Travelling as a vegan does not have to be difficult in Indonesia.
If you travel to Indonesia, you will be blessed with an abundance of great tropical fruit, fresh produce, herbs, spices and, of course, soybean tempeh!
If you are plant-based, Bali is a foodies paradise. You will have no shortage of places to eat and can find 100% vegan cafes, vegan coffee, vegan snacks, vegan catering, vegan cakes and every type of vegan meal you could dream of.
I encourage you to also look beyond the tourist hub and discover authentic Indonesian cuisine in other locations. Each region has its traditional cooking methods, unique flavours and speciality ingredients that the city is famous for.
It would be impossible to cover Indonesian cuisine in just one article. Here you will find the basics, and I hope it encourages you to give the vegan food options a try.
Let's see what excellent vegan food is waiting for you here in Indonesia.
It is hard to believe that in a region so rich with diverse fruits and vegetables, and a place that is the home of tempeh, that a plant-based diet is not more common. Meat and seafood still play a major role in the local cuisine and many say that they simply don't understand the vegan lifestyle or see a need to stop eating meat.
Meat is still consumed for certain holidays, religious ceremonies and celebrations.
A recent survey in 2019 highlighted the following: Reasons for not eating plant-based foods in Indonesia
- It is difficult to find it where I live: 46%
- It costs more than the original: 35%
- Did not see a need for plant-based alternatives to meat: 25%
- Plant-based doesn't taste as good as the original: 22%
- Not sure of the ingredients compared to the original: 12%
- Other reasons: 9%
- Believe plant-based is not nutritious: 3%
So, is the vegan movement making progress in Indonesia? According to Karim Taslim the head of the World Vegan Organisation, “Veganism is definitely on its way to becoming mainstream."
After Bali, Jakarta is now the second most vegan-friendly city in Indonesia.
“Being vegan is a glorious adventure. It touches every aspect of my life – my relationships, how I relate to the world.”
Indonesian Food Culture
Did you know that Indonesia was rated as of the most vegetarian-friendly destinations in the world?
According to data from the Vegetarian Global Index, Indonesia easily caters to vegetarians and vegans and is one of the world’s best places to find vegetarian food.
Meat consumption in Indonesia is far lower than in other locations on a global scale.
Meat, fish and egg are often a side dish to the main staple ingredient; rice.
Meat such as chicken or beef might feature on the plate, but it is easily replaced with tofu (tahu), tempeh or fresh vegetables (sayuran).
Aside from steamed white rice (nasi putih), Indonesian cuisine relies on rice noodles (bihun), steamed rice cake (lontong), wheat noodles (mie) and cassava (singkong).
Travel around the region, and you will also see yellow rice (nasi kuning) rich with the taste of turmeric (kunyit), served up with green beans (buncis), tempeh (kering tempeh) and topped with shredded coconut (serundeng).
Sauces are based on ingredients like chilli, peanuts and coconut milk. Chilli paste (sambal), being the most popular accompaniment to any dish, is where one or more kinds of chilli are mixed with other flavourings.
Many traditional dishes are served with satay or peanut sauce (saus kacang), such as gado gado, karedok, lotek, ketoprak and kupat tahu. All vegetable dishes can be made vegan.
Indonesian Food & Cooking
Over 17,000 islands, 300 ethnicities, and a past filled with trade links to the Middle East, India, China and Europe, Indonesia's culinary heritage are incredibly fascinating.
Traditional Indonesian cuisine is primarily based on herbs and spices, giving each meal its significant taste and aroma. There is commonly a mix of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter flavours in any meal. Coriander seeds, pepper, clove, nutmeg, cumin, ginger, candlenuts, basil, lemongrass, chilli and turmeric are widely used in Indonesian cooking.
Indonesian food is prepared according to various ways such as shallow or deep-fried, grilled over hot coals, simmered, steamed and baked, and does not require complex kitchen utensils.
You will see rice and vegetable dishes mixed in the wok on the side of the street, curries bubbling away in large pots and rice steaming in banana leaves.
Is Vegan Food Expensive?
The truth; no.
It is no more expensive to eat vegan or vegetarian than it is to eat meat, dairy, eggs, and seafood daily. Omitting the chicken, fish, or egg from your meal and adding vegetables, tofu and tempeh will always be less expensive.
If you think 'vegan cafes are so fancy and over priced', I would ask you to consider how much it is for a steak dinner or what you paid last time at KFC for nothing but a bucket of fried chicken. It all comes down to your food choices.
The good news is that plant-based meal options in Indonesia can cost as little as 70 cents to $1, and that will buy you a very delicious meal.
Being vegan requires you to be a little creative. Also, don't go for just the imported vegan food products or western foods. This is where it can get expensive by comparison. The idea of being vegan is to swap the meat, eggs and seafood for fresh fruits, vegetables, local grains, tofu and tempeh.
Instead of chicken curry have a vegetable or jackfruit curry.
Decide to have fried rice with extra vegetables and tofu and leave the fried chicken out of the order.
Enjoy the traditional meals with meat alternatives to keep prices the same if not cheaper.
