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Indonesian Staples with
Surprising Chinese Origins

Indonesian Staples with
Surprising Chinese Origins

Danti Tarigan
16 January 2023

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In its rich history and diversity, Indonesian cuisine draws many influences from other cultures. Here's a list of several Indonesian foods with surprising Chinese roots!

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The archipelago of Indonesia has long been a melting pot of many cultures and influences, thanks to its strategic location and rich resources. Unsurprisingly, natural assimilation carried by migrants brought substantial changes to the local culture, and food is no exception. 

Being a native Indonesian, I grew up assuming Chinese-Indonesian cuisine was limited to the food I either encountered in the Pecinan area or ones with obvious foreign names. Turns out, there are so many that are surprisingly rooted in Chinese influence, but have been so deeply ingrained in our everyday life that we no longer recognize them as ‘fusion’ food. Here are some of them:

Indonesian Food with Chinese Descents

Tahu (Tofu)

Just like tempeh, tofu has been considered one of many “true local food” for many Indonesians as it is one of the most affordable sources of protein. Has been around in China for more than two thousand years, tofu is one of the oldest Chinese influences on Indonesian food when they are brought over by the migrants in the tenth century. It played a significant role in Indonesian history, as they are said to rescue the Javanese from starvation in the 19th-century forced cultivation crisis. Now, this soy-based product has melded all over Indonesian cuisine, from being simply fried to complementing traditional delicacies such as ketoprak, kupat tahu, and more.

Onde-onde

Easily spotted for its unique ball-shaped and sesame coating, Onde-onde is a type of fried pastry made from glutinous rice flour with a hollow, crisp, and chewy texture. They can be easily found in most Indonesian conventional markets along with other traditional desserts, or how I usually buy them, from a lady who sells them on foot. However, it’s not only Indonesians who enjoy Onde-onde. Brought from China, they are what the Chinese called ‘Jiandui’.‘ In fact, they are believed to bring good luck in Cap Go Meh celebration. Initially filled with palm sugar, the fillings altered as they entered Indonesia, and the locals use mungbean paste instead. Nowadays, you can even find one with fillings like chocolate and cheese in keeping up with today’s tastes and trends.

Cakwe

Cakwe is a long deep-fried strip of dough made from a mixture of flour, salt, and leavening powders. Sold primarily on street vendors, cakwe has long accompanied Indonesian as a light snack between meals, with ways of eating differing across areas. For example, those who grew up in Jakarta will likely dip them in vinegary sambal or spicy peanut sauce. In contrast, people in Kalimantan enjoy this in a sweeter way, served on top of pandan mung bean porridge (lek tau suan). But this snack actually originated from China, known as youtiao, and they are part of the breakfast’s staple, served on the side with congee or nutty soymilk. Cakwe itself in the Hokkien dialect (you zha gui) literally means ‘fried ghost’. Why? Well, it’s based on a whole other folklore of betrayal (If you’re curious,  I recommend looking it up!).

Bakso

Fair to say that dishes consisting of round balls of meat are universal; every country has one. Indonesia’s meatball ‘Bakso’, however, specifically has Chinese roots in it (bak-so in Cantonese means ground meat). It is modified from the Chinese pork meatball, which then made using beef or chicken due to Muslim majority in Indonesia. The ball is usually made by mixing ground beef with tapioca flour, and ice cubes for emulsification, then served hot with a clear broth, noodles, sprouts, and other toppings. Sold by sellers generation after generation using street carts, this delicacy has won over Indonesia as it provides warmth and comfort at any time and climate.

Soto

A bowl of Soto has been enjoyed by Indonesian for ages, that it’s often considered a national dish. But despite being so closely part of our culinary tradition, Soto, which derived from the name “cao du” (cao means herbs, and du means offal), came from Chinese influence. Still, the dish underwent a long adaptation with the locals, making them unique to the Indonesian culture. In contrast with China, the plentiful herbs and spices available here (like turmeric, galangal, and kencur) enrich the flavor over time. Each area’s resources combined with existing cultures create its own version of Soto, making it a wide range of variety across the nation. Right now, there are at least 75 types of Indonesian Soto recorded, each with its own kind of broth, meats, vegetables, and spices.

Pempek

Pempek is a savory Indonesian fishcake delicacy made of minced fish and tapioca, usually fried and served with a dark sweet vinegary sauce called kuah cuka or “cuko.” Hailed from Palembang, South Sumatera, the dish took inspiration from the commonly eaten Chinese fishcake. The name pempek allegedly came from apek-apek, referring to the older Chinese-Indonesian uncles who used to push carts to sell the fish cakes.

Martabak Manis (Terang Bulan)

Depending on what part of Indonesia you come from, you may be familiar with Martabak Manis or Terang Bulan. But how about “Hok Lo Pan”? Created by Chinese-descent people in Bangka, this sweet treat used to be topped with simple sugar and roasted sesame. Over time, they spread wide outside of the city and are loved by many. This also caused a change in how people topped their Martabak. Now, many flavors are available to grab, from the more conventional ones like chocolate sprinkles, to more fusion ones like red velvet or boba milk tea.

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