There's nothing like great peanut sauce! And Jakarta makes it better than anywhere else in the world. Here's what you should try.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know that there are certain foods and flavors I’m obsessed with. I can’t seem to travel anywhere without talking about coffee, nachos, bread, cheese, and peanut sauce. Oh peanut sauce! My first introduction came as a tender traveler at the age of just 20 when I went to Amsterdam for the first time. At first I couldn’t fathom the idea of peanut butter - that classic of the jelly sandwich - as part of a savoury dish but it didn’t take more than a few bites for me to hooked.
Amsterdam has a great Indonesian food scene but for the absolute real deal you have to take a journey into the heart of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. Here you’ll find everything from bustling street vendors, bicycle vendors, and food carts to world renowned restaurants led by celebrity chefs. No matter what your budget or style, there’s a spicy, succulent peanut dish for you.
Translated literally, gado gado means “mix mix” and it takes some serious tossing to combine all the hearty ingredients in this salad dish. Instead of flimsy lettuce leaves you’ll find steamed veggies, tofu, hard boiled egg, rice, and much more, all topped with a peanut sauce dressing. This is my go-to dish when I want something filling with a good boost of vitamins that’s stick-to-your ribs substantial.
Jakarta's residents will hotly debate which chef makes the city’s best peanut sauce and which style is their favourite. The peanut sauce dressing for gado gado includes terasi - aka dried shrimp paste - as a critical ingredient. The results are delicious but vegetarian travelers or those with shellfish allergies should take care.
Looking for a few great restaurant recommendations for gado gado? This foodie blog can help!
Sop Buntut (with a side of peanut sambal, of course!)
Sambal is a thick chili sauce not unlike a chunky whole grain mustard in consistency. Garlic, ginger, shallot, scallion, palm sugar, lime, and vinegar come together by mortar and pestle with the signature ingredient: chili peppers! Vegetarians take note: shrimp paste and fish sauce are common sambal ingredients.
There are dozens of different sambal varieties, each one suited to a different dish, and of course my favourites include peanuts in the mix. I love the little bit of crunch it adds, as well as the nice balance between the salt of the nuts, the spice of the chilis, the sour from the lime, and the sweetness from the ginger and palm sugar.
A dollop of sambal is perfectly at home with the city’s most beloved comfort dish - sop buntut. Sop buntut is oxtail soup (though is often made with regular beef as well). The hot, flavorful clear broth is a go-to cure for many of life’s woes (just like chicken noodle soup in other countries.) It’s also a very affordable foodie choice and a great way to get a filling lunch without spending a fortune.
This might be the strangest thing I’ve ever recommended. Otak-otak translates to “brain-brain”. For everyone who remembers my “fickle foodie” posts of the past, take heart! I have not had a personality transplant, nor developed an iron stomach or a brave will. Otak-otak is misleading-misleading! It’s not brain at all, just fish paste seasoned with yummy things like lemongrass and coconut before being wrapped in a banana leaf for cooking. And it’s a no-brainer (see what I did there?) that it’s absolutely delicious dipped in peanut sauce! The addition of peanut sauce seems to be unique just to Jakarta and I’m hoping it catches on throughout the rest of hte country.
Otak-otak is a classic Indonesian street food. For those who are giving street food a try for the first time, there’s an easy rule of thumb to follow so you get the best food with the least amount of bacteria. Chose a cart or stall with a long, fast moving line. Local residents rarely get it wrong and wouldn’t return to a vendor whose dishes are below par. Plus, the busier the stall, the less time the uncooked food spends sitting around unrefrigerated.
It would be wrong, wrong, wrong of me to describe ketoprak as a kind of Indonesian pad Thai but for a rough description the comparison helps you imagine the wonderful combination of flavors. Vermicelli noodles, tofu, and vegetables are bathed in a pool of garlicy, peppery peanut sauce. This is a go-to dish when you’re craving a heaping dose of carbohydrates.
Even if you haven’t tried ketoprak before but the word sounds vaguely familiar, you’re not alone. The word, coincidently, also refers to a style of theatre in Java. There’s no connection to the noodle dish but if you ask me this is the perfect inspiration for dinner and a show!
Asinan Betawi (or Asinan Sayur)
I’m going to be honest - this is not my kind of dish and I think asinan is one of those ‘love it or hate it’ kinds of items that divides a dinner table. If you like pickles and if you love kimchee, chances are you will love asinan betawi. But I am not a pickle fan - and I hate kimchee. Sorry!
A combination of different kinds of cabbage, bean sprouts, cucumber, carrot, and tofu (and sometimes fruit like mango and papaya), asinan is topped with a vinegary peanut sauce. It you like dishes with a lot of salt and tangy flavors, this is the dish for you!
I never thought there’d be a dish with peanut sauce I didn’t like but crazy things do happen! If you love it, please let me know in the comments.
The classic: Satay.
You didn’t think I’d leave this one off the list, did you? Satay (sometimes spelled sate) is traditionally marinated, skewered beef that’s grilled over charcoal and served with a smooth, spicy peanut dipping sauce. You’re likely to find it on Asian inspired menus all around the world but Indonesia did it first - and Jakarta does it best.
Recipe variations include briefly boiling the beef first and then using the stock as the base for the peanut sauce but I’ve never encountered any boiled meat versions (that I’m aware of). Chicken is almost as common as beef and other varieties include lamb, goat, and even tofu/veggie versions. It’s a hot, filling, protein packed dish that can be enjoyed as a quick street snack or as the base for a full dinner.
If you can only try one peanut based dish in Jakarta, this is the one. It’s not too spicy or strong and there’s a nice balance between the slight smokiness of the grilled meat and the flavor of the sauce.
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