Before I moved to Jakarta, I was really worried that being a vegetarian in Indonesia was going to be really frustrating. I had already spent two months traveling the length of Java and Bali, subsisting on a steady diet of nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice), which got really old, really fast. Back then it appeared that the concept of vegetarianism was incredibly foreign to most Indonesians and their food seemed disappointingly meat-centric. It took living here for me to realize that there are a ton of delicious and popular vegetarian foods in Indonesia. Who says traveling as a vegetarian in Indonesia has to be difficult?
10 Popular Vegetarian Foods in Indonesia:
Since I moved to Jakarta, bakwan has become my #1 guilty pleasure. This is one of the more popular vegetarian foods in Indonesia; it is all over the place and is widely available at food stalls across the country. Bakwan are pretty much corn fritters, but they are prepared differently in various parts of the country. They are typically made with corn and rice flour, which is mixed with corn, carrot and cabbage and spiced with fingerroot and kaffir lime leaves.
Depending on where you are in the country, bakwan might also be referred to as dadar jagung, bakwan jagung or perkedel jagung. (FYI, jagung means corn, so when in doubt look for that word.) Bakwan are commonly served with raw, spicy chilis (see above). I never thought I would be one to just snack on raw chilis but it is actually incredibly good (and spicy)! Vegetarians be careful not to buy bakwan undag, as it is prepared with shrimp. The shrimp are usually on top, so they’re easy to spot!
This popular soup is prepared with a coconut broth and chunks all sorts of fresh ingredients…think corn on the cob, unripe jackfruit, chili peppers, long beans and tempeh. For vegetarians, it’s important to note that some vendors will make this soup with animal-based broths. So if you’re super paranoid (like me) it’s best to ask. But I’m assured by my Indonesian friends that it is most often purely vegetarian.
Sayur asem is very similar to sayur lodeh. This tart soup can be found everywhere from street vendors to 5-star restaurants. What’s great about sayur asem is that it’s made with a tamarind-based broth and it is rarely prepared with any animal-based ingredients. It is the tamarind that gives this soup its signature sour flavor. Like sayur lodeh, sayur asem is often prepared with young jackfruit, green beans and corn on the cob.
When I was backpacking around Indonesia, I could not get enough gado-gado. This has to be one of the best vegetarian foods in Indonesia because, well, anything with peanut sauce is just really freaking good.
I wrote a detailed post all about gado-gado, but to sum it up it’s an Indonesian “salad” made up of fresh veggies – usually carrots, green beans, cucumber, cabbage and some sort of gourd – tempeh, tofu and a hard boiled egg. All of this is drenched in a creamy peanut sauce and the result is heavenly. Gado-gado is ubiquitous in Indonesia and there’s no doubt that vegetarians and non-vegetarians will snack on this dish many a time during their Indonesian vacation.
A note to vegetarians: gado-gado is usually served with krupuk (crackers), which are often flavored with prawn. I always just put them to the side.
When I first came to Indonesia I was ecstatic that tempeh plays such a large role in Indonesian cuisine. I’m sure not everyone shares my enthusiasm for tempeh, but I think most vegetarians and vegans can understand my excitement. Tempeh is everywhere in Indonesia: it is fried up and sold by street vendors as a common snack, and it is also featured in many Indonesian dishes. The nice thing about local buffets is that there are bound to be numerous tempeh dishes, which means eating local is pretty easy (and really cheap!) for vegetarians.
Like tempeh, tahu (tofu) is cooked up everywhere in Indonesia. Tahu berontak is a really popular snack and it’s incredibly addictive. Street vendors stuff huge hunks of tofu with anything from cabbage to carrots to bean sprouts and deep fry them until they’re deliciously crunchy. This dish is often served with a sweet and spicy sauce.
Onde-onde are puffy, ball-shaped pastries and are commonly filled with lotus, mung bean or red bean pastes and coated in sesame seeds. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of onde-onde, but everyone else seems to love it!
This super sweet dessert is found in a few countries around Southeast Asia, but it is particularly popular in Indonesia. It’s made from coconut milk, a brown sugar syrup and topped with green pieces of jelly. The jelly might sound weird to some but I assure you, it’s really good!
Being a vegetarian can be tough in a lot of countries, but the amazing selection of fruit makes being a vegetarian in Indonesia so much easier. My personal favorites are dragon fruit (especially red dragon fruit) and mangosteen (it’s so sweet it tastes like candy!). There are just absurd amounts of amazing and even downright bizarre fruits to choose from in Indonesia.
Grilled corn with sambal
There’s just something about freshly grilled corn that I can’t get enough of, especially when it’s slathered with seasoned butter and spicy sambal. Sambal is a spicy sauce concocted from chili peppers, ginger, garlic, shallots and more. Indonesians appear to put it on virtually everything…a habit I’ve picked up since moving here. Vegetarians traveling in Indonesia need to be careful that the sambal isn’t made with shrimp or fish paste (you’ll be able to smell it immediately). When it’s not, sambal is the best thing ever and tastes particularly good on piping hot corn!
See? Being a vegetarian in Indonesia isn’t so bad. It helps that there are a ton of popular vegetarian foods in Indonesia to choose from. For anyone out there who’s interested in learning more about Indonesian food (especially all of you non-vegetarians out there), Katie over at From Shores to Skylines created a wonderful guide to Indonesian food, which I highly recommend.
Have you ever been to Indonesia? What were some of your favorite foods?