Indonesia consists of some 13,000 islands which stretch from west to east along the equator, from the island of Sumatra, directly south of Thailand, to Irian Jaya, just north of Australia. These islands support the fourth-most populous nation in the world, a population that is 90% Muslim, with hundreds of tribes, subcultures, and languages -- and many long and varied histories. For centuries, these islands have been the center of international trade. Rich, volcanic soil produces an amazing number of fruits and vegetables, the seas yield vast numbers of fish. Spices, however, have been the main source of Indonesia's fame. Nutmeg, clove, and pepper drew traders from India, China, Africa, and the Arab world, and later, European explorers and colonists from the Netherlands, Portugal, and England. From the 8th through the 16th centuries, powerful polities on Java and Sumatra controlled much of what is today the Indonesian Archipelago. But, by the end of the 16th century, steady European colonial expansion left the nation a collection of weak, disconnected fiefdoms, all of which came under direct Dutch control within two centuries. The Republic of Indonesia was declared at the end of the Japanese occupation of Indonesia during World War two. Indonesian cuisine reflects this complex cultural history. Cooking varies greatly by region and combines many different influences. However, most Indonesian food shares the nearly universal food trinity of fish, coconut and chile.
The main meal in Indonesia is usually served at midday. Food which was cooked in the morning is set out all at once. Family members help themselves, serving with a spoon and eating with right hands. There is less family gathering or ceremony of communal eating than in other cultures, but there is communal cooking and a strict hierarchy that determines one's role and comportment at the table. Most meals are built around a cone-shaped pile of the long-grain, highly polished rice that Indonesians prefer. A meal may include a soup, salad, and another main dish. Whatever the meal, it is accompanied by at least one, and often several sambals, spice relishes that are mixed with the food. A light meal might consist of rice, some dried fish and a chile sambal.
Indonesian cooking is rich with coconut milk. Beverages, sauces, soups, and even rice are prepared with it. Traditional spicing builds on a base of coriander, pepper, and garlic. Added to those are turmeric, cassia (the local bark that is quite close in flavor to cinnamon), bay leaf, star anise, ginger, tamarind, galangal, cardamom, lemon grass, scallion, shallots, peanuts, dried anchovies, and prawns. Even ghee finds its way into many recipes. Surprisingly, cloves and nutmeg, flavors at the very heart of the spice trade, play a marginal role, at best, in Indonesian cuisine. They are more commonly used in local medicine.