Vegetarian Backpacking in Indonesia

Finding some food is generally not very difficult in Indonesia, similar to the rest of South East Asia. Vegetarians and vegans may face some challenges as cooking with meat and fish is very common. Yet it is perfectly possible for vegetarians to get along in many parts of Indonesia on a small budget, for vegans it is more difficult.

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Vegetarian tourist restaurants

In cities that attract a lot of foreign visitors and especially those who are more interested in culture than in partying – like Ubud on Bali or Yogyakarta on Java – you have no difficulties to find some delicious vegetarian or even vegan food in restaurants, some even specialise in it. In bigger cities you may also be able to locate some of those if you are willing to take a taxi or some transport as they are not as abundant in your neighborhood.

Supermarkets and self-catering

In every small village you will find a mini store where you can get some packed bread or cookies. And in some local markets there is a nice choice of tropical fruits.

Vegetarian street food

But what about the authentic backpacker’s style? Those who do not always want to eat with other tourists in fancy or hipster restaurants but instead prefer some cheap, local fare at your next food stall? The concept of vegetarianism by choice is known to some Indonesians, however not all stall vendors will immediate know what you want. And there is also the language barrier. My knowledge of the various specific Indonesian languages is limited, yet I can provide you with some helpful phrases in Bahasa Indonesia which is usually understood everywhere.

COOKNASI
Nasi goreng and a choice of sambal

Of course you can try to make clear you like your food vegetarian. Your common choice at a simple food stall (warung) would be nasi goreng – fried rice with vegetables. To make sure, you have no meat in it, you can add tanpa daging – without meat. Dengan sayur – with vegetables, if they still do not know what you want. For those who eat eggs many cooks replace some meat with a fried egg, you can specify that wish by saying dengan telur. If you need to have your food more spicy (pedas), there is usually some chili sauce at every table called sambal. Those who prefer the mild variant might want to add kurang pedas – less spicy.

COOKTEMPE
Cooked tempeh with sweet black sauce

Luckily the Indonesian kitchen knows a lot of dishes with meat-like vegetarian ingredients. Tofu – called tahu – is known almost everywhere. Many food stalls sell fried tofu. And of course there is the native Indonesian tempeh – written tempe in Bahasa Indonesia. This is basically fermented soy beans in a block with a mild yet distinct nutty or shroomy taste. You can find tempe cooked or fried as a part of many Indonesian dishes.

COOKGADO
Gado-gado and tapioka chips

More sophisticated food stalls will offer the queen of Indonesian vegetarian dishes: gado-gado. This is a salad of raw and cooked vegetables covered in sate peanut sauce and garnished with eggs. If you want a vegan gado-gado, you can specify to get it without egg – tanpa telur.

If you are lucky there are also other vegetable-based dishes. In some places you find kentang goreng – french fries, cap cay – mixed vegetables like in chop suey, urap-urap is either a salad or cooked vegetables with grated coconut often containing water spinach.

Vegan food

Good news for vegan eaters: There is only a minimal chance that dairy products are used for cooking. Cheese is virtually unknown in Indonesian cuisine and for making soups and sauces coconut milk us usually used. As said before some dishes contain egg – if you do not want this say tanpa telur.

Flaws

Although there are a lot of yummy and healthy vegetarian and vegan appearing dishes in Indonesia they might not meet the requirements of very strict eaters. There is always a good chance that fish sauce was used to prepare some part of your meal and sometimes some parts of chicken go into the seasoning paste which you usually will not really notice. If you really need to be sure you would probably better self-cater or visit a restaurant that explicitly caters to vegetarians.

Glossary for Bahasa Indonesia

  • hello – halo
  • please – tolong
  • thank you – terima kasih
  • with – dengan
  • without – tanpa
  • food stall – warung
  • restaurant – restoran
  • rice – nasi
  • fried – goreng
  • meat – daging
  • fish – ikan
  • chicken – ayam
  • beef – sapi
  • goat – kambing
  • vegetables – sayur
  • potato – kentang
  • egg – telur
  • tofu – tahu
  • tempeh – tempe
  • seasoning paste – sambal
  • spicy – pedas
  • less spicy – kurang pedas

 

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