Indonesians, like pretty much every other nationality, are people who like eating meat. While some other Asian countries have some tradition of vegetarianism due to their Hindu or Buddhist faith, Indonesia is a Muslim country with no such tradition. In my recent post about being vegetarian in Malaysia, I pointed out that while meatless Malay food is hard to come by, vegetarianism has significant roles in the cultures of both the Chinese and Indian minorities, making meat-free food quite easy to come by in Malaysia. But such large minority groups do not exist in Indonesia (the Chinese are only about 2% of the population, and tend to be great meat-eaters anyway). So what do you do if you are in Indonesia and you don't eat meat?
Well actually, vegetarians can eat really well in Indonesia. With just a little knowledge, they can probably do better than in most Western countries.
One reason is that Indonesia is a poor country. Meat, as it is in most places, is expensive, and this makes it something of a luxury. For this reason many Indonesians will not eat meat every day, even if they would like to. Instead, they turn to cheaper sources of protein - eggs and soy products.
Meat is seldom the focus of the meal; as with most Asian countries, everything revolves around rice. Indonesians consume it in large quantities; meat and vegetables are really just side dishes to add accent to the rice. This means that vegetable dishes are usually more highly flavoured than in most Western cuisines (where meat is the star and vegetables are often a bland accompaniment). Indeed, Indonesians abroad tend to find Western food to be somewhat tasteless and have a need to add chili to everything.
It's important to state before I go any further that Indonesia has around 300 separate ethnicities, so talking of "Indonesian food" is almost as problematic as talking about "European food". Eating habits change from place to place due to factors such as religion, cultural influence and the local economy. Some regions feature a diet based primarily around fish. In some regions pork is the meat of choice, but most Indonesians (being Muslim) would recoil from the thought of eating pork.
I'm aware that there are some vegetarians (from certain Hindu and Buddhist traditions) who do not eat alliums (aka the onion family). If you are such a person, you will struggle immensely in Indonesia, because shallots and garlic are the basis of virtually every Indonesian dish.
If you are one of those vegetarians who eats seafood (a strange concept to me, but anyway...) then you will rarely if ever have a problem getting decent food in Indonesia. The affordability and relative abundance of seafood means that Indonesians eat it frequently, and you will find warungs selling things like ikan bakar (grilled fish) and pecel lele (deep fried catfish with sambal) everywhere.
If you don't eat seafood, you'll have to decide whether you can turn a blind eye to it from time to time. Because like all other Southeast Asian nations, Indonesian cooks are fond of using seafood products to flavour dishes that would otherwise be vegetarian. If you are a strict vegetarian who wants nothing to do with any of this fishy business, you need to make sure you know thine enemy. These can take several forms:
ebi or udang kering (dried shrimp)
terasi (shrimp paste)
petis (fermented shrimp paste, black in colour)
ikan teri (dried anchovies - what the Malaysians call ikan bilis)
All get mixed into stir-fries, stews and curries to add a savoury flavour element. So keep an eye out, and you may want to ask if a dish contains them. Terasi is used in the same way as its Malaysian equivalent belachan, usually as part of a chili sambal, but it is not as ubiquitous as in Malay cuisine. It is sometimes very hard to detect in some recipes, as the amount is rarely overpowering.
It should be stated that none of these seafood products are used anywhere near as frequently as fish sauce is used in Thai or Vietnamese cooking.
Now if you are a vegan, I won't kid you; you are gonna struggle. But you probably struggle most places you go, so I guess you are used to it. But there is plenty of bean curd and tempe available almost everywhere. Avoiding dairy is no great problem; traditional Indonesian cuisine does not really use any dairy products at all, although condensed milk and evaporated milk do turn up in various desserts and drinks. Indonesians are very fond of eggs though, and use them in a variety of ways. If you tell people you don't eat meat, the first option they will think of as a substitute protein is usually some kind of egg preparation; so if you don't eat eggs, make sure your hosts understand this.
Words and phrases to learn:
Sayur/ sayuran - vegetable(s)
Daging - meat
Tanpa daging - without meat.
"Saya tidak makan daging" - I don't eat meat.
"Saya tidak makan telur" - I don't eat eggs.
"Ada yang tidak pakai daging?" - Is there anything that doesn't have meat?
"Saya mau makan sayuran saja" - I only want to eat vegetables.
"Saya vegetarian" - I'm vegetarian (obviously). Don't take it for granted that all Indonesians are familiar with this term though.
Tahu (Bean curd)
The sheer affordability of bean curd makes it one of the most common sources of protein in Indonesia. It helps that it is usually served in very delicious ways.
Tahu goreng - fried tahu. Doesn't sound that exciting, but it is frequently boiled with salt before frying, or served with some kind of sambal.
Tahu bacem - marinated for a long time with garlic, palm sugar, salt and spices, before being deep-fried.
Tahu isi or tahu berontak - tahu that is stuffed with vegetables and sometimes shrimp, then deep-fried.
Bakwan tahu - fritters of mashed tahu seasoned with spices.
Kupat tahu - fried tahu, with cubes of compressed rice cake, served with peanut sauce.
Tempe mendoan - tempe fried with green onions in batter,
Tempe bacem - marinated for a long time with garlic, palm sugar, salt and spices, before being deep-fried.
