food tour background

The richness of spices in Indonesian food is a reflection of its rich history. Known as the “Island of Spices”, Indonesia has developed its authentic gastronomy with the unique blend of herbs and spices such as turmeric, cumin, lemongrass, coriander, shallot, galangal, candlenut, pepper, scallion, garlic, lime, tamarind, cloves, chilies, and many other herbs and spices. It is true that the secret behind the unique and delicious flavour of Indonesian food is from the spices that became the seasoning of the dish.


Indonesia has unique and various spices that create a diverse cuisine amongst the Indonesia archipelago. And yet, Indonesian culinary varies greatly through different regions and some influences from other cultures such as the Middle East, China, Spain, Portuguese, and Europe – traders have as well introduced Indonesia to native spices to Indonesian and cuisines all over the world. Spices from mainland Asia were introduced early in ancient times that then became essential ingredients in Indonesian cuisines.


A blend of spices where it appears in the name spice mixture is called as bumbu in Indonesian language. Bumbu is described as various types of herbs and spices such as chili, ginger, turmeric, nutmeg, and galangal that is used to makes a pleasant aroma and flavour that enrich the flavour of the dish. The making of Indonesian bumbu is by slicing, chopping, grinding, beating, bruising, and even burning the spices. Traditional cooking tools such as stone mortar and pestle is commonly used to make the spice mixture, as well as using a modern blender or food processor. A way to cook the spice mixture is by stir-fried in hot cooking oil to release the aroma.


There are as well myriad variants of spice mixture in Indonesian cuisine that is divided according to the specialities of each regional recipes and traditions. Balinese dish, for instance, the main ingredients to prepare a delicious Balinese cuisine is through a good basa gede, a Balinese spice mixture translated as bumbu Bali made out of a huge list of ingredients such as shallots, garlic, chilies, galangal, turmeric, fresh ginger, coriander seeds, candlenuts, black and white peppercorns, cloves, cumin seeds, sesame seeds, belacan or shrimp paste, lemongrass, salam leaves, and coconut oil.


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Moving on to another island, West Sumatra has its own speciality when it comes to spice mixtures. Known as gulai – a rich, spicy, and succulent curry-like sauce made out of natural spices such as turmeric, coriander, black paper, galangal, ginger, and other spices that are ground into paste and cooked in coconut milk. Gulai is essential to Padang cuisine and often described as an Indonesian type of curry.


Meanwhile, Manado cuisine of North Sulawesi spice mixtures speciality is known as woku. With a rich aroma and spicy taste, woku consists of ground spice paste which is, red ginger, turmeric, candlenut, and red chili paper that are mixed with chopped shallot, scallion, tomato, lemon or citrus leaf and turmeric leaf, lemon basil leaf and bruised lemongrass. The name of woku itself came from Daun woka which is a young coconut lea that is usually used as a rice wrapper.


Indonesian cuisine is famous for the variety of spices used in every dish. The mixture of herbs and spices makes it even more complex. As the authentic Indonesian spices have a strong taste and aroma, Good Indonesian Food will list down some of the essential Indonesian spice mixtures with the four generic basic and common spice mixtures that are recognized in Indonesian cuisine divided according to its colours. From basic spice mixture, basic red spice mixture, basic yellow spice mixture, to basic orange-coloured spice mixture.


Basic white spice mixture

Called as bumbu dasar putih in the Indonesian language that consists of shallot, garlic, galangal, candlenut, and coriander. A basic white spice mixture is often used to make dishes that have white-ish colour, including opor ayam, sayur lodeh, or even several variety of soto. This basic white spice mixture can also be used to cook rawon, semur, fried noodles and a variety of stir-fried vegetables, tofu, and tempeh.


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Basic red spice mixture

The basic red spice mixture, or bumbu dasar merah consists of ground red chili pepper, shallot, garlic, tomato, burned shrimp paste, coconut sugar, salt and stir-fried in coconut oil. This spice mixture is used for various Indonesian cuisine that have a reddish colour, such as nasi goreng and is spicier compared to other spice mixture.


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Basic yellow spice mixture

Made out of ground shallot, garlic, sautéed candlenut, burned turmeric, coriander, ginger, galangal, black pepper that are stir-fried in coconut oil. The basic white spice mixture or bumbu dasar kuning is used in several Indonesian dishes that have a yellowish colour, such as soto, pepes, fried noodles, and traditional fried chicken.


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Basic orange-coloured spice mixture

A mixture of white spice mixture blends with turmeric. The basic orange-coloured mixture consists of ground red chilli pepper, shallot, garlic, caraway, anise, coriander, candlenut, turmeric, ginger, galangal, and black pepper that are as well stir-fried in coconut oil. Some various dishes such as gulai, Indonesian curry, kilo and rendang use this spice mixture to rich out their flavour and colour to the dish.


Indonesian national cuisine cannot be separated from various kinds of spices – looking through all of the spice mixtures there are in Indonesia, it is no wonder that Indonesian dishes demonstrate a complex flavour. From the ingredients and the spice mixture, it creates a rich flavour that Indonesian cuisines often best-described as spicy and savoury with a combination of sweet, salty, sour, and even bitter. And of course, the four spice mixtures in Indonesian cuisine contains spices that as well enrich the flavour of the dish.


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