How To Be Vegetarian In Indonesia

— By Kelly Fitzgerald —

Those ubiquitous, uniquely Indonesian mealboxes are dangerous territory for vegetarians. If you’ve ever lived in Indonesia, you know the ones: usually found at large events and always come with rice, one of those stabby-straw cup waters, and say Selamat Menikmati! [Enjoy!] or Terima Kasih [Thank You] on the top. While the big chunks of fish or chicken are easy to spot and thus avoid, the side dishes can be a more delicate matter.

Nganggung, the celebration of the city of Pangkal Pinang's birthday, was a Thanksgiving-style affair complete with a seemingly endless supply of mealboxes.

Nganggung, the celebration of the city of Pangkal Pinang’s birthday, was a Thanksgiving-style affair complete with a seemingly endless supply of mealboxes.

During my first month in Indonesia, I attended one such large event. It was Pangkal Pinang’s 258th birthday and students and teachers at my school, SMAN3 Pangkal Pinang, were celebrating by wearing traditional Malayu clothes and sharing a meal in the outdoor hallways by way of aforementioned mealboxes. I confirmed with the Bu on my left and the other Bu on my right that the piece of fried fish that was in my box was off-limits but that the curried sweet potatoes were vegetarian. (i) Both Bus nodded, so I tucked in.

Mid-chew on my third bite, I took a closer look at the potatoes that were hovering on my spoon. Among the rice and potato chunks, I noticed dark brown lumps that didn’t look like any vegetable I’ve ever seen. I leaned over to the Bu on my left: “Apa ini?” [What’s this?]

“Heart of chicken!” she replied (in English) with a smile. My stomach dropped and my eyes widened in distress. I stopped chewing and without thought made a hasty retreat to the restroom. Turns out that those chunks were part of sambal hati which is made with chicken liver, not heart, but chicken is chicken no matter which part of the body the meat came from. (ii) This was my first “accident” as a vegetarian in Indonesia, but it was by no means the last during my time here.

I have been a vegetarian for eighteen years, so incidents like the one above are nothing new. I am a lacto-ovo vegetarian, which means that I can eat dairy and eggs but seafood, poultry, red meat, etc — basically anything with a face — are off-limits. Vegetarianism is not commonly practiced in Indonesia, which can make finding food to eat a daily chore. But after many months I have found a few ways to thrive even though Indonesia is not the most veg-friendly place. The first strategy is…

Learn the lingo.

The best way you can feed yourself anywhere in the world is to learn the language to explain what you can and cannot eat. The words for different kinds of meat, vegetarian, and fish sauce were among the first pieces of vocabulary that I acquired upon arrival. While settling in, I perfected a spiel that I still use when talking to waiters, waitresses, and friendly Ibus when I am a guest in someone’s home.

What follows is a list of a few key words and phrases that are essential for hungry vegetarians in Indonesia. The underlined words in the sentences can be substituted with any of the other words below.

Saya vegetarian. = I am a vegetarian.
Ada ayam? = Is there chicken?
Maaf, saya tidak bisa makan daging. = Sorry, I cannot eat meat.
Ya, saya bisa makan telur. = Yes, I can eat egg.
Jangan pakai terasi. = Do not use fish sauce.
Daging = Meat
Terasi = Fish sauce
Petis = Shrimp paste
Saos tiram = Oyster sauce
Ikan = Fish
Cumi = Squid
Udang = Shrimp
Sapi = Beef
Babi = Pork
Ayam = Chicken
Telur = Egg
Susu = Milk

Since vegetarianism isn’t a popular concept in Indonesia, explaining that I willingly choose to abstain from eating meat and thus miss out on Indonesian specialties such as beef rendang and chicken sate can be a challenge in itself. (iii) Sometimes these chances for cultural exchange end in an impasse. The Indonesian I happen to be talking to may stop the conversation, shaking their head in wonder and pity that anyone would choose to live such a way. Or they may insist that it is not big deal if there is just a little chicken/fish/whatever mixed into the food. In the latter case, I liken all meat to pork, which is haram [forbidden] to followers of Islam, and say that I can’t eat even a little bit of chicken/fish/whatever just like Muslims can’t eat just a little bit of pork. Sometimes this strategy clarifies what I mean by being vegetarian, sometimes not.

