The Evolving Indonesian Taste Palette and Opportunities for Brands

Indonesia’s openness in terms of food culture presents a unique opportunity for brands writes Rayhan Wildan Ramadhani.

Image by Jamie He

Indonesia, especially Jakarta, is a growing hub of international cuisines, with many Japanese, Korean, Italian, Mexican, and others to be found around the city. While Indonesians love experimenting and adopting new flavours, textures and ways of consumption, it is interesting to note how most of these cuisines have been adjusting, at some level, to deliver Indonesian preferences.

This alteration and customisation of foreign cuisines to make them more palatable is not new behaviour – if we look into the past, this ability to refine foreign tastes and flavours for the Indonesian palette allowed Indonesian food culture to evolve and prosper to where it is today.

Apart from its geographical diversity, Indonesia’s vibrant culinary scene is the result of extensive cultural interactions spanning centuries with diverse nations. Prior to becoming part of Indonesia, the kingdoms within the Nusantara archipelago maintained intricate connections with foreign countries. Positioned strategically along significant maritime trade routes, Indonesia served as an exploratory hub, facilitating exchanges and discoveries.


 

Several foreign nations, including India, the Middle East, China, and Europe, embarked on voyages in pursuit of coveted spices like cloves, nutmeg, and mace, highly prized during that era. The region’s abundant natural resources attracted these nations for trade, leading some European powers to assert full control and establish colonies. This prolonged interaction fostered a profound cultural exchange, contributing significantly to the diverse and rich culinary landscape of Indonesia.

The interaction between Indonesian local communities and foreign countries occurs at various levels of assimilation, leading to significant influences on Indonesian food culture as listed below:

  1. Chinese, deeply ingrained through the introduction of soy-based products like tofu, soy sauce and stir-frying techniques can be found across the nation
  2. The Middle East, accompanied by Islamic principles, imparted knowledge on using an abundance of aromatic spices in meat-based cuisine, mostly in the Sumatra and Aceh regions.
  3. Indian influence introduced ingredients such as garlic, coconut milk, and turmeric, creating the curried meat cuisine prevalent in the Sumatra region.
  4. European influence, notably from the Dutch, introduced ingredients such as chili, cane sugar, cheese, and the concept of rijsttafel, presenting an array of dishes at a single table.

The country’s deeply rooted cultural syncretism in food eventually fostered a natural openness to various global influences in today’s food preferences.

Image by Mateusz Dach


 

With the advancement of media information, foreign cultural consumption patterns permeated popular culture and social media. Hence, Indonesians became more familiar with the new vocabulary of flavours and the smell of food and beverages from Japanese, Korean, and Western culture. This is evident in the rising popularity of matcha, spicy flavours, and cheese, which are now readily available, whether in restaurants, street food stalls, or packaged food and beverage products.

The development of Indonesian food culture occurs in a reciprocal manner. Consequently, when we visit a McDonald’s or KFC outlet today, we consistently find rice on the menu, as it has become an inseparable part of Indonesian eating habits. The recent trend of food fusion that hit social media further demonstrates the dynamic nature of food culture.

“Indonesia’s openness in terms of food culture presents a unique opportunity for brands to tap into the market. However, while the door to experimentation is wide open, brands must observe and tread carefully to align with the national palate and preferences.”

Examples include dishes like Steak Tempeh, Spaghetti with sambal matah, or Burger Rendang, where Indonesian food elements are seamlessly integrated into international cuisines. This fusion cuisine not only brings innovation to Indonesian culinary traditions but also celebrates the rich diversity of influences that shape the country’s food culture.

Yet, this does not guarantee the new international cuisines will automatically be ingrained into the national palate. While there is a desire for experimentation, adjustment processes are required to align with traditional tastes and preferences, given that Indonesian food culture has certain norms and preferences that cannot be altered.

Thus, chefs and individuals often try to adapt recipes by balancing the intensity of flavours or textures to gain wider acceptance. At the everyday dining level, this is evidenced through the use of chilli sauce and sweet soy sauce, which become the main tools for customising taste preferences for Indonesians.

Indonesia’s openness in terms of food culture presents a unique opportunity for brands to tap into the market. However, while the door to experimentation is wide open, brands must observe and tread carefully to align with the national palate and preferences.

Innovation and tradition are key to successfully navigating Indonesia’s vibrant and ever-evolving food culture. By understanding and embracing the openness, while staying anchored to its culinary roots, brands can forge meaningful connections and carve out a niche in the dynamic Indonesian culinary landscape.

Picture of Rayhan \Wildan Ramadhani

Rayhan \Wildan Ramadhani

Rayhan is a Junior Researcher at Quantum Consumer Solutions.

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