The vast majority of Indonesian restaurants serve only halal food and are thus safe for Muslim travellers. This includes Western chains like McDonald's, KFC and Pizza Hut. The main exception is ethnic eateries catering to Indonesia's non-Muslim minorities, especially those serving Batak, Manadonese Minahasan, Balinese, and Chinese cuisine, so enquire if unsure.
Strict vegetarians will have a tough time in Indonesia, as the concept is poorly understood and avoiding fish and shrimp-based condiments is a challenge. Tofu tahu and its chunkier, indigenous cousin tempeh are an essential part of the diet, but they are often served with non-vegetarian condiments. For example, the ubiquitous sambal chili pastes very often contain shrimp, and kerupuk crackers with a spongy appearance, including those always served with nasi goreng, nearly always contain shrimp or fish. Those that resemble potato chips, on the other hand, are usually fine.
Across the entire archipelago the main staple is rice nasi, served up in many forms including:
bubur, rice porridge with toppings, popular at breakfast
lontong and ketupat, rice wrapped in leaves and cooked so it compresses into a cake
nasi goreng, the ubiquitous fried rice; order it spesial to get an egg on top
nasi kuning, yellow spiced rice, a festive ceremonial dish usually moulded into a sharp cone called a tumpeng
nasi padang, white steamed rice served with numerous curries and other toppings, originally from Padang but assimilated throughout the country with lots of variations and adjustments to taste.
nasi timbel, white steamed rice wrapped in a banana leaf, a common accompaniment to Sundanese food
nasi uduk, slightly sweet rice cooked with coconut milk, eaten with omelette and fried chicken; popular at breakfast
Dessert in the Western sense is not common in Indonesia, but there are plenty of snacks to tickle your sweet tooth. Kue covers a vast array of traditional cakes and pastries, all colorful, sweet, and usually a little bland, with coconut, rice flour and sugar being the main ingredients. Es teler, ice mixed with fruits and topped with coconut cream or condensed milk, comes in infinite variations and is a popular choice on a hot day.
Perhaps the cheapest, tastiest and healthiest option, though, is to buy some fresh fruit, which is available throughout the year, although individual fruits do have seasons. Popular options include mango mangga, papaya papaya, banana pisang, starfruit belimbing and guava jambu, but more exotic options you're unlikely to see outside Indonesia include the scaly-skinned crisp snakefruit salak and the alien-looking local passionfruit markisa. Probably the most infamous Indonesian fruit, though, is the durian. Named after the Indonesian word for thorn, it resembles an armor-plated coconut the size of a human head, and it has a powerful odor often likened to rotting garbage. Inside is yellow creamy flesh, which has a unique sweet, custardy, avocadoey taste and texture. It's prohibited in most hotels and taxis.
eating by hand
In Indonesia eating with your hand instead of utensils like forks and spoons is very common. The basic idea is to use four fingers to pack a little ball of rice, which can then be dipped into sauces before you pop it in your mouth by pushing it with your thumb. There's one basic rule of etiquette to observe: Use only your right hand, as the left hand is used to clean yourself in the toilet. Don't stick either hand into communal serving dishes: instead, use the left hand to serve yourself with utensils and then dig in. Needless to say, it's wise to wash your hands well before and after eating.
Eating by hand is frowned on in some "classier" places. If you are provided with cutlery and nobody else around you seems to be doing it, then take the hint.
Chillies cabe or lombok are made into a vast variety of sauces and dips known as sambal. The simplest and perhaps most common is sambal ulek, which is just chillies and salt with perhaps a dash of lime pounded together. There are many other kinds of sambal like sambal pecel with peanut, sambal terasi with shrimp paste, sambal tumpeng, etc. Many of these can be very spicy indeed, so be careful if you're asked whether you would like your dish pedas spicy!
Crackers known as kerupuk or keropok, it's the same word spelled differently accompany almost every meal and are a traditional snack too. They can be made from almost any grain, fruit, vegetable or seed imaginable, including many never seen outside Indonesia, but perhaps the most common are the light pink keropok udang, made with dried shrimp, and the slightly bitter light yellow emping, made from the nuts of the melinjo fruit.
Soups soto and watery curries are also common:
bakso/baso "BAH-so", meatballs and noodles in chicken broth
rawon, spicy beef soup, a speciality of East Java
sayur asam vegetables in a sour soup of tamarind
sayur lodeh, vegetables in a soup of coconut milk and fish
soto ayam, chicken soup Indonesian style with chicken shreds, vermicelli, and chicken broth and various local ingredients
Popular main dishes include:
ayam bakar, grilled chicken
ayam goreng, deep-fried chicken
cap cay, Chinese-style stir-fried vegetables
gado-gado, blanched vegetables with peanut sauce
gudeg, jackfruit stew from Yogyakarta.
ikan bakar, grilled fish
karedok, similar to gado-gado, but the vegetables are finely chopped and mostly raw
perkedel, deep-fried patties of potato and meat or vegetables adopted from the Dutch frikadel
sate satay, grilled chicken and lamb
sapo, Chinese-style claypot stew
places to eat
Eating on the cheap in Indonesia is cheap indeed, and a complete streetside meal can be had for under US$1 Rp 10,000. However, the level of hygiene may not be up to Western standards, so you may wish to steer clear for the first few days and patronize only visibly popular establishments.
The fastest way to grab a bite is to visit a kaki lima, literally "five feet". Depending on whom you ask, they're named either after the mobile stalls' three wheels plus the owner's two feet, or the "five-foot way" sidewalks mandated during British rule. These can be found by the side of the road in any Indonesian city, town or village, usually offering up simple fare like fried rice, noodles and porridge. At night a kaki lima can turn into a lesehan simply by providing some bamboo mats for customers to sit on and chat.
A step up from the kaki lima is the warung or the old spelling waroeng, a slightly less mobile stall offering much the same food, but perhaps a few plastic stools and a tarp for shelter.
Rather more comfortable is the rumah makan or eating house, a simple restaurant more often than not specialising in a type of food or style of cuisine. Nasi Padang restaurants, offering rice and an array of curries and other toppings to go along with it, are particularly popular and easily identified by their soaring Minangkabau roofs. Ordering at these is particularly easy: just sit down, and your table will promptly fill up with countless small plates of dishes. Eat what you like and pay for what you consumed.
Another easy mid-range option in larger cities is to look out for food courts and Indonesian restaurants in shopping malls, which combine air-con with hygienic if rather predictable food. In addition to the usual Western suspects, major local chains include EsTeler 77 (http://www.esteler77.com/...), best known for its iced fruit desserts es teler but also selling bakso meatball, nasi goreng fried rice and other Indonesian staples, and Hoka Hoka Bento, for localized Japanese fare. Bakmi Gajah Mada GM is a famous Chinese noodle restaurant chain.
A restoran indicates more of a Western-style eating experience, with air-con, table cloths, table service and prices to match. Especially in Jakarta and Bali, it's possible to find very good restaurants offering authentic fare from around the world, but you'll be lucky to escape for under Rp 100,000 a head.
Noodles mi or mie come in a good second in the popularity contest. Worth a special mention is Indomie, no less than the world's largest instant noodle manufacturer. A pack at the supermarket costs under Rp 1000 and some stalls will boil or fry them up for you for as little as 2000 Rp.
bakmi, thin egg noodles usually served boiled with a topping of your choice chicken, mushroom, etc
kuetiaw, flat rice noodles most commonly fried up with soy sauce