But even if they don’t quite understand my motives for not eating meat, most people are respectful of my choice. Some people will even go out of their way to ensure that I have something to eat, which leads me to the next strategy for living the veg life in Indonesia…

Find your champions.

My champions are the people who I spend the most time with, who know what I can and cannot eat and know no limits in making sure that I do not go hungry when we are together. They will place my order at restaurants and re-explain to the wait staff on the inevitable occasion when the “vegetarian fried rice” arrives on the table with bits of chicken mixed in. My champions will also explain to other people in my life what vegetarianism means when my bahasa Indonesia is not sufficient. My champions include Pak Elvan (my counterpart) and a couple of friends from outside school. One such friend recently invited me to his family’s arisan party (iv) where they had prepared an all-veg spread for the occasion because they knew I was coming. It was touching to be thought of to such an extent. To any fellow vegetarians in Indonesia: I cannot stress enough the importance of finding a few local friends who can help you navigate Indonesian cuisine, especially since they are essential in helping you…

Praises be -- a 100% vegetarian-friendly restaurant!

Jalan Kampung Bintang in Pangkal Pinang is home to many Chinese Buddhists as well as this 100% vegetarian gem.

Sniff out “safe” spots.

Certain eateries in Indonesia are more adept at serving vegetarian clientele than others. Some restaurants have a special “Vegetable” section of the menu and plenty of warungs serve dishes such as ketoprak and tinutuan that are traditionally made without meat. (v) Enlisting a couple of Indonesian friends to help you locate such establishments means that you will be able to find food on your own no matter how limited your bahasa Indonesia skills are.

And if you happen to be in a Chinese-majority part of town, see if you can find the Holy Grail of culinary discoveries: a 100% vegetarian-friendly restaurant. My headmistress took me to one such place after about two months at my site and it changed my experience here. The restaurant primarily serves Chinese Buddhists so it is guaranteed to be meat-free.

I visit several times a week for lunch or dinner and it is thanks to this restaurant that I have been able to try all of the Indonesian specialties like bakso (meatballs served in a noodle soup), rendang (slow-cooked meat curry from Padang), and pempek (fish doughballs). The meat is substituted with tofu, gluten, or mushrooms and the wide variety of dishes are a welcome change in a diet that can otherwise be quite monotonous. While eating out in Indonesia is relatively cheap — a hefty bundle of ketoprak costs 13,000 rupiah, or about $1 USD — the best way to guarantee you don’t go hungry is to…

I can cook, but when there are so many delicious options available outside the house I usually opt to eat out instead.

I can cook, but when there are so many delicious options available outside the house I usually opt to eat out instead.

Learn to cook.

As the only vegetarian in my family, cooking for myself has always been a necessary skill. In Indonesia, pretty much the only thing I cook is stir-fried vegetables with rice and tofu, tempe, or egg, depending on what is in the fridge. Perhaps this is not the most inspired menu, but it is nutritious and 100% safe.

The typical Indonesian kitchen differs greatly from what is available in the U.S. If you live in Indonesia and are fortunate enough to have access to a kitchen, you can count on having a rice cooker, a one or two gas burner stove, and a mini-fridge. Microwave? Probably not. Oven? Forget it. But with a rice cooker and simple stove even a mediocre chef can make plenty of food that is guaranteed to be veg-friendly. But outside the safety of your own kitchen or the occasional Buddhist restaurant, Indonesia is not the easiest place to navigate for vegetarians. As a result, you may have to…

Assess your own flexibility.

Indonesia is a vast country and the level of vegetarian options differ greatly depending on where you are. Big cities and even modest towns like Pangkal Pinang have enough options which makes being a vegetarian possible albeit slightly inconvenient. More remote areas and smaller islands are a different story. Small island diets are unsurprisingly heavy in fish and fish products. As such, pescatarians will find plenty of options, but stricter vegetarians will struggle to find food that doesn’t contain traces of sea creatures. And if you do not eat eggs, getting enough protein is almost impossible because the Indonesian go-to meal for vegetarians is white rice with telur dadar [fried egg].