It won't hurt to have a few key phrases of Bahasa Indonesian in your vocabulary if you are trying to order vegan food from a local food place (warung).
If you are in a popular tourist area, most cafes and restaurants will understand or have a vegetarian/vegan option on the menu.
The most significant issues are fish sauce, shrimp paste, and egg. Many dishes also come with a side of prawn crackers. The shrimp paste is also commonly found in specific sambal recipes.
Egg (telur) is the most accessible ingredient to avoid as it is usually served hard-boiled or fried, and you can just ask for it not to be added to the plate. However, in dishes like fried rice (nasi goreng) the egg can be mixed through the meal so just be sure to check with the cook before you order.
Another food group is dairy. In Indonesia, sweet milk or condensed milk, carnation milk and cheese are becoming more popular. It is common to see cheese (keju) mixed with sweet dishes to balance sweet and salty.
Sweets & Beverages
If you have a sugar craving, the traditional dishes are still based on coconut milk and palm sugar and are sure to satisfy any sweet tooth.
A few of my favourites are:
Pisang Goreng: different varieties of bananas dipped in a flour batter then deep-fried (addictive).
Kue Putu: a sweet combination of pandan paste, rice flour, grated palm sugar, and shredded coconut.
Kue Lapis: uniquely made with rice flour or glutinous rice flour, mixed with coconut milk and different flavours are added and then layered to make a colourful cake.
Wajik: crafted with glutinous rice, palm sugar, coconut milk made into a special diamond shape.
Ongol-Ongol: made with mung bean flour, cassava, glutinous rice flour, or sago flour shaped into balls and covered in shredded coconut.
Nagasari: a steamed cake made from rice flour, sugar, coconut milk, and filled with sliced banana.
Cendol: served cold over ice, this drink is made from rice flour which is flavoured with pandan and poured over coconut milk and sweet palm sugar syrup.
Fresh Juice: you can order fresh fruit juice from the local street vendor, or find coconuts everywhere on the side of the road. Make sure you request fruit only in your juice or smoothie or it will come with sweet milk and plenty of sugar syrup!
Coffee & Tea: you will find coffee and tea (kopi/teh) served up almost everywhere, including sellers walking or cycling along the street with a flask of hot water ready to serve you a cup at any time! Be careful of the coffee sachets as most of them contain milk powder, so be sure to read the packet first or just ask for black coffee.
Vegan For The Planet
Meat is a resource-heavy food. This means it has a massive impact on the environment; especially beef.
With the majority of consumers in Indonesia being Muslim, beef and chicken are the most commonly consumed meat proteins. In 2018, the average meat consumption was 2.72 kg/capita/yr and it is projected to reach 3.36 kg/ capita/yr by 2024.
Java has the highest production and consumption of beef, with 57% of Indonesia’s population living on this island. For a long time, there has been a significant supply and demand issue for beef. Commencing in 1990 until now, Indonesia has been importing live cattle including beef cattle, mainly from Australia to meet the increasing demand.
Indonesia has not successfully met its demand for beef and is far from closing the gap. If demand for plant-based foods does not increase; the country will find it incredibly challenging to keep up.
One argument you often hear from those who are in favour of animal farming is that it is more profitable. Research shows that this is not true. The truth is that plant-based agriculture generates around 1.5 trillion more pounds of “product” than animal agriculture. And it does so more efficiently. The initial profit may seem higher, however, the expenses are significantly more costly.
Just how much damage does red meat (cattle) do to the planet?
The greenhouse gas emission intensity to produce 200 kcal of beef is 24 kg CO2 eq (equivalent), which is similar to burning around 8 kg of coal into the air. This is the severe damage the agriculture industry causes just to produce beef for human consumption.
In comparison, plant-based meat alternatives greenhouse gas emissions are significantly lower (around 2 kgCO2 eq per 200 kcal). This is why the single most important thing you can do if you care about the planet is to stop eating red meat.
Think about this; for every kilogram of beef produced, the equivalent of 36 kilograms of CO2 is released into the atmosphere. Going vegan is better for the planet and by reducing your intake of red meat you will make an incredible difference to the world around you.
I think we can agree that there is more to Indonesian cuisine than you may have thought and this is far from an exhaustive list of food in Indonesia (there are thousands of Indonesian dishes). Furthermore, going plant-based is one the best ways forward to take action against climate change and to reduce our use of resources that animal agriculture places on the earth.
I hope it has been a start to discovering the incredible cuisine of Indonesia and that you will feel encouraged to try the plant-based dishes. Consider the impact the meat industry has on our planet and continue to research areas of interest.
Vegan food in Indonesia is not limited. My advice, focus on the foods you can eat over what you can't eat. Embrace the challenge and encourage others to try plant-based versions of traditional meals with you.
Are you interested in trying vegetable dishes in Indonesia? You may like to check out 21 Hari Vegan (21-day vegan) for meal plans and guides.
AJAS, 2018, Current situation and future prospects for beef cattle production in Indonesia — A review Ali Agus1,a and Tri Satya Mastuti Widi1,a,