I am guessing that you are here because you have been happily browsing through some of my Indonesian recipes and ready to roll on your sleeves to start cooking only to get stumped on some of the ingredients, like “What the heck is this?”, or “Should I use this brand of ________?”, or “Maybe I can use that instead of whatever is stated in the recipe? (fingers crossed)”. If you have any of the above confusion, and maybe even more that I cannot think of on top of my head, then this page is for you!
I currently live in the Bay Area, and based on my grocery experience, there should be no problem finding these ingredients. Don’t worry if your local grocery doesn’t carry them since I will try to include as many Amazon link as possible to the products I describe in here. If I have left out anything, feel free to comment below.
Disclosure: this page contains affiliate links from Amazon. It means, when you make a purchase with Amazon as a result of following one of the links below, you will be supporting Daily Cooking Quest at no cost at all to you.
This list is what I consider essentials to cook authentic Indonesian recipes. I hope it can give enough of an introduction to what you may want to get for your own kitchen to start cooking your very own Indonesian dishes for yourself, family, loved ones, and friends 🙂
Sweet soy sauce (Kecap manis)
Many Indonesian dishes will use sweet soy sauce (kecap manis), especially when it comes to Javanese dishes. Our nasi goreng, mi goreng, bihun goreng, kwetiau goreng, sate in its many many incarnations, soto from different cities and provinces, semur, and many many more dishes that I simply cannot count them all, rely on this to make it happen. So even when it costs triple or quadruple of what I pay in Indonesia to get it here, this is the one sauce that I definitely must have in my pantry at all time.
Shrimp paste (Terasi)
Though it is most commonly translated as a “paste”, the appearance of shrimp paste (terasi) is quite solid. If you are familiar with Japanese curry roux, then this looks very close to that but in jumbo size, like 10 times bigger, and the smell and flavor is, well, an acquired taste I guess, though you would never guess than when it is tightly wrapped in its packaging. If I have to describe how it tastes, then, think fish sauce with super intensified taste and flavor, but in solid form. It’s like if you can make an extra concentrated version of fish sauce with extra oomph, you get shrimp paste (terasi) as your final product. For those uninitiated, a bit of choking and gagging may follow after taking your first whiff of terasi. Don’t say I didn’t give a fair warning.
The most famous and most common way we Indonesian use this is to make sambal terasi, though it is also often incorporated in many Indonesian dishes as well. Before using terasi, you will need to roast/toast it first until slightly charred. You can do this on open flame (use a tong to grap your terasi block) which is the most traditional way, or with an oven toaster, or even just pan frying without any oil. There is no need to roast/toast the entire block, just the amount called for in the recipe. Be extra sure to open you vent hood, and ALL windows since it will get smelly when you roast your terasi. Though I prefer roasting my own terasi, some people find it a chore and opt to buy pre-roasted ones.
Palm Sugar (Gula Jawa)
Palm sugar (gula Jawa) is to Indonesian what brown sugar is to American or Westerner. Many of our desserts are slathered with palm sugar syrup and a lot of our desserts have palm sugar as on of the key ingredient, and even many of our savory dishes incorporate palm sugar to make it just that much more delicious.
Indonesian palm sugar typically comes in huge solid tubes, which we then proceed to shave off with a sharp knife (similar to shaving chocolate block) to get the required amount called for in a particular recipe. It has a dark brown color and a rather sweet fragrance. Thai recipes also use a lot of palm sugar, but Thai palm sugar has a much paler color, closer to yellow. To me, this is the best substitute if you cannot find Indonesian palm sugar, and the next best substitute would be brown sugar but you will definitely lost some of the sweet fragrance that I think only present in Indonesian palm sugar.
Kemiri is used in many of Indonesian recipes, mainly for its property to thicken sauces, so you will definitely see this in dishes like rendang, opor, kari, gulai, and many many other Indonesian dishes with sauce in it. My local Asian groceries almost always carry this, so I have had no trouble buying and using kemiri in my cooking. Amazon also carries several brands of kemiri if you prefer to get yours online. Otherwise, I have found that macadamia nut works as a pretty good substitute for kemiri when in a pinch.
Tamarind (Asam Jawa)
Quite a few of Indonesian dishes are famous for its tartness, the most famous one being sayur asem. Depending on regional varieties, this tartness comes from a variety of sources, such as tamarind (asam Jawa), asam kandis, asam gelugur (dried garcinia), and asam sunti (dried bilimbi). Other than tamarind, the others are quite impossible to find in the States, but luckily tamarind is a pretty good substitute for all the other asam.
Tamarind sold and widely used in Indonesia are either fresh tamarinds or wet seedless version that comes in plastic packaging. Most Asian markets now carries both versions, most come from Thai. Amazon carries wet seedless tamarind from Indonesia, but there is no need to specifically use the one from Indonesia when it comes to tamarind.