Peanut sauce is a key ingredient in many vegetarian-friendly dishes such as this ketoprak. However, most (not all) peanut sauce contains some fish sauce.

Peanut sauce is a key ingredient in many vegetarian-friendly dishes such as this ketoprak. However, most (not all) peanut sauce contains some fish sauce.

Depending on where you live in Indonesia and what your current level of vegetarianism is, it may be necessary to take a critical look at your motives for being vegetarian, weigh the cultural (and health!) consequences of vegetarianism, and consider altering your diet even if only temporarily for your stay in Indonesia.

As committed as I am to trying new things and adapting to new cultures, I knew before coming to Indonesia that my lifelong vegetarianism was not something I was willing to change during these nine months as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Pangkal Pinang. The most flexibility I can live with is in regard to fish sauce. Here’s a secret: most dishes — from fried vegetables to anything with peanut sauce — has a splash of fish sauce or shrimp paste in it. That’s a fact of life in Indonesia and most other countries in Southeast Asia. I was dismayed when one of my best friends here pulled me aside to confirm my suspicions.

After careful consideration, I decided that as long as I do not know that there is fish sauce in my otherwise vegetarian-friendly food, I can carry on eating in ignorant bliss. It this a perfect strategy? Not really, but it certainly does relieve some frustration in the occasionally maddening quest for veg-friendly food. However, no matter how flexible you are, how stellar your culinary skills may be, or how many champions you have all vegetarians in Indonesia must…

Accept that sometimes you will go hungry.

I can’t count how many times I have been to a wedding , a gathering at someone’s house, or some other event and the only vegetarian options were fruit and kue. I am not a fan of Indonesian kue [desserts], but even if I was, eating nothing but sweets is not a meal. I learned early in my time here to eat something more substantial before going to parties or on day trips. Even so, there have been some moments where lack of food plus oppressive heat plus Ibus screaming for photos combined to create a perfect, hangry (hungry+angry) storm. In those moments, there is not much I can do but breathe and fantasize about shopping at Trader Joe’s.

Overall, being a vegetarian in Indonesia is definitely possible. The plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables plus the generous use of tofu and tempe in Indonesian recipes means that vegetarians can find at least a few options in most parts of the archipelago. While sometimes I miss the wide variety of culinary options for vegetarians in Chicago, I know that once I return to the U.S. I will long for the veg-friendly foods that have sustained me here in Indonesia.

Kelly Fitzgerald is currently a Fulbright ETA in Pangkal Pinang, the capital city of the beautiful but lesser-known island of Bangka. She was born and raised in Chicago and is a recent graduate of the University of Tampa. When she is not teaching she enjoys making lists, laughing way too much, and exploring Pangkal Pinang. You can follow her blog at http://mskellyfitzfulbright.wordpress.com/.

(i) Bu is short for Ibu. Ibu literally means mother but it is also a title of respect akin to Miss or Mrs. All female teachers are called Ibu regardless of their age or marital status.

(ii) In Indonesian, hati literally means liver although it is colloquially used to talk about the heart.

(iii) In English, being vegetarian can refer to a few different things. For example, full vegetarians do not eat eggs, dairy, or other animal products while those foods are fine for lacto-ovo vegetarians like me. Thus it is no surprise that some confusion can arise even in English about what vegetarianism means, but in Indonesia the confusion is magnified. Some people I meet think that chicken and fish are not meat and thus okay for vegetarians, others think that as long as there is some sort of vegetable included in a dish then the entire thing is vegetarian. While this communication and cultural difference can be frustrating, I do admire people’s creativity in regards to this topic.

(iv) Arisan is a lottery held between people in the same community, whether they are family, neighbors, or co-workers. An arisan most typically occurs on a monthly basis, though weekly or yearly arisan are also possible. People who choose to participate will pay into a collective pot and then one name will be drawn to determine who gets that month’s collection. A gathering is held at one of the participant’s houses when the name is drawn.

