as their own for centuries—is widely popular; and that there are a lot—and I mean a lot—of things that Indonesians can do with tempe.
With fewer Indonesian restaurant options here at home, I’ve kept various Indonesian spices and sauces in my kitchen to spice up my meals and try to recreate some of what my ibu (a word for mother that is also used as a sign of respect when addressing a woman who is older) taught me. Capturing the essence of a vast archipelago with an incredible diversity of religions, languages, ethnic groups, and cultures may seem impossible, but with the guidance of Kevindra P. Soemantri, editorial head at the web magazine Feastin' and host of Netflix’s Street Food Indonesia, and Jazz Pasay, former owner of Bali Kitchen and organizer of the Indonesian Gastronomy Association, I've compiled a list of Indonesian pantry must-haves to get you started with Indonesian cooking.
Sauces, Spice Pastes, and More
From the fiery heat of sambal to the creaminess of coconut milk and the caramel-like taste of palm sugar, these are the essential building blocks of any Indonesian meal.
There are two Indonesian ingredients I always have in my pantry, whether cooking Indonesian food or not. One of them is kecap manis. Described by Soemantri as “the answer to every dish,” the sweet, umber soy sauce-based condiment is a product of cultural assimilation. According to Soemantri, kecap manis was created in the 19th century, the result of a surplus of palm sugar due to increased sugar production under Dutch colonial rule and increased Chinese immigration to Java. Kecap manis has a thicker consistency than soy sauce, and some Indonesian brands are fortified with spices like cinnamon, star anise, and coriander. It's so essential that you'll find it both in the kitchen and on every Indonesian table, as ubiquitous as salt and pepper in Western kitchens.
Kecap manis is used as a seasoning in preparations like nasi goreng, the national dish of Indonesia; it's added atop snacks and meals as a condiment; and it's used to marinate proteins like fish, chicken, and tempe. The most common brand in the United States is ABC Kecap Manis, which can be found at most Asian markets or online. And it's not just essential for cooking Indonesian food; I like to add it to my eggs for a sweet and savory morning kick.
The second constant in my pantry is sambal, a chile paste or sauce that is often freshly made in Indonesian households, and just a fingertip away from kecap manis on most Indonesian lunch and dinner tables.
“Sambal is the unifying food,” said Soemantri, “the flaming passion of the Indonesian people.”
All sambals contain chile peppers and salt and are traditionally prepared with a cobek and ulekan—essentially a heavy mortar and pestle made from hard wood or basalt. Some are cooked and others are served raw, and while most sambals include ingredients like garlic, ginger, and lemongrass, the varieties are endless. For example, sambal terasi leans on shrimp paste for its flavor, while sambal tomat uses tomatoes for a sweet-tart paste that can be either spicy or mild; sambal hijau uses green chiles instead of red; and in Manado in the province of North Sulawesi, a fragrant version called dabu dabu manado includes fresh herbs like lemon basil alongside chiles, tomatoes, and lime zest.
A sambal of some kind accompanies nearly all Indonesian dishes, adding a jolt of heat and complexity to snacks and meals as varied as grilled fish with kecap manis; soto ayam, a chicken soup with noodles; and martabak, a square-shaped, pancake-like snack filled with seasoned ground meat and green onions. Though homemade sambal is delightful, ready-made sambal oelek is widely available—Huy Fong Sambal Oelek, the most popular brand in the US, can be found at most grocery stores, Asian markets, and online—and can be used to add flavor and heat to dishes in a pinch, as in this recipe for nasi goreng.
Tamarind, known as asam jawa in Indonesian, is a sour fruit that's used to provide balance to both sweet and spicy dishes. As Soemantri says, “We love tamarind because it stabilizes our food.” You can find tamarind in dishes like soto betawi, a rich beef and coconut soup often found in Jakarta food stalls; asinan sayur, a pickled sweet and sour coleslaw that’s been popularized in West Java and Jakarta; the sauce for ayam bumbu rujak, a chile coconut roasted chicken; and sambals, like sambal berambang asem, a cooked sambal that also contains shallots, palm sugar, and terasi. It’s also often used to flavor candy.
