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Sumatran food
Buffalo, goat and dog in the bowl

Following the 17th century traveller Sir John Chardin, as well as religion as well as history and geography have always played an important role in the food of a population. This is especially true about Sumatra. Consuming pork distinguishes the Christian minority from the Islamic majority.

The Christian Batak around Danau Toba and somewhere else on Northern Sumatra eat pork and sometimes also dog, and they usually farm pigs in the village settlements. Islamic people are not allowed to eat pork, because it is seen as unclean, and they are only allowed to eat whenever death of hunger is inevitable.

Muslims do eat other kinds of meat under which buffalo's, goats, ducks, lambs, chicken and fish as well as the eggs of it, fruits and vegetables. Since the 1970's the Muslims on Sumatra have to be sure that their meat is prepared the halal way, so it's the good way for Muslims, this is done bu cutting the neck, while the name of Allah is called out.

History and geography also play an important role. After centuries of trading contacts the Sumatran cuisine does surely have influences from all over the archipelago and abroad.

In the North-Sumatran capital Medan for example, different kinds of influences can be seen, varying from Indian to Arabian, besides the common local food. Many dried seeds are used for flavouring . Gulai kumah and Gulai bagar, two curry dishes with goat meat, rich of taste, but they are not hot, in contrary to the local Sumatran dishes.

In the neighbourhood of the coast, fish and seafood are the most important food in restaurants. One of the most popular dishes in Palembang is empek-empek, fish-balls (in some cases stuffed with egg), served warm with a hot sauce of pepper, garlic, dried shrimps, palm-sugar and soy sauce.

Above all, Palembang is known for it's good krupuk in the entire Indonesian archipelago, because it seems to contain more fish or shrimps than some place else.

Hot is good

Sumatra does have a big number of local styles of cooking, but the most famous is without doubt masakan padang, the burning0hot cuisine of the Minangkabau of Western Sumatra, named after the provincial capital of Padang. Restaurants in this style can be found all over Indonesia; a number of padang-dishes enjoys national and international fame. The most known meat-dish, rendang is being served in restaurants all over the world.

Rendang is usually prepared with meat in little blocks steamed in coconut milk with a mixture of garlic, peppers, curcuma, laos and numbers of other ingredients. The pieces of meat are not allowed to fall apart and the mixture is not allowed to lump. The eventual dish consists of smooth pieces of meat, a bit hard on the outside, in a heavy dark-brown sauce.
The long cooking and the spices, most of all the peppers, conserve the meat and it's common that rendang is taken on long journeys, like the hajj to Mecca. Rendang is a memory from home as well as an easy dish which saves time, since only nasi putih, white rice is needed to complete the dish. Sumatran mothers prepare, pack and send the dish to their children on other islands. Rendang is much to heavy and hot to eat fast. Small pieces are mixed with a spoon of rice. All spicy dishes are used to be eaten with much care.

Unique serving

Wherever they are, Padang-restaurants have their own unique way to serve their dishes, which still intrigues foreigners. You don't need to order. Shortly after the guest has arrived, a waiter will show up with various dishes, which the guest likes, he can eat. Sometimes sauces are free, but just don't only eat sauce with white rice.

Experienced Padang-restaurant visitors know which tastes and dishes belong together, and adapt their choice to that. Ones with less experience can get a dish full of non-compatible tastes. When in doubt, just order a dish of nasi rames or nasi cumpur. This is white rice with several pieces of meat and vegetables, sprinkled with sauce and serundeng (grinded coconut, toasted with peanuts)and decorated with krupuk.

Table manners

The usual way of eating in Indonesia is to take some rice within your fingertips together with meat and sauce before putting it in your mouth. Nowadays there are also forks and spoons, but it's not proper to use the spoon for eating as well as getting food to your dish of bowl. Use a separate spoon for that!

The normal diner of a normal family consists of four or five different dishes and rice. This can be two dishes with meat, for example gulai ayam (curry chicken) and dendeng (sun dried meat), a vegetable-dish like cucumber salad, and different smaller additions like sambal, acar (sour) and krupuk. Rice is the base for every meal, the neutral taste is ideal for making different dishes and to combine them.

Of course not all padang dishes are hot. Also try opor ayam (crispy fried chicken), or pergedel, meat and potatoes. Other dishes are prepared with less pepper, like satay and gado-gado (vegetable mix with peanut sauce). Satay can be bought all across Indonesia, at the warungs in the street and in every restaurant, and it consists of pieces of meat prepared in spices and peanut sauce, sometimes even with kecap (soy sauce).
Padang knows a special kind of satay, which deserves some more attention. This satay consists of pieces of heart, liver, tongue and is mixed with many spices and salt. The meat is then cut into small pieces and put onto bamboo sticks. The meat-drenched water is made into a yellow sauce. Sprinkled with fried onions, sate padang is a very good meal.

Vegetarians can also enjoy themselves here, because of the many tempeh-dishes of Western Sumatra. Tempeh is made from fermented soy-beans. The beans are pressed together, and held together by s light layer of mildew, with a smell that is just like fresh mushrooms. Tempeh is a very cheap source of good proteins and it's very crispy and nice when it's fried. It can also be mixed into a curry dish of it can be used in vegetable dishes as well as with potatoes and peppers.

Drinks and snacks

Beer does fit just good with most Sumatran dishes. Brands like Bir Bintang and Anker are brewed in Indonesia. The religious dis-allowance of alcoholic drinks is not universally listened to, and on the whole, drinking foreigners are not a problem. Locals however, prefer to drink tea or ice water with their food.

There also is a local dish that contains a little alcohol. Sumatrans do like snacks between meals, and one of the most loved is tapai, sometimes spelled as tape. Sumatran tapai is made from boiled or steamed black rice. When the rice is cooled down, it's sprinkled with a special yeast.

After that the rice is placed in a bowl and left alone on a warm place for three to four days. Afterwards the mixture is a little yeasted, and is has a little port-like odour. It's usually served with lermang, white sticky rice boiled, and put in a basket of banana leaves. In Central Sumatra it is available everywhere and always, but it's especially popular during the fasting month Idul Fitri.

Another specific, loved snack is dadih (buffalo yoghurt). It is being selled in small bamboo shoots, and it's being served with emping (sticky rice through hot water), sprinkled with fresh cononut and brown palm sugar. It's a very nutritious meal. Dadih is sold at almost every warung, kedai or lepau.


At every bus stop and every bus station of Sumatra, dozens of sellers gather at each bus to sell their food. In their baskets they carry a big variety of food, good for keeping some time on a journey.

Almost every bus station on Sumatra does have it's own speciality, the same goes for the railway stations. Women in the neighbourhood, and travel bu bys, often buy a selection of these for oleh-oleh, gifts. When they visit family members it's unthinkable they go there without a present, they have to give something 'to open the door', as is said. And there are always small kids around which appreciate small gifts at all times.

The universal banana leave

Banana leaves can be found all over the Indonesian archipelago. There are plenty of them, and can't be missed too. They are tough, but after heating they can be bend easily. Most of the times they are used for packing food which is steamed of a charcoal, or as a packing material for take-away food at a kedai or lepau. Market sellers pack small articles in those leaves.

Banana leaves are also used as one-time-use dishes at the local kedai or lepau, or to cover dishes and bowls. They foresee in many needs where the westerners use plastics. Hopefully they are never replaced by that. Banana leaves are biological re-usable.

Last revised on September 02, 2011
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