The diversity of an Indonesian breakfast

Nasi uduk betawi is one of many typical breakfast dishes in Indonesia.
Nasi uduk betawi is one of many typical breakfast dishes in Indonesia.PHOTO: THE JAKARTA POST/ANN

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ANN) - A few years ago a former classmate from the United States came to visit Indonesia, and her first question when she arrived was: What is a typical Indonesian breakfast? That could sound like a very innocent question, and yet I found myself stuck for a moment on how difficult it was to give a neat, simple answer.

I then recalled all my travels around the country, from hotel to hotel, I always got the choice of American, Continental or Indonesian breakfast, with the latter being the famous Indonesian fried rice, nasi goreng. However, a thought came to my mind: do Indonesians really eat nasi goreng for breakfast?

Remembering my childhood days living in Jakarta’s Menteng area, bread seemed to be our staple food in the morning. The memories are still clear in my mind of bread vendors passing by in their tricycles, yelling brot, brot, rotiii. (Brot is Dutch for bread). My brother and sisters would then rush to the streets to get their favourite bread. One sister preferred roti nanas, bread with pineapple jam filling. Another sister would grab roti gambang, gingerbread. My brother’s choice was roti kacang, bread with crushed peanuts, while I preferred roti coklat, chocolate bread. Together with roti tawar (plain bread), that was our typical morning meal.

However, having a mother who loved cooking, once in a while we’d have our variety of bubur ayam (chicken porridge), bubur Manado (Manadonese-style rice porridge with mixed vegetables), bubur kacang ijo (mung bean porridge), or boiled cassava and chili sauce, in addition to our daily bread.

Never once did I give thought as to whether that was typically Indonesian or not. As a kid I only cared about the fact that I enjoyed the food. It was only occasionally that nasi goreng was served to complement the bread we had each morning, usually on the weekends.

As years passed, moving to another city to study, and later on frequently visiting other cities and towns for work-related travels, I came to taste the rich variety of breakfast items this country has to offer.

Yogyakartans would cherish their nasi gudeg (jackfruit stew with palm sugar and coconut milk) for breakfast, sometimes even lining up in the wee hours of the morning to buy it at their favourite warung (food stall). Yogyakarta is also famous for jajan pasar (sweet cakes) to fill one’s morning appetite.

In other parts of Java one can find nasi pecel (Madiun), nasi uduk (Jakarta), ketoprak (Jakarta) and tauge oncom (West Java). There are varieties of buburayam in Kalimantan, while yellow rice (nasi kuning) can make one’s morning in Manado or Bandung.

Other forms of rice dishes can be found in Bali (nasi jenggo), Solo (nasi kucing) and Aceh (nasi gurih). For those preferring curry soup served with rice cakes, try lontong sayur or lontong Medan; and, of course, there is also soto ayam (chicken soup).

What about noodles? Yes, mie ayam, mie cakalang and mie pangsit are common items to find on any breakfast table in Indonesia, plus there’s also instant noodles, which is a favourite among many.

The list can go on and on, and this in fact reflects Indonesia’s diversity. Beyond just breakfast, if I was asked what typical Indonesian food is like, I would not be able to explain it. Many of my friends, when asked that question by a foreigner, would immediately talk about what they personally have at home, or what they are familiar with, which I think works against the diversity of our country.

But think about it: Why do we consider nasi goreng to be the national breakfast dish? And if we do not, why hasn’t it been removed from the list of popular breakfast items?

Perhaps it was the influence of the first modern hotels in the 1960s that first introduced it, such as Hotel Indonesia, Bali Beach Hotel, Ambarrukmo Hotel and Samudra Beach Hotel. Or, correct me if I am wrong, could it be the colonial hotels that started romanticising it as a breakfast item?

Most people would consider nasi goreng as leftover food, meaning they would consume it for breakfast whenever there was leftover rice sitting in the fridge (it has been said that the secret to great fried rice is to use cold-cooked grains).

However, if on some evening one was to walk along some of the most popular eating spots in Jakarta, such as on Jalan Sabang, Jalan Hayamwuruk or Kebon Kacang, or any other place near a shopping mall, they would come across food stalls serving cheap and ready-made meals. Many of these vendors sell fried rice; but bear in mind that the fried rice is not consumed for breakfast, and instead for dinner. This is a good reason to cross out nasi goreng as a typical Indonesian breakfast.

Now, let’s revisit the initial question: What is a typical Indonesian breakfast? I browsed through the Internet and discovered more choices – dishes that truly reflect the richness of Indonesia.

Breakfast does not have to be rice-based or constitute a Westernised bread-based meal; some eat cassava, yam or sago. I also found that some morning meals come with vegetables, poultry, meat, fish, or peanuts. Surprisingly, fruits are rarely the choice for Indonesians in the morning. Even though today Western influences have changed our eating habits, I do know some people who still believe that eating fruit in the morning would cause some discomfort in their stomach.

Now, I know the answer to the question we started with. There is no such thing as a typical Indonesian breakfast, which leads to a new idea: Perhaps it is time that someone writes a book about the varieties of breakfast across the archipelago.

Danny Yatim is a lecturer at Atma Jaya University and a creative writing instructor at The Jakarta Post Writing Center.