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Vegetarian or Vegan in Sumatra - A full guide

When I first came to Sumatra I thought I would struggle finding and eating vegan food... to my suprise it wasn't, as long as you know where to look!

Indonesia is not known for its vegetarian food, which is a shame because many different types of vegetables are grown here and there are many types of vegetable dishes on offer. However, an Indonesian's daily diet consists of mainly rice, with either fish or chicken (#kampungchicken) and small portions of veggies dishes (or no veggies at all!). It's true that Indonesian's like meat, but it can be expensive, especially beef #lembu. The majority of locals will buy locally farmed fish or chicken.

When I first came to Sumatra, I was working with a project and we had a cook. Being #Vegan, the cook 'Mami' would buy fresh vegetables from the market everyday. She cooked traditional Indonesian vegetable dishes with the famous #sambal. Sambal is a spicy chilli sauce, it is one of the main elements of Indonesian dishes. It can be put with anything....chicken, egg, tempeh, fish, potato or just on the side. To say the least, I was spoilt with local traditional food!

When I started living in Bukit Lawang, I ate mostly in guesthouse restaurants which after a while I got bored of. It was adapted to Western tastes and there was a choice of only 5 or 6 vegetarian/vegan dishes. But, thats not to say there are not more, its just they do not advertise on their menu's!

Many dishes are Vegan

Many dishes you will see on menus, if they are vegetable dishes will be vegan. No need to worry about milk, butter or cheese, as its something that's not commonly found throughout Sumatra. All curries (gulai) are made with either freshly made coconut milk or from a carton. However, be wary of Shrimp paste. Shrimp paste can sometimes be sneaked into pastes, such as to make risoles, sambals and come currys. Fish sauce is generally not added to curries like in Thailand. Many dishes are served with krupuk, which are sometimes flavoured with fish or fish or shrimp paste.

Tempeh - Traditional Indonesian Soy Product

Tempeh is fermented soybean cake. It is a #vegansdelight. It's cheap, high in protein, great fibre source and a great meat substitute.

This is my staple food, I love it! Its got a nutty texture with a slightly mushroom smell.There are not many days that I go without eating a bit of tempeh!

Tempe is so versitile and can been cooked in many ways. Here are some ways you might want to try it:

1. Tempe Sambal - fried tempeh fried in sambal sauce

2. Tempeh Goreng - fried tempeh. sliced and seasoned with garlic and salt then fried.

3. Tempeh bacem - a javanese dish. Braised (boiled) in shallots, galangal, gingers, chilli & palm sugar. The result is a moist, dark, spicy sweet tempeh....delicious!

4. Tempeh mendoan - tempe is dipped in a plain or spiced flour mix before deep fried.

So where will I find Vegetarian or Vegan Food?

Guesthouse Restaurants & Cafes

Eating in a reputable guesthouse is always a safe option, as the food is cooked to order. As mentioned above menus tend to be adapted to Western tastes, so not spicy (unless you ask) and I would say not typically traditional Indonesia food. Here are some of the vegetable dishes you are likely to find:

1. Mie Goreng Sayur - Fried Vegetable Noodle

Mie goreng which originated in Indonesia is a popular dish. Basically fried noodles with vegetables. It's sold in restaurants, cafes, street food, pretty much anywhere! It can be made with different types of noodles but normally the menu will specify. These are the types of noodles found in Sumatra for fried noodle:

Indomie - instant wheat noodles (Vg) or mie bihun - thin rice noodles (Vg), Ifu mie - egg noodles (Veg), Mie Kwetiau - flat rice noodles (Vg).

Mie goreng is normally served with egg on top, so if you want it vegan just ask "tidak pakai telur" - Do not use egg. Spice Level: Can be made mild or spicy

2. Nasi Goreng Sayur - Vegetable Fried Rice

Another favourite throughout Indonesia. Basically fried rice with grated carrot, cabbage and green beans. Again normally served with egg, just ask without. Be careful, as sometimes they add anchovies mixed in. Just say " Sayur aja" - vegetable only. Spice Level: Can be made mild or spicy

3. Gado - Gado - Indonesian Salad

The famous Indonesian salad made with boiled vegetables, like potato, carrot, cabbage, bean sprouts, sometimes tofu & tempeh and boiled egg. Served with a spicy peanut sauce. To make vegan just ask without egg. Spice Level: Low - Medium

4. Gulai Sayur - Vegetable Curry

Mixed Vegetables in a yellow thick coconut curry, spiced with star anise, white cardamon & cinnamon. Spice Level: Low

5. Cap Cay - Fried Vegetables

A chinese style vegetable dish. Fried vegetable with garlic, chilli and a light sauce. Although it is a vegetable dish, in some places in Sumatra it is served scramble egg, chicken pieces or even shellfish. This has happened to me many times, so I've had to pick it out...yuck!

So for vegan, again just ask "Cap cay sayur, tidak pakai telur atau daging" - fried veg only, no egg or meat.

For vegetarians "cap cay sayur telur" - fried vegetables and egg.