Coconut Milk (Santan)
If dairy milk and fresh cream are the staple of Western dishes, then coconut milk and coconut cream are the staple of Indonesian dishes. Many other South East Asian recipes also incorporate coconut milk and cream in their recipes. In fact, most commonly found coconut milk sold in the States are imported from Thai. The brand that I most frequently encountered and like to use in the United States is Chaokoh.
If you ever have the chance to visit Indonesia wet market, you will find many stalls selling freshly made santan, or better yet, have the seller grate the flesh of a freshly cracked coconut, then bring that home and make your own coconut milk and coconut cream. Some Asian markets here also carry fresh coconuts, but you will have to bring them home, crack them, grate them, and then make fresh coconut milk and cream. Since I am a lazy busy girl, I usually just buy canned coconut milk.
Spices & Aromatics
Indonesian Bay Leaves (Daun Salam)
Most translate daun salam to bay leaves, but what most people know as bay leaves here in the US and most Western world is not the same thing as daun salam. So if you simply use western version of bay leaves when a recipe calls for daun salam, your dish is going to taste totally off from the authentic version. Luckily, it has been quite easy to find daun salam in Asian markets here in Bay Area. Amazon also carries this if you cannot find them locally. There is no good substitute for daun salam, but majority of dishes will still taste quite right without using any, so it is best to omit when it comes to daun salam.
Kaffir Lime Leaves (Daun Jeruk)
It used to be very easy to find fresh kaffir lime leaves in Asian markets, but nowadays if you want to use fresh lime leaves, you will need to buy a tree and grow it in your garden/balcony/porch. If for whatever reason gardening is not an option, then the next best thing is to used dried kaffir lime leaves (like this or this). The dried leaves will always be inferior to fresh ones, so at the very least double the amount called for in the recipe when using dried leaves. The next best substitute it to use fresh lime zest, rough guide for this is zest of 1 lime equals 2 fresh kaffir lime leaves.
Lemongrass is pretty easy to find in many grocery stores in the United States, though the price can be quite shocking for those who are used to buying them super duper cheaply in Indonesia like me. Lemongrass is known to be easily grown, even for novice gardeners, so a lot of people have this in their garden and grab whatever is needed from their garden. Dried lemongrass can be used as substitute, though clearly the end result will be inferior compared to using fresh lemongrass. Amazon carries both fresh lemongrass and dried lemongrass if your local store doesn’t sell them.
Pandan Leaves (Daun Pandan)
The flavor of pandan is everywhere in Indonesian dishes, from many rice recipes, to drinks, and especially in our desserts. Pandan is our vanilla so to speak, and most people will have a pot or two (or even a gardening patch or two) to grow pandan in their garden! It is quite fortunate that although it is impossible to find fresh pandan leaves sold in produce section, the leaves are quite commonly sold in frozen section.
If your local market doesn’t carry frozen pandan leaves, you can also use dried pandan leaves, or even pandan essence (most Indonesian use this koepoe-koepoe brand). For savory dishes, I prefer to substitute with dried pandan leaves. For desserts, at almost all cases, pandan essence usually works better, especially if you cherish the green color presents in pandan desserts.
Scallions (Daun Bawang)
This is an important vegetables in Indonesian cooking. Our soups (soto), porridge (bubur), and a whole lot of other dishes just wont taste as good without them.
Shallots (Bawang Merah)
The size of shallots sold in Indonesia are typically much smaller compared to the ones commonly found in the United States, I would say about 4 times smaller on average. To me, the larger shallots are milder, but they are still the best and closest substitute to Indonesian shallots, so I use them all the time.
Speaking about shallots, us Indonesians also use a lot of deep fried shallots (bawang merah goreng) as garnish. Soto, sate, gado-gado, ketoprak, and so many other goodies just won’t taste the same without some sprinkles of deep fried shallots. You can make them yourselves since they just need to be thinly sliced and fried in hot oil, but if you prefer store bought, then this one from Sinbo is pretty good.
Rice, Grains, Flours, and Noodles
Rice is Indonesian staple food, much like the rest of countries in Asia. There are many varieties of rice, ranging from short grain rice commonly consumed in East Asian countries like China, Japan, and Korea, to long grain rice such as basmati commonly consumed in countries like India and Afghanistan. Rice grown and sold in Indonesia falls somewhere in between short grain and long grain rice, though leans a bit more to the long grain version. If you are familiar with Thai rice, then the rice consumed in Indonesia is extremely close to Thai rice, which fortunately is widely available in the United States.
For daily consumption, I usually cook plain white rice. For festive occasions, I sometime use jasmine rice, or add one fresh pandan leaf into my rice cooker while cooking the rice to yield a sweet smelling rice that is sure to give off a very nice fragrance not only to the rice, but to my entire house.