While you can purchase whole tamarind pods and extract the fruit pulp by soaking them in hot water, most home cooks use blocks of tamarind pulp, known as wet tamarind (although you'll need to similarly soak it in hot water for use), which has a more concentrated flavor. You can also buy ready-made tamarind paste in a jar, but Lara Lee, Indonesian chef and author of Coconut and Sambal: Recipes From My Indonesian Kitchen, cautions that the strength of the paste often depends on the brand quality; she suggests adding it incrementally to recipes, until the dish is sufficiently sour for your tastes.
Coconut and Coconut Milk
Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of coconuts, and Soemantri calls the coconut tree “the tree of life” for his people, noting that its branches can be used to make a house, the skins of its fruit can be used to make a room partition, and, of course, the coconut itself provides food and drink.
Coconut flesh is shredded for use in both savory and sweet dishes, and coconut milk is often used to make pastes and sauces, adding creaminess to dishes like soto medan, a yellow chicken soup that gets its color from turmeric; nasi uduk, or rice cooked in coconut milk; and gudeg, a jackfruit stew cooked in the milk. You’ll also find coconut milk in desserts like bubur pulot hitam, a black sticky rice made with palm sugar, and es cendol, an iced dessert that consists of short pandan-scented noodle-like strands made from mung bean starch suspended in coconut milk sweetened with palm sugar syrup.
Terasi (Shrimp Paste)
Don’t let the smell deter you—getting to know and love shrimp paste is essential for deepening your relationship with Indonesian cuisine. The paste is made from salted shrimp or krill that are left to ferment in the sun, and is used (sparingly) to amplify the savoriness of a range of dishes. Terasi is an essential ingredient in sambals, some versions of nasi goreng, and vegetable dishes like tumis kangkung, a stir-fried water spinach.
Terasi comes in a dark block and can be stored for about six months in an airtight container, and while it can be found in most Asian markets and online (I suggest the ABC brand), you can use Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce as a substitute, although you have to remember that fish sauce is saltier.
The heart and soul of kecap manis, palm sugar is a commonly used ingredient throughout Indonesia and Southeast Asia. There are two distinct types of Indonesian palm sugar: gula jawa (Javanese sugar), also called gula merah (red sugar), which is made from nectar from the flowers of coconut palms; and gula aren, the sap from the flowerbuds of the arenga tree, which is a darker, richer sugar.
The caramel-like taste is beloved by Indonesians, and it's an essential component of traditional desserts like kue cucur, a doughy, fried snack made from rice flour that’s crispy on the outside and soft on the inside; dadar gulung, a rice flour crepe filled with grated coconut; and klepon, a bite-sized Indonesian dessert ball filled with the sugar and dusted with coconut. It’s also used in some savory preparations, like ayam goreng kalasan, a sweet fried chicken, and iga bumbu dendeng balado, sticky beef short rib with chili, as well as, of course, sambals. Palm sugar is sold in most stores or online, and can be found either in a block form, which can be gently cut, or packed in a jar. For a more readily available substitute, you can use granulated coconut sugar, which is sold in most supermarkets, or Thai palm sugar.
Tempe is a remarkable mold-fermented soybean product that's both nutritious and utterly delicious, and it has become quite popular in the West, although its origins in Indonesia are rarely acknowledged. Its popularity in the country is due to its accessibility—it's a cheaper protein than meat. Tempe can be prepared in a variety of ways—grilled, deep-fried, pan-fried, you name it. It can be sliced, stir-fried, and mixed with a tamarind sweet and sour sauce to make tumis tempe; or braised with palm sugar, kecap manis, and spices, then deep fried for a dish known as tempe bacem. Tempe goreng—rectangular slices of tempe that are seasoned with a garlic-based paste and fried—is one of the more popular preparations of tempe, and is eaten with rice and sambal.
