An archipelago of 17,000 islands, Indonesia is a maritime crossroads between Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific. In centuries past, it was known as the Spice Islands — the home of nutmeg, mace and cloves. Today, it offers a diverse cuisine with many flavours, ingredients and surprises.
I spent my childhood in Manado, in North Sulawesi — the centre of trade in vanilla, cloves, nutmeg, coconut products and seafood. I can still see it all now: my grandfather’s coconut plantations set against volcanic mountains, pristine beaches skirting coral reefs. It’s a view that triggers memories of manisan pala (candied nutmeg), banana fritters and fish stews and sweetcorn fritters.
Tropical seas surround Manado. We love to barbecue fish and serve it with dabu-dabu, a relish of fresh tomatoes, shallots, chillies, citrussy calamansi fruit and mint. This and many other Manadonese recipes are a world away from Indonesian dishes such as chicken satay (grilled and skewered), nasi goreng (fried rice) and beef rendang (stew).
For instance, we have ikan woku blanga, a delightful fish stew with fresh root spices and herbs, and ayam tuturuga, a braised chicken dish with turmeric and coconut.
Historic Dutch influences are also present in Manado. There’s klapertart, a pudding of coconut, vanilla custard, rum, raisins and almonds, or brenebon soup, with kidney beans, nutmeg, cloves, spring onions and pork.
Just as local spices have become a feature in world cookery, Indonesians have adopted dishes and ingredients. Portuguese and Spanish explorers brought chillies, while the Minahasan people of North Sulawesi love fiery cuisine, blending chillies and ginger with lemon basil, lemongrass and lime leaves. We also have the cuisine of the Peranakan, descendants of Chinese migrants; pandan pancakes and pineapple biscuits are national favourites.
This is an edited extract from The Indonesian Table, by Petty Pandean-Elliott, published by Phaidon (£24.95).
Three must-try dishes
1. Bubur manado
A classic comfort food, this rice porridge features pumpkin, fresh sweetcorn and local green leaf vegetables, infused with crushed lemongrass and kemangi (a local basil). Smoked fish sambal, known as sambal roa, can add umami and fiery spice.
2. Ikan bakar
From street stalls to restaurants, you’ll find barbecued fish such as ocean tuna, snapper and, in the Tondano area, freshwater carp. It’s served with two different sambals: dabu-dabu (fresh tomato, chilli and lime juice) and rica-rica (chilli and ginger). Enjoy it with rice and stir-fried morning glory.
3. Pisang goreng
With a delightful sweet flavour, the indigenous, short and heavy saba banana is perfect for fritters in crispy batter. Enjoy the fritters as they are or add a savoury taste with a touch of sambal roa.
The must-try ingredient:
Bird’s-eye chilli, known as rica in Manadonese or cabe rawit in Indonesian, ranges in colour from yellow to orange to red. It adds a fiery kick to sambals, stir-fried, stews and more.