Sticky Rice/Glutinous Rice (Beras Ketan)
Glutinous rice comes in two varieties in Indonesia, plain white glutinous rice (ketan putih) and black glutinous rice (ketan hitam). White glutinous rice is made into savory dishes and desserts, such as lemper ayam and wajik. While black glutinous rice is almost exclusively used for desserts, such as bubur ketan hitam. Similar to that for rice, Indonesian glutinous rice closely resembles those from Thai, so I always try to buy the ones imported from Thai.
Tips: I have noticed that people sometimes confuse white sticky rice to Japanese sweet rice. Though Japanese rice is indeed sticky because it has short grain, it is not the same as Thai/Indonesian white sticky rice. The most famous use of Japanese sweet rice is in mochi making, so unless you intend to pound your own mochi (always a good pursuit, by the way), stick to using Thai white sticky rice when you see an Indonesian recipe calling for ketan putih or ketan hitam.
Rice Vermicelli (Bihun)
If you just go to Asian stores and randomly grab any package with “vermicelli” printed on it, chances are you may get the wrong kind. There are two kinds of vermicelli, one is made of rice, while the other is made of mung bean. Both looks very similar at a glance, but if you look carefully, the one made from rice will be more opaque compared to the one from mung bean.
Indonesian called rice vermicelli bihun, originated from the Chinese word 米粉 that has been absorbed into Indonesian language. The Chinese word literally means rice flour. So whatever it is called, be it rice vermicelli, rice sticks, rice noodles, they are all made from the same stuff, but they can have different shapes and thickness, pretty much like different shapes of pasta such as angel hair, spaghetti, fettuccine, etc. In Indonesia, bihun is the thin version, the rice sticks/vermicelli/noodles (pretty much the same), while kwetiau is the thicker version, sometimes I find this translated to thick rice sticks on the packaging.
This rice vermicelli from Three Ladies are commonly found in many Asian markets and is carried by Amazon. Of course, you can use any brand of your preference now that you know exactly what you should look out for when picking out your next bihun from a store.
Mung Bean Vermicelli (Sohun)
Mung bean is the other kind of vermicelli. It can look deceivingly similar to rice vermicelli (bihun), so pay close attention to the ingredient list in the package. Mung bean vermicelli (sohun) needs to have mung bean listed as one of its ingredients instead of rice. I have seen a couple of incorrectly labeled products in the Asian market, but I always know which one is which by looking at the ingredients list. Also, if it is clearly much more transparent, you are probably looking at mung bean vermicelli (sohun) and not rice vermicelli (bihun).
Due to its transparency, mung bean vermicelli are also known as glass noodles, especially after they are cooked. Just for education sake, you can always cook a teeny tiny batch of both rice vermicelli and mung bean vermicelli to clearly see the difference between the two.
Rice Flour (Tepung Beras)
This is made from ground rice, commonly used in traditional desserts, and sometimes part of deep frying batter to make for crispier deep fried goodies, think pisang goreng, tempe mendoan, and bakwan. Rice flour is easily found in most Asian markets and this one from Erawan is my favorite brand for rice flour (tepung beras).
Glutinous Rice Flour (Tepung Ketan)
This is made from glutinous rice, and used almost exclusively to make desserts, such as wedang ronde and mochi kacang. Glutinous rice flour (tepung ketan) sold in the United States comes from white glutinous rice, but black glutinous rice flour (tepung ketan hitam) in also widely available in Indonesia to make desserts such as cake ketan hitam. You can usually find glutinous rice flour sold side by side with rice flour in Asian markets.
Tapioca Starch (Tepung Tapioka/Tepung Kanji)
This is made from cassava, commonly used to thicken sauces like corn starch, but is also very commonly used as substitute for sago flour in bakso, siomay, pempek, and other meatball like goodies. The trio of rice flour, glutinous rice flour, and tapioca starch are commonly sold together side by side in most Asian markets.
Sago Flour (Tepung Sagu)
This is made from sago, and used in many traditional Indonesian desserts. I have never found sago flour sold in the United States, so if you have a good tips on where to get some, please share 🙂 Some of you may be familiar with sago pearls, which looks very similar to tapioca pearls in bubble tea, so if you have tried both pearls, maybe you have a clear idea on the difference between the two. Hm… maybe I can buy sago pearls and ground them to powder to make my own sago flour?
In most cases, especially in savory dishes, it is pretty safe to substitute sago flour with tapioca starch, so if you want to make your own bakso, pempek, or siomay Bandung, go ahead and just use the more commonly found tapioca starch. For dessert recipes using sago flour though, I really don’t recommend substituting and just simply skip the recipes altogether. In Indonesia, the most famous brand for sago flour is tepung sagu tani, just in case if you are considering to smuggle some home as souvenirs when you next visit Indonesia.