There are other varieties of tempe that are similarly fermented using mold, but are made with other components, like oncom, which is made from byproducts of foods made from soy, peanut, cassava, or coconut. These are a little harder to come by in the United States, but you can easily find tempe in most supermarkets.
Herbs and Aromatics
Indonesian food is highly aromatic, and many Indonesian chefs, including Pasay, consider the fragrance of the herbs and aromatics described below to be an essential component of a well-prepared meal.
Lemongrass, or serai, adds a citrusy aroma and flavor to a wide variety of dishes. The bulb of the plant is commonly smashed and thrown into soups, stews, and rice dishes, but it can also be pulverized with other herbs and spices to make things like bumbu, a popular Indonesian spice paste used to marinate chicken and fish, or as part of a base for soups. The stalk can be chopped finely and added to preparations like lemongrass sambal and tinorangsak, a green chile and lemongrass pork dish from Sulawesi. Lemongrass is also often used whole: In slow cooked dishes like beef rendang, a spicy, hearty beef stew from the Minangkabau region in West Sumatra, the stalks are bound together, submerged in the cooking liquid, and discarded after. You can also find it used whole in stir-fries like ayam sambal goreng sereh (chicken in a spicy lemongrass sauce) and soups like soto ayam. While lemongrass is occasionally sold at local grocery stores, Asian, Thai, or Vietnamese markets are much more likely to carry it.
Perhaps the most difficult item to find on this list, lemon basil, or kemangi in Indonesian, is an essential herb in Indonesian cooking; it adds an inimitable fresh and citrusy basil flavor and fragrant lemony aroma to anything it's added to. Similar to the bay leaf in appearance but longer and often a lighter shade of green, it's typically used to flavor chicken or tofu dishes like ayam woku kemangi, a spicy chicken curry, and tahu tumis kemangi, a tofu stir-fry. It’s also eaten with lalap, a raw vegetable salad. Pasay suggests searching at Asian supermarkets or a farmers market for the herb. If you can’t find it in stores, Thai basil may be the closest alternative you can find, although it offers quite a different flavor.
Daun salam, from the Myrtacae plant family, can be difficult to find in stores, but well worth the search (it is somewhat easier to find online. Known as salam leaves, Indonesian bay leaves, or Indian bay leaves (even though they are distinct from Indian bay leaves from the laurel family), they are much bigger, more fragile, and sweeter than bay leaves produced by the laurel tree. However, they're used in a similar way—added whole to dishes during cooking, but not eaten—although they're typically soaked in water before use (the water is discarded). Daun salam adds a subtle, earthy, and sweet-savory flavor to various soups like konro, a stew-like beef rib soup, and national dishes like beef rendang.
Though not indigenous to Indonesia, chiles form the backbone of the cuisine, both because they're an essential ingredient in sambals and because they are used widely in other preparations as well.
While Indonesians use a variety of chile peppers, the most common are cabe merah (red chiles) and cabe hijau (green chiles), although cabe rawit (bird's eyes chiles) are often used to add more heat. Depending on where you live, it may be difficult to find these exact chiles, but finding appropriate substitutes shouldn't be too hard. Cabe merah can be substituted with red jalapeño, fresno peppers, or Korean red chiles, while cabe hijau can be swapped with jalapeños, serrano chiles, or Korean green chiles. One thing to keep in mind is that while dried chiles are occasionally used, Indonesians prefer to use fresh chiles. Select chiles based on your own tolerance for heat, and be sure to remove the seeds if you’re not a fan of tear-inducing meals.
An indispensable pantry item, turmeric powder offers a mustardy, bitter flavor that, in small doses, plays a key role in stir-fries and pastes. It's found in preparations like nasi kuning, a yellow rice which is often served at celebrations like graduation ceremonies and weddings; ayam goreng kunyit, a turmeric fried chicken; and jamu, a bright drink made with ginger, lemon, and water that’s regarded as a health tonic. Pasay notes, “Turmeric is extremely important for a padang," a slightly sweet, gingery, and rich style of curry from Padang, West Sumatra. In addition to ground turmeric, you can also find turmeric leaves in dishes like rendang.
