The food and spices of Indonesia are a reflection of its rich history. With more than 17,000 islands, this Republic is also referred to as the Spice Islands. The foods are greatly influenced by some nearby countries, including India, but also by far away countries including Spain, Portugal, the Middle East and China.
Cabai, or Chili Pepper
Many savory dishes in Indonesian cuisine require some heat to them and a variety of chili peppers commonly found in households can accomplish this. The large red Cabai chilis of Indonesian cuisine are considered to be very hot. The level of heat in each dish varies according to how much you add.
Jahe, or Ginger Root Seed
Jahe adds a tiny bit of heat to a dish, but also adds some health and medicinal properties. Ginger has long been used in Southeast Asian countries to treat nausea, flu, menstrual cramps and fever. There is also a popular drink in Indonesia called "wedang jahe," which is a mixture of ginger and palm sugar.
Kunyit , or Turmeric
Kunyit, or Turmeric, belongs to the same family as ginger. A cook can use it as a spice to add flavor to a dish and as a colorant. If he desires an orange-yellow color in his dish, he might use turmeric. He could also use the leaves of the plant in Minangese and Padangese curry.
Cardamom imparts a slightly bitter taste but also bold color. It is used for medicinal purposes in some areas, treating everything from digestion issues to tuberculosis. As a spice, many people use it in desserts and some teas, including chai. Though cardamom is the world's third most expensive spice, a little goes a long way.
Adas, or Fennel
This spice is better known to many as "the licorice spice" because it tastes like black licorice. In Indonesian cuisine, you can used it with eggs and fish to give dishes a savory flavor. It is also a key component of "gripe" water, which is used to ease colicky babies.
Kayu Manis, or Cinnamon
The Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra cultivate cinnamon, which you can use to spice coffees, teas and sweets. Unlike other cinnamons, Indonesian cinnamon is packed in neat little quills and is so hard that you can't grind it properly without risk of dull or broken blades. It is therefore often used whole in dishes or drinks.
Kemiri, or Candlenuts
Candlenuts come from a flowering tree that produces small nuts that are so oily you can use them for candles, hence their name. Indonesian cooks often use it to make a thick sauce eaten with rice, noodles or vegetables. Some also use it as a medicinal substitute for castor oil.
Cengkeh, or Cloves
Like many Indonesian spices, cloves have multiple uses. You can crush them or roll them to smoke in a cigarette or pipe. You can also used them to flavor stocks and broths, which are in turn used to make soups and other dishes. You can often use these same stocks to flavor fish and beef dishes.
Asam, or Tamarind
The tamarind tree produces small pods that have the sticky tamarind, or asam, inside. Asam has a sour taste that is used in candies around the world. You can also use it as a souring agent in dishes or to tame the heat of especially spicy Indonesian dishes.
Ketumbar, or coriander
Though many know coriander as cilantro, the coriander used in Indonesia is actually the seed and not the leafy herb used in Indian, Mexican and other cultures. The coriander seeds are used to spice soups, stews and curries. The seeds are small and can easily be eaten whole.
Galangal, or Blue Ginger
Though Galangal is sometimes referred to as blue ginger, it does not taste like ginger. It does, however, resemble ginger quite a bit and they are a part of the same family. It is used in Indonesian culture in "soto," a traditional broth dish. You can eat the broth in a variety of ways, including with chicken, fish and various vegetables, depending on the area of Indonesia in which it is being served.