(v) Plenty of traditional Indonesian dishes are made without meat. The two mentioned above, ketoprak and tinutuan, hail from Java and Sulawesi respectively. Other names that vegetarians should be on the lookout for:

  • Bubur kacang hijau: Mung bean porridge cooked with coconut milk and palm sugar. This is usually served as breakfast or as a dessert.
  • Cap cai: Created by Indonesians of Chinese descent, cap cai (pronounced chup chai) means mixed vegetables. Most often it comes as stir-fried spinach and garlic. However, use caution as it is usually seasoned with oyster sauce.
  • Gado-gado: Perhaps the most well-known Indonesian vegetarian dish, gado-gado is a vegetable salad mixed with peanut sauce. The name literally means “mix-mix.” It is commonly found in Java.
  • Gorengan: Gorengan is a catch-all word for all deep-fried foods. Pisang goreng [fried bananas] is one of the most popular kinds of gorengan, but there are plenty of other deep-fried fruits and vegetables that are safe for vegetarians.
  • Gudeg: Found in central Java, gudeg is made from slices of unripe jackfruit boiled in palm sugar and coconout milk. However, it is often served with chicken so you might have to specify that you want it “tanpa ayam” — without chicken.
  • Karedok: Salad made with vegetables such as bean sprouts, eggplant, and cucumber. Noodles may be mixed it and it always comes with peanut sauce.
  • Ketoprak: Ketoprak is one of my favorite dishes. It is served with vermicelli noodles, bean sprouts, cucumber, and fried tofu then smothered in peanut sauce and topped with dried onion and a boiled egg.
  • Lotek: See pecel.
  • Mie goreng: Fried noodles, similar to nasi goreng.
  • Nasi goreng: Fried rice is an Indonesian staple. Nasi goreng is cooked with garlic and chilis, not fish sauce, so as long as no other meat is added nasi goreng is 100% veg-safe.
  • Orak arik: At its heart orak arik is scrambled eggs, but there are endless variations with different kinds of vegetables, noodles, and other additions.
  • Oseng-oseng: Stir-fried tofu or tempe with chilis and long beans.
  • Pecel: Steamed vegetables such as bean sprouts, unripened jackfruit, and various leafy greens with lontong [pressed rice], noodles, and peanut sauce.
  • Perkedel: Fried patty made of ground potatoes. Other things like corn, tofu, and minced meat can be added in sometimes, so be sure to check before taking a bite.
  • Rujak: A fresh fruit salad with spicy peanut sauce.
  • Sayur lodeh: Vegetable curry cooked in coconut milk. Be wary of chicken stock used to add flavor.
  • Selada: Similar to the English word salad, selada has fresh, curly lettuce leaves (also called selada in Indonesian), cucumbers, bean sprouts, slices of hard-boiled egg, and bits of tofu.
  • Tahu tek-tek: Fried tofu with bean sprouts and peanut sauce.
  • Telur balado: Most often seen in a pile at Padang restaurants, telur balado is a dish made from hard-boiled eggs cooked in a red chili paste.
  • Tempe bacem: Made of fermented soybeans, tempe (pronounced TEM-pay) is a specialty from Indonesia. Tempe bacem is cooked with different spices depended on the chef, but it is usually spicy.
  • Tinutuan: Also known as Bubur Manado, tinutuan is a specialty of Sulawesi. Tinutuan is a rice porridge made with vegetables such as spinach, corn, pumpkin, and sweet potato. Meat can be added to tinutuan, but vegetarian versions are easy to find.
  • Weci: Fried vegetable cake with flour and egg. Weci is a specialty of East Java.
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2 thoughts on “How To Be Vegetarian In Indonesia

  1. Cheers to you Kelly for your persistence in your beliefs despite difficulties. I admire that. This blog will be a God-send to other vegetarians following in your foot steps.
    Love and miss you,
    Aunt Betsy

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