Galangal is often used in conjunction with ginger in many Indonesian recipes, and while they look similar, they have considerably different flavors. Whereas ginger lends a sharp spiciness to dishes, galangal offers a heady, floral quality, akin to pepper or pine. It’s often used to make a spice paste called bumbu—which, when ground with other herbs and aromatics, is used to make rendang—or it's sliced and added to soup. Galangal has a much tougher skin than ginger, and that's particularly true of the mature galangal that's typically found in the United States, which you should peel before slicing.
It can be difficult to find galangal in the US, so Pasay and Soemantri suggest using ginger as a substitute, despite their differences, when galangal is not an option.
Ginger’s piquant flavor is essential to dishes like soto ayam and the beef broth paired with bakso, a chewy meatball. As mentioned above, it's often used together with galangal, in curries and Chinese-Indonesian dishes, like ayam jahe, a ginger braised chicken, as well as with vegetables like cucumber, spinach, pak choi, and spring onions.
Garlic and Shallots
Garlic and shallots—bawang putih and bawang merah, respectively, in Indonesian—go hand-in-hand, according to Soemantri and Pasay.
“There's always garlic and shallots in an Indonesian meal,” said Pasay. “If you want to understand Indonesian cooking, you need to understand the dynamic relationship between garlic and shallots.” As Pasay notes, rarely do Indonesian recipes ask for one ingredient without the other. While garlic adds an important pungent flavor, shallots help to sweeten a dish, generating the sweet and savory taste profile that’s characteristic of most Indonesian recipes. Garlic can be used both cooked and raw for pastes, homemade sambals, and stir-fries, while shallots are used fried as a garnish to add crunch atop stir-frys like nasi goreng, or sautéed as an aromatic base for soups like soto and bubur ayam. Many Indonesian cooks have their own recipes for fried shallots, similar to those of other Southeast Asian cuisines, but bottled shallots are always an option.
Makrut Lime and Leaf
In Indonesia, the makrut lime is known as jeruk purut. The juice is used in seasoning pastes, sauces, and sambals. Both the juice and the leaves can be used in marinades, too, for dishes like ayam panggang kecap, a grilled chicken with kecap manis, and also satay. Pasay considers the makrut lime leaves to be more fragrant than the leaves of regular limes, and believes they’re a terrific addition to soups like soto ayam. Other limes used in Indonesian cooking include jeruk limo, which is similar to the key lime, and jerk nipis, which is comparable to the Persian lime.
Peanuts—sometimes roasted, sometimes salted, and occasionally plain—are part of the fabric of Indonesian cooking. Known as kacang, they're the primary ingredient in the peanut sauces that accompany rice dishes or are added to salads like gado gado, a spread of cooked and raw vegetables. Peanuts are often used in preparations like sambal teri kacanag, where they’re mixed with salted fish and sambal and served as a side to dishes like nasi goreng; they're added to any number of dishes for texture; and of course they're eaten by themselves, roasted, with a bit of salt.
The candlenut, also known as the Hawaiian kukui nut, adds thickness and creaminess to pastes. But be warned: Pasay notes that this bitter, somewhat almond-tasting nut can be overpowering, and suggests using it sparingly. Beyond its flavor, the nut is often used as a thickener for soups and sauces, helping marinades cling to proteins, and as a binder for ingredients as when it's used to prevent coconut milk from breaking up. It can occasionally be found at Asian supermarkets, and should be kept frozen to avoid going rancid.
It’s important to note that candlenuts should never be eaten raw, as they are poisonous in that state. Like many plants in the Euphorbiaceae family, you must cook the nut to release toxicity, which you can do by roasting or pan frying. Pasay suggests roasting then grinding the candlenuts with herbs and spices to create a delicious paste for use in rendangs, sambal, and soups.