Tempe penyet (pictured) - flattened, fried and served with a fiery sambal.
Oncom - not tempeh but a related product, typically made from soybean or peanut residue fermented with a mold. Sounds dubious, but the Sundanese can turn it into something very special.
Combro - a common street food in Jakarta and West Java, this is a deep-fried rissole of grated cassava filled with a tasty oncom filling.
Gado-gado and its variants:
You'd hate to have a nut allergy in Indonesia, because peanuts are obiquitous, particularly in vegetable dishes. Gado-gado is the best known of these dishes; essentially it is a mixture of cooked vegetables served with a spicy peanut sauce, usually accompanied by lontong (pressed rice steamed in banana leaves). Boiled egg and tofu are often included, as are crunchy crackers of some kind (usually either shrimp-flavoured krupuk or emping made from the melinjo nut).
There are a number of variants on the vegetables-with-peanut-sauce theme to be found throughout Indonesia, depending on which region you are in. In a city like Jakarta, with inhabitants hailing from all over the archipelago, you can probably find them all. Be aware that the peanut sauce may contain a small quantity of terasi, but certainly not always.
Lotek is the Sundanese version of gado-gado and is more or less the same.
Ketoprak hails from Jakarta and is very similar to gado-gado except that it usually contains mihun (vermicelli) and the dressing is based on sweet soya sauce with bits of peanut in it.
Nasi pecel is found in East and Central Java and consists of rice, a variety of vegetables, and peanut sauce.
Karedok is a raw salad (cucumber, snake beans, bean sprouts, cabbage, lemon basil and other vegetables) from the Sundanese cuisine of West Java, with a sweetish sauce, usually containing peanuts and loaded with chili and often terasi.
Rujak - a salad of fruit and sometimes vegetables, in a dark, sweet and spicy sauce that frequently contains peanuts and more often than not will contain terasi. There are numerous variations on this theme.
Nasi campur (or nasi rames)
Meaning "mixed rice", this style of eating is very common; get a plate of steamed rice and choose from a selection of home-style side dishes. Most will be meaty, but you are almost certain to find something vegetarian. However, don't be too surprised if you find yourself picking small bits of meat or prawn out of a dish that otherwise seems vegetarian.
Padang (Minang) cuisine
Padang food is dominated by meat, but there will always be vegetable dishes to choose from. These usually include:
Fried tahu and tempe
Boiled daun singkong (cassava leaves)
Boiled egg in a spicy coconut gravy
A stir-fried vegetable or combination (bean sprouts, eggplant, leafy greens)
Virtually every town in Indonesia has at least one Padang eatery, and it is a welcome standby for vegetarians struggling to find good food elsewhere.
Nasi goreng and mi goreng
Fried rice and fried noodles are common and ubiquitous. Usually they contain meat, but cooks are always happy to make them tanpa daging (without meat). If you do, you will usually get asked if you want telur (egg) as well, as it is a standard addition.
If you can overlook or avoid the frequent use of terasi, the food of the Sunda region in West Java is vegetarian heaven. Sundanese women are said to have beautiful skin because they eat so many vegetables. Karedok (discussed above) is a good example.
One of the must-tries of Sundanese food is pepes, which is food mixed with a variety of fragrant spices, wrapped in small banana leaf packages and steamed. While fish and meat are the most common fillings, it is easy to get pepes tahu, pepes tempe, pepes oncom, or pepes jamur (mushroom).
Eating in someone's home
If you have the fortune to be invited for a meal in someone's home, make sure you let them know well in advance that you are vegetarian unless, you want to take your chances. An Indonesian family would normally be more likely to serve up meat, since things like tahu and tempe are not always seen as worthy of serving to guests. While most Indonesians would find the idea of someone not eating meat as a little strange, they should be able to accomodate vegetarian needs easily enough if you ask nicely.
As long as you eat eggs, you will probably be OK when eating in people's homes; I've lost count of the amount of times I've gotten by on rice with a little omelette, some chili sambal and a bit of green vegetable.
But don't wait until the meal is served and then announce that you don't eat meat. This will just lead to an uncomfortable situation for everybody.
Other typical Indonesian vegetarian dishes:
Perkedel jagung - corn fritter.
Tumis sayur (or oseng-oseng sayur) - some kind of stir-fried vegetable, typically snake beans, cabbage, kangkung (water spinach), or taugeh (bean sprouts).
Sayur lodeh - vegetables cooked in a coconut gravy.
Sayur asem - vegetables cooked in a sourish, light tamarind-based gravy.
Terong balado - fried eggplant in a fiery chili sambal.
Telur balado - hard-boiled egg in fiery chili sambal.
Urap - a mix of vegetables steamed with grated coconut and spices.
Sambal goreng kentang - spicy fried potatoes.
Nasi uduk - coconut rice, usually served with shredded omelet and a few other condiments.
Nasi gudeg - a specialty of Central Java based around cooked young jackfruit, rice and several accompaniments which usually include tahu, chicken, boiled egg and buffalo skin. You can get it without the meat easily enough.
See also my review of Payon in Jakarta, which has a plethora of vegetarian dishes.