I never had it served with an oyster sauce in Sumatra, but it might be something to vary of.

6. Semur - thick brown sweet gravy (veg/Vg)

This is another traditional Indonesian dish which can be served with eggs, tofu or tempeh (normally with chicken). The sauce served in guesthouses is normally thick and a little sweet/spicy. The sauce is made with sweet soy sauce, shallots, onions, garlic, ginger, candlenut, nutmeg and cloves. Spice Level: Low - Medium

On the move, in a city or just want to check out where the locals eat? Then you must try.....

Warungs makanan - local food places

These are small cafe or restaurants serving a variety of traditional Indonesian dishes. The joy of these warungs is that the food is out in silver trays displayed in the window. You can see it before you buy it, so no need to worry about Indonesian names. There will always be fried chicken, fried fish and fried tempeh on plates at the top with vegetable and meat dishes in bowls below. If it looks veggie and looks good....try it! If you don't trust your eyes, then just ask 'ini sayur aja?' - this vegetables only? or you could say 'Saya tidak makan daging' - I don't eat meat.

Normally the people who work in the warung will let you serve yourself. If not, then just point to the vegetable dishes that you would like and they will bring it to your table. They will only charge for the dishes that you eat!

It's best to go for breakfast or lunch as the food will be fresh. In the evening, you can not guarantee if the food has been reheated. It could have been sitting out all day, and you are likely to get a stomch bug.

So here is a list of safe vegetarian and vegan dishes found in most warungs:


1. Lontong Sayur - Rice cake with Vegetables

Lontong is compressed rice and is traditionally eaten for breakfast. This rice cake is sliced and served with noodles and a selection of vegetables, temeph, boiled egg and/or perkedel served with a peanut sauce or curry sauce. A breakfast full of carbohydrates and extremely filling.

Things to note: the yellow noodles are made with egg - not vegan but the small rice noodles - vegan. Perkedel (potato cake) - not vegan. Without boiled egg - vegan. Spice Level: medium - hot


2. Daun Ubi Tumbuk - mashed cassava leaf (vg)

This is one of my favourites and great for anyone who doesn't like spicy. Mashed and cooked cassava leaf in a slight coconut milk sauce. It's made with a paste made of shallot, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, ginger, a little chilli & coriander seeds. Usually cooked with cempokak, a small green bean simliar to round aubergines. Spice level: Low - Medium

3. Urap - boiled vegetables with spicy grated coconut topping (Vg)

Another one of my favourites as the vegetables are boiled. A Javansese dish, but always in the warungs. Usually cabbage, green beans, cassava leaf and bean sprouts. The topping is made with frying grated coconut in a paste of chilli, shallot, garlic, #kencur, tamarind sauce, palm sugar & kaffir lime leaves. The result is a spicy and sweet coconut topping. Spice level: Low - Medium

4. Perkedel - potato Cake (Veg)

Basically mashed fried lightlty spiced potato cake....yum! Made with egg to bind the potatoes so suitable for vegetarians. Spice level: None

5. Tempeh, Tofu, Egg or Aubergine Sambal - chilli sauce

Sambal, as mentioned above is a really spicy sauce made with mostly chilli's. It can be served on the side or mixed with any of the above. Spice level: Medium - high

6. Kering Tempeh Kacang - Sweet & spicy fried tempeh and peanuts (veg/Vg)

Another dish commonly found in most warungs. Just check there's no hidden anchovies. Crispy tempeh and fried peanuts are cooked in a delicious dry sweet and spicy sauce. Spice level: Medium

7. Sayar Lodeh - Vegetables spiced coconut soup (veg/Vg)

Various vegetables in a light fragrant coconut milk soup. The paste is made with shallots, garlic, galangal, ginger, coriander, palm sugar. Lime leaves can be added with chilli slices which make a really tasty fragrant soup. Spice level: Low

8. Gulai - type of curry (veg/Vg)

Made with coconut milk with a variety of spices and chilli. You will see dishes with chicken and fish but there will always be one vegetable dish. Can be served with boiled egg, tempe, tofu or mostly like young jackfruit. I recommend trying the young jackfruit, its a perfect meat substitute. Spice Level: Low - Medium

9. Sayur Asem - sour soup (veg/Vg)

This is a clear broth soup made with tamarind and a sour fruit. Normally has sweetcorm slices, with a mixture of local vegetables. Spice Level: none/ sour

10. Tempeh Terong Tauco - tempeh aubergine tauco (veg/Vg)

Fried tempeh and augerine in a fermented soybean sauce. Normally has green beans and sometimes A LOT of slices green chillis. I tend to always find that this dish is really greasy. Also watch out for small shrimps as they are sometimes added. Spice Level: Medium - High

So don't be afraid to go into a local warung, look at the food and see what they have got. Some will have more vegetable dishes than others and vegan people can rest assure that the majority of vegetable curries and soups are vegan.

So enjoy trying out all these local Indonesian foods, let your tastebuds be tantalized!

Coming up soon....where to find vegan food in Medan, Binjai and Bukit Lawang!


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