Sugar Talk Sugar Talk
Sugars in Indonesia’s diverse cuisine
Indonesia is a major sugar consuming nation, with as much as 40% growth in consumption over the last decade: a huge figure compared with the global average of 9%. And this shows in the national cuisine, with sugar featuring in many common food and beverages. Over 2023, domestic sugar production is expected to reach 2.6 million tonnes, while demand during the same period is forecast to reach 3.4 million tonnes, making Indonesia a major sugar importer too.
History, culture and influences
In 1933, Java—Indonesia’s biggest island—was the world’s leading sugar producer, with more than 200 factories processing sugarcane. Introduced by Dutch colonisers, the industry sprang up in the early 19th century after European sugar companies began to look for places for sugar plantations in Asia.
After failing in India, the Dutch found success in Java, expanding output throughout the 19th century. In 1945, Indonesia regained its independence and nationalised the industry.
Today, only just over ten factories remain in operation, all using steam-powered machinery installed over a century ago.
Despite Indonesia’s ‘native’ sugar being coconut palm sugar—made by collecting sap from various parts of the palm tree—cane sugar’s convenience and lower price mean it is used far more often in today’s Indonesian cuisine. Although nobody knows the exact time when coconut sugar began to be produced in the country, it was probably around the age of empire in the17th century, under the rule of King Amangkurat I of Mataram who ruled most of Java.
The ubiquity of sugar—whether palm or cane—over the last four centuries in Indonesia means it features heavily