The most well known Indonesian cooking styles are those from Java, with its mild, sweet vegetables dishes, and the spicy Padang cuisine from Sumatra.
People from Java are not originally meat eaters, although you will be able to order many different chicken or beef dishes in restaurants. The traditional Javan dishes contain soy products, such as tofu ( tahu) and tempeh a type of cake made from soft fermented soy bean.
The Padang ( capital of Sumatra ) cuisine from Sumatra uses a lot more meat and chillies. The fiery chilli heat is often tempered by coconut milk.
Spices and roots such as lemongrass, salam, ginger and galangal are simmered in dishes, either whole or in pieces; but there are many more.
At the heart of almost every Indonesian dish is a bumbu – a spice paste prepared from fresh ingredients. The spices, roots and herbs are ground in a pestle and mortar which releases the flavours and creates a fragrant paste.
Special occasions in Indonesia go hand in hand with lavish dishes. The women are often busy for days preparing the most delicious dishes.
Fragrant rice is made with pandan and coconut and coloured with beautiful turmeric – the yellow-gold colour of wealth, prosperity and happiness.
A typical meal consists of rice, accompanied by one or two savoury side dishes with vegetables, meat or fish and one or two side dishes such as sambal, serundung or krupuk. For grander festivities, more dishes will be made. The most important thing is that dishes are chosen that contrast in texture, flavour and composition.
The Rice Table ( the Dutch ‘rijst tafel’) was introduced by Dutch colonists who were used to eating a lot more meat and fish at home than was customary in Indonesia.
During the twenties and thirties in the last century, the classic rice table was served on Sunday in the ‘Hotel des Indes’ in Batavia ( the name given by the Dutch to the capital Jakarta). For the Dutch planters and traders this was a way to demonstrate and celebrate the many riches of the colony.
At its best a Rice Table is a wonderful medley of flavours and spices and fresh dishes, with rice as the main ingredient. It is a beautiful way to become acquainted with the flavours of Indonesian cuisine.