Gado-Gado: Indonesia’s Vegetarian Dream Food

If you’re a vegetarian, eating in Southeast Asia can be frustrating to say the least.  In Vietnam, I can’t even convey how many times I repeated the phrase “no fish sauce” just to smell the overwhelming aroma of nước mắm (fermented fish sauce) wafting from my bowl of vegetarian phở (Vietnamese noodle soup).  In Thailand my requests for “no meat” were usually met with bewildered stares, followed by a bountiful plate of noodles (or rice) which were almost always peppered with some sort of meat.

As a seasoned traveler, I’m accustomed to the difficulties that come with being a vegetarian.  If I’m served a delicious-looking bowl of Tofu Coconut Curry and it’s loaded with shrimp paste, I don’t complain about it – I simply don’t eat it.  I mean, it’s not the cook’s fault I have such strict and foreign eating habits!  And if there are chunks of meat in my vegetable fried rice, I just pick them out.  It took me years to be comfortable with this idea and even now it kind of skeeves me out.  But in my experience, sending food back usually results in the kitchen staff rooting through your meal and picking out the bits of meat with their bare hands.  (Yes, this happened to me during my trip to Vietnam.)  I suppose I’d rather fish out the meat chunks with my own hands.

But what are you going to do?  These are the challenges that come with traveling.  And it definitely comes with the territory of being a vegetarian on the road.  I spent a total of seven months traveling through Southeast Asia, traversing the region all the way from Laos to Indonesia.  Along the way, I tasted some of the best dishes of my life but also experienced countless frustrations when it came to finding meat-free meals (hello Philippines!). By the time I arrived in Indonesia, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Per usual, the guidebook warned me that finding decent vegetarian food would be a “challenge.”  So you can imagine my excitement when I learned that one of Indonesia’s national dishes, gado-gado, is actually vegetarian!

Gado-gado is a staple of Indonesian cuisine and can be found throughout the country at food stalls and 5-star restaurants alike.

Gado-gado is technically a salad, though it differs from the traditional Western concept of salad.  It is typically comprised of a variety of boiled or steamed vegetables – usually cabbage, carrots, gourd, and string beans – slices of tofu and/or tempeh, hunks of cold cucumber, and a hard-boiled egg.  The ingredients are mixed together, drenched in a rich and tangy peanut sauce, and sprinkled with savory slivers of fried shallots.  An oversized, deep-fried cracker called krupuk is often served on the side.  It might sound like a random combination of ingredients, but it’s pretty damn good.  And another perk for vegetarians is that it’s a great source of protein, something that’s hard to come by when traveling in Southeast Asia.

The peanut sauce gets its sweet and spicy flavor from a combination of coconut/palm sugar and ground-up chilies. Its creamy texture is derived from a mixture of ground peanuts, tamarind and tangy lime.
Krupuk, a crispy and airy cracker, often accompanies the dish.

So if you’ve been traveling in Indonesia and your diet consists of eggs in the morning, nasi goreng (fried rice) at lunch and pizza for dinner, gado-gado will offer a welcome, tasty and healthy change of pace.

A WORD OF WARNING TO VEGETARIANS/VEGANS:  Krupuk can be flavored with anything from onion to prawn, so these crispy crackers might not be suitable for non-pescetarians.  Also, the peanut sauce served with gado-gado is sometimes prepared with trace amounts of terasi (shrimp paste).  However, I never encountered this during my two months in Indonesia.

Have you ever tried gado-gado?  Have you ever sampled any other vegetarian dishes while traveling in Indonesia?  I’d love to hear about them!

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

10 thoughts on “Gado-Gado: Indonesia’s Vegetarian Dream Food

  1. Oh I love gado-gado. I usually like it for the peanut sauce…you are making me crave one right now…haha…I especially love tempeh so I pretty much demolish the tempeh with the sauce. I would agree that the concept of vegetarian in local cuisine can be quite hard…I can only think of a few in malay/indonesian cuisine. Indian food should have more options I believe.

  2. clearly i love it too! when i got to indonesia i couldn’t believe tempeh was so popular. and the combination of the nutty tempeh flavor and the amazing peanut sauce is kind of the best thing ever – especially for a starving vegetarian 🙂

  3. Yummmm, gado-gado sounds divine! I love virtually anything that makes use of savory peanut sauces…. just the thought of it is making my mouth water! Do you know what type of flour the krupuk is made of?

    1. Élan you’re the best! I know you’re on a gluten-free diet so it’s funny you ask. I’ve heard so many stories about travelers who are in the same boat as you. Gado-gado just happens to be a lifesaver for those who are desperately seeking a gluten-free meal in Indonesia. As far as krupuk goes it is often made with tapioca flour, which is gluten-free (as far as I know). However, it’s always best to ask. Since there are so many different types of these crispy crackers available in Indonesia, you never know!

  4. Actually, tempeh and tahu (now bonafide health foods) has been in the Indonesian culture for centuries. I’m Indonesian and i know i eat it very very often, without the knowledge that it was even healthy! Loads of Indonesian foods are vegetarian, however, its easier to find them in more small, isolated areas since we are mostly fishermen and we eat more fish than actual beef and chicken. A lot of people can’t afford meat, and thus the plentiful vegetarian options. Some of them include gado-gado, bakwan jagung (my absolute fave!), tahu, tempeh, sayur lodeh, gudeg, longing cap gomeh, sayer asem, mie tek-tek, and so much more! 🙂

    1. Thanks for listing all the great Indonesian vegetarian options. I’m actually working on creating a post on vegetarian food options in Indonesia so this will come in handy. Now that I’ve been here for a little while I’ve tried a bunch of these, but I’d never heard of longing cap gomeh before. I’ll have to seek that one out! I have to say that bakwan is my absolute favorite thing. I buy it all the time; it’s such an addiction of mine. And I love eating them with the spicy green peppers. YUM! I’m actually going to try my hand at making them myself 🙂

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