food · The Big Durian

Is Jakarta vegetarian friendly?

In California, vegetarian dishes are available in almost every restaurant. Your typical menus even state that everything can be made vegetarian upon request. How do they do this? The most common strategy is by substituting meat with tofu. For an example: sweet and sour chicken can be served as sweet and sour tofu. As a person who grew up eating tofu, I have a problem with it. That’s not how you treat tofu! Tofu should be cooked as a specific dish of its own!

I used to host annual Indonesian dinners back in Davis. Picking the menu was not an easy task. I had to choose a range of dishes that highlighted what Indonesian cuisine was all about, and they all had to go well together. Then I had to consider my guests’ dietary preference. How do I create a menu that gives everyone plenty of choice of food? I refuse to do the tofu exchange. Hence, my dinner parties usually involved a lot of different types of dishes in a seating. At times, I had to compromise and cook the components of the food separately. For example, rendang was always on the menu, and I’d have two separate pots going: one for beef and one for egg.

Indonesians generally eat smaller portion of meat compared to, say, people in Thailand or the Phillipines. Meat is expensive. However, almost everything is based on an animal protein, or at least is made with chicken or beef stock. Vegetarians are uncommon. Well, I’m talking about those who do not eat meat by choice, not those who do not eat meat because they can’t afford it. We also have a small vegetarian Buddhist community, resulting in Chinese vegetarian restaurants that serve soy- or gluten-based imitation meat, more well-known as seitan in the US or Europe. Again, you need to make an effort to find one of these restaurants.

So real. Source:

With that in mind, when a friend of mine requested for a list of vegetarian-friendly Indonesian dishes for when she visits Sean and I, I immediately thought, Hmm…this is going to be interesting. It’s a different case when I’m cooking everything myself – I can customize here and there, skip an ingredient, etc. What if you have to purchase the food from a vendor that generally has multiple components of the dish already cooked?

It took me a while to figure it out, but here’s what I came up with:

  1. Nasi rames

Nasi means rice in Indonesian. Conceptually, if you see any dish called nasi something, most of the time it means rice is the center of attention and you have it with 2-4 side dishes in one plate, and of course sambal – chili sauce. The food vendor will have numerous side dishes to choose from as pictured below, so you have the option to make your plate vegetarian! To eat like an expert, assemble tiny bits of all the side dishes and rice on your spoon and eat them all at once. Or, you can also mix and match, enjoy different combinations in each bite!


  1. Nasi uduk

This is a breakfast staple: savory rice cooked in coconut milk, surrounded by pan-fried rice noodle, egg omelette or hard-boiled egg with chili sauce, tempeh cooked with sweet soy sauce and tamarind paste. Often times enjoyed with tempeh or tofu fritters, you have the option of adding a piece of fried chicken, or not.


  1. Nasi goreng and mie tek-tek

Fried rice and fried noodle are like hamburgers in America! Super popular and easily found anywhere, the Indonesian version of fried rice is unique because we use sweet soy sauce. You may have the option of adding in salted fish, chicken, corned beef, sausage, mutton, seafood, or have ‘em plain. Get the pickled carrot-cucumber-bird’s eye chili combo on the side and you’re done for the day!

nasi-gorengMaking fried rice like a boss. Source: toko

  1. Gorengan

Endless choice of fritters o_o This is one of my weaknesses – I can’t stop myself from ordering some when I see them.


  1. Lontong sayur

Curry soup composed of squash, young jackfruit, carrots and long beans or green beans. You can also opt to add in a piece of chicken curry or beef curry (rendang). It may not always be vegetarian friendly as some people add in dried shrimp or fermented shrimp paste to accentuate its flavor.

lontong-sayurWe eat this for breakfast! Source:

  1. Toge goreng

Egg noodle, bean sprout and oncom (tempeh’s brother from another mother) stir-fried with fermented soybean sauce. Personally not my favorite, but maybe because I’m not a bean sprout fan and it’s the star of the dish.

toge-gorengThat spaghetti sauce-looking thing is not meat! It’s oncom, a product of soybean meal fermentation by the orange fungus Neuspora sitophila. Source:

  1. Ketoprak

Rice noodle, bean sprouts, fried tofu, rice cake, diced cucumber, all served with peanut sauce. The spiciness of this dish can be adjusted by requesting for one, two, three or more bird’s eye chilies, they’re mashed into the peanut sauce and made to order.


  1. Gado-gado, pecel, lotek, karedok

I grouped these dishes because they are conceptually similar: a mix of vegetables served with spicy peanut sauce. Each dish is different based on the spice composition of the peanut sauce and whether the vegetables are boiled or served raw. Similar to ketoprak, you can also order it as spicy or mild as possible.


  1. Asinan Betawi

Lightly pickled carrots, jicama, mustard leaves and bean sprouts mixed with lettuce, shredded cabbage, tofu, cucumber and pan roasted peanuts. Bonus points if you keep it in the fridge before eating. I didn’t like vegetables when I was a kid, but I loved it when the asinan guy stopped by my house. It means I get to eat the iconic yellow crackers with peanut sauce and palm sugar! *Drooling*

asinanThat yellow cracker…*drool* Source:

  1. Rujak juhi

Sean was super weirded out when he saw this dish for the first time, but he loved it! Expect a concoction of dried squid, egg noodle, lettuce, shredded cabbage, cucumber, boiled potatoes and peanut sauce. Omit the squid and this is still an addictive dish!

rujak-juhiSource: tumblr

  1. Gudeg

Young jackfruit slow cooked with coconut milk, palm sugar, shallot, garlic, candlenuts, galangal and bay leaves. Traditionally, teak leaves may be added, resulting in its reddish brown color. Served on rice with thick coconut cream and hardboiled egg cooked in the same spices. Carnivores may opt of additional chicken curry and krecek, a spicy stew made of cattle skin crackers.


  1. Kerak telor

Another local dish from Jakarta, kerak telor is seasonal. You can mostly find the vendors hanging out near Jakarta Fair, held yearly in June to celebrate the anniversary of our beloved city. It’s kind of like an omellette made of chicken/duck eggs and sticky rice, sprinkled with fried shallot and spicy shredded coconut. The cooking process itself is unique, as it’s done over a charcoal-heated claypot.


I might have overlooked some dishes, so please comment and I’ll update this post accordingly. Granted, what I wrote here is only based on my own experience. I myself am a meatarian. I never really think about meatless food, thus my knowledge may be limited. What’s your opinion, folks? Do you think Jakarta is vegetarian friendly?

UPDATE: I did not mention snack foods in this post. We do have A LOT of yummy meatless snacks. I’ll write a separate post about them! And no, gorengan is not a snack to me, it’s more like an entree because I can’t just eat one or two -_-“ 


3 thoughts on “Is Jakarta vegetarian friendly?

  1. Indonesian food in general is vegetarian friendly, that’s because meat are expensive. Ha! I have some vegan friends here and when I had to think about what to cook for them I actually came up with lots of things. I never knew so many Indonesian dishes (at least from East Java where I came from) are actually vegan. However, you are right about the chicken / beef stock, just replace them with vegetable stock, probably won’t hit the right tone, but it will still do.

    My favourite of all is obviously rawon and somehow since I was a kid, I could never eat the meat in the rawon, so I have begun cooking rawon only with labu siam and other vegetables in it. Taste good!


    1. I thought so too! There lots of choices if you cook, but if you are a tourist who relies on purchasing food from street vendors or restaurants, it can be tricky. Mana ada soto tanpa ayam? 🙂 Kuahnya juga pakai tulang ayam.


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