Java may only be Indonesia’s fifth largest island by mass, but it’s the most populated island in the country. Once dominated by Hindu and Buddhist empires from the 8th century, the culture shifted to an Islamic sultanate in the 16th century, followed by the Dutch colonial period. The Javanese ethnic group now makes up the largest population on the island (and the country), residing primarily in Central and East Java. In West Java, you will find Sundanese people, as well as the Betawi people (an ethnic group from Jakarta). The various ethnic groups on the island, along with historical influences contribute to Java’s rich culinary traditions.
Besides Java’s rich culture and traditions, I would like to introduce you some best dishes which you must try out in Java.
Sate Padang (Padang satay)
Sate Padang is such a unique (and delicious) type of Indonesian sate that I had to include it in this food guide as its own. Originally from Padang, a food lovers province on the west coast of Sumatra, Sate Padang seems to have a cult following among food lovers – and after I had my first plate, I completely understand why.
The skewers of meat, which often include beef pieces, beef tongue, and offal, are first marinated in a mixture of spices, then grilled over hot flaming charcoal, and finally they are often served over sliced up compressed rice cake, called ketupat, and then covered in a thick brown colored sauce, and sprinkled with crispy shallots. The result of Sate Padang is not the prettiest dish you’ll ever see, but the taste is incredible.
Believed to have been invented by the Sundanese ethnic group, cireng fritters are a common street food item that is prepared with tapioca flour or sago starch. Apart from the main ingredients, the fritters consist of various additions that typically include garlic, scallions, and different seasonings, while modern-day varieties also incorporate meat or sausages.
Cireng fritters are characterized by their round shape, pale color, and a crispy exterior, while the center remains soft and chewy. They are usually sold at numerous street stands and are best enjoyed freshly prepared, accompanied by soy sauce or chili-based sauces.
A rice dish cooked in coconut milk, chicken broth, and spices, nasi liwet is a must-have when you are traveling to the city of Solo in Central Java. Stroll into a lesehan, an eatery where diners sit on woven straw mats instead of chairs and eating with your hands is encouraged. The toppings that accompany this fragrant rice vary by the restaurant but typically include at least shredded chicken and hard-boiled egg. One of the most popular spots is Nasi Liwet Bu Wongso Lemu, which has been open since the 1950s.
Bakso is the most widely available street food dishes and dearly loved by Indonesian. Even former US President Barack Obama fell in love with this Indonesian meatball soup that he frequently enjoyed during his time growing up in Indonesia.
Next to meatballs, you can also add other items in a bowl of bakso such as gorengan (deep fried dumpling) and stuffed tofu. After adding rice or egg noodle, fried shallots and parsley as garnish, the bowl is then completed with a pour of clear beef broth. And don’t forget to put a bit of sambal. Delish!
Where to try:
- Jakarta: Bakso Solo Samrat, Jalan Boulevard Raya WAB 2 No. 1, Kelapa Gading, Jakarta
- Surabaya: Bakso Ketabang Kali, Jalan Ketabang Kali, Surabaya
Pecel lele is a Javanese delicacy consisting of deep-fried catfish paired with sambal paste and vegetables such as cucumbers, string beans, lettuce, and cabbage. Tofu, tempeh, and steamed rice are often seen on the side, depending on regional preferences.
It is recommended to pair the dish with a glass of fresh orange juice or tea. Flavorful, inexpensive, and nutritious, it is a favorite meal of numerous Javanese people who often buy it from street stands called warung tenda, which are usually open from late in the afternoon until midnight.
Since pecel lele is affordable and uses only the freshest ingredients, the dish has also spread to neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Singapore.
Ayam Bakar Taliwang (grilled chicken)
Have you ever eaten three chickens by yourself in one meal? When you eat ayam bakar Taliwang, not only are the grilled chickens so good you might be able to eat three of them by yourself, but they are also very small because they either free range chickens or sometimes spring chickens.
This type of grilled chicken originates from the island of Lombok, and it’s popular with spicy grilled chicken lovers throughout Indonesia. When I saw the amount of chilies caked onto my ayam bakar Taliwang, I knew I was in for a life-changing grilled chicken experience, and it was true.
The chicken itself was so flavorful, and not too tender, but with just enough texture so that with every bite it kept releasing more chicken juices, kind of like that crazily juicy chicken I ate in Osaka. But along with just being a flavorful chicken from the start, it was beautifully spicy. Ayam Bakar Taliwang is one of the dishes you don’t want to miss if you love spicy food.
Where: In Jakarta, you can try Ayam Taliwang Rinjani which was amazing, especially the super extra pedas chicken. Address: Jalan Pesanggrahan Raya No. 50, Puri Indah, Jakarta; Open hours: 10 am – 10 pm daily; Prices: We had 3 chickens and a few side dishes for 165,000 IDR ($12.39).
These traditional, small-sized Indonesian pancakes are usually prepared with rice flour and a choice of coconut milk or shredded coconut. The pancakes are incredibly versatile, they come in sweet and savory versions, and can be adapted with wheat flour and various toppings such as sugar, bananas, crushed peanuts, jackfruit, chocolate sprinkles, or fermented oncom, while modern-day additions also include meat, sausages, or ice cream.
Serabi pancakes are found throughout Java, but they are usually associated with the cities of Bandung and Solo. They are typically accompanied by strawberry, durian, or coconut-based kinca syrup, and are mainly sold as a quick and convenient street food.
A similar dish can be found in Thailand, where it goes under the name khanom khrok.