The tradition of Indonesian cuisine and eating together

Pawon Lena, an Indonesian chef who lives in Milan in this article tells us about the cuisine of her homeland. A gastronomical journey on the trail of the culinary tradition of the largest archipelago in the world, through characteristic flavors, dishes and ways of dining together at the table.

Vinhood Editors
Vinhood Editors

Indonesian cuisine has a large variety of traditions, tastes, and influences. This, of course, is because Indonesia has approximately 6,000 populated islands in the largest archipelago in the world, but it is also due to its encounters, some peaceful and some not so peaceful, with foreign populations.


Historically speaking, Indonesia was an important commercial hub due to its location and natural resources. This led to frequent and intense contacts with foreign cultures that had a big influence on the populations of the islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago.


The fact that the islands are far apart and their many contacts with different populations means that there is not just one Indonesian cuisine, but many regional ones.


The cooking techniques and the use of native ingredients were influenced long ago by India, the Middle East, China, and more recently by Europe.



 In an imaginary culinary trip from north to the south-east, the cuisine of the island of Sumatra features Indian and Middle Eastern influences, with meat and vegetables such as gulai and kari (curry), whereas further south, on the island of Java, the most densely populated of the Indonesian islands, where the capital city Jakarta is located, the flavors of the native cuisine are more strong and distinctive. 

Instead, heading eastwards, we come across Melanesian and Polynesian influences.


In view of the contacts Indonesia has had with China over the centuries, its cuisine naturally reflects many elements of its Chinese counterpart. These can be found in dishes like bakni (tagliatelle), bakso (meat or fish balls), and lumpia (similar to what is probably the most famous Chinese food, the spring roll), which are such an integral part of Indonesian cuisine that hardly anyone remembers their foreign origins.


A more recent, yet just as strong, the influence was the influx of people from Europe, from the Spanish and Portuguese traders who brought their traditions to the Dutch, the last ones to colonize Indonesia before it won its independence. This also determined the diffusion of ingredients that were previously only known about in the islands to which they belonged.


The Moluccas, or Maluka Islands, are an important example of the European influence in Indonesia: they are famous for being the “Spice Islands”, but it is thanks to foreign traders that spices that had previously been confined to their areas of origin, such as cloves and nutmeg, were introduced into and spread throughout the Indonesian cuisine, and then worldwide.



Despite spanning a multitude of variations, Indonesian cuisine still preserves its own specific profile that is common to the entire archipelago. This tradition is recognizable in some popular Indonesian dishes such as nasi goreng, gado-gado, satay and soto, which are now household names all over the world and considered national Indonesian dishes.


But the populations who came to Indonesia were also influenced by them.


In fact, some popular Indonesian dishes crossed the Indonesian borders and can commonly be found today in most of South East Asia. Think about satay or rendang (the famous pork stew with typical Middle Eastern flavors), two dishes that are now favorites in Malaysia and Singapore. Not to mention sambal, the well-known spicy sauce that comes in various versions, often served with the typical dishes of Indonesian cuisine.


Or the variations on the use of soy that originated in Indonesia and soon became popular in the rest of Asia, now spreading to the rest of the world. 

And it is courtesy of Indonesia that vegetarians all over the world were introduced not only to an excellent meat substitute, tofu (tahu), but also to the original tempeh, made by fermenting yellow soy, food that is rich in protein, fiber, and vitamins and also bursting with taste!



 The cuisine of Indonesia is not the only thing that characterizes its tradition. In fact, the way the dishes are served is also unique.


The most characteristic aspect of Indonesian culture is that meals are always consumed in company. Traditionally, Indonesians would sit on the floor and the food would be served on a banana leaf, or a wooden plate, often using a single container, to underline the sense of community.


Although they all share the same basic elements, in the many islands that make up the archipelago, the various communities have their own characteristics which differentiate them both in terms of the dishes they consume and how they dine together. These then influence one another, to such an extent that it is often difficult to tell what characterized what.


In the liwetan or bancakan tradition typical of West or Central Java, people meet up for dinner sitting on the floor around a long low table, and the rice, a staple in all Indonesian meals, is placed in the center, served on banana leaves. 

 In the kind of presentation known as tumpeng, characteristic of Central Java, the rice is served in the shape of a cone, in the center of a plate covered in banana leaves, with the side dishes, all arranged around it on the same plate.

This laborious preparation is an important part of traditional celebrations such as parties, banquets, or special events and it is an expression of gratitude or abundance.


Rijsttafel (pronounced ‘rʌɪstˌtɑːf(ə)l), which literally translates as “table of rice” in Dutch) is popular in the major cities of the islands, where the contacts with the Dutch were stronger.

It is characterized by the fact that the dishes are not all served together, but one after the other, so in a way that resembles more the European tradition. 

This way of serving food developed during the colonial era of the Dutch East Indies. It combined the etiquette and procedure of the official European banquet with the alimentary customs of the locals, for whom rice was a staple, accompanied by various side dishes. 

This way of presenting food is popular with the European Indonesian people, but can still be found today in the Netherlands. 

 Then there is prasmanan, another example of the European influence on Indonesian customs. In this case, all the dishes are served together according to the typical French buffet presentation. 

And indeed, the term prasmanan is an adaption of the word “fransman”, the expression used by the Dutch to refer to the French. 

This practice, handed down from the colonial era, became popular in the areas where the colonies had been, that is in Batavia, today known as Jakarta. 

 This aspect is still used now, especially in ceremonies or special occasions, even if it has been modernized to cater for today’s more modern habits.

Then, it was part of the tradition to eat with the hands, following particular rituals and clear rules, especially in the noble, or higher classes.

 Today people tend more to use cutlery, but in a unique way: holding a spoon in the right hand and a fork in the left one, and pushing the food onto the spoon, which then carries the food to the mouth.

 Considering Indonesia’s proximity to China, in cultural and geographical terms, chopsticks are also widely used, but usually only to eat Indonesian versions of Chinese food.

Indonesia’s encounters with other cultures enrich the treasures of the archipelago’s culinary arts, which are as varied as its islands. However, whatever food you eat, and whether it’s served on leaves or plates, eaten alone or in company, using your hands, cutlery or chopsticks, here, it will always be a unique experience that goes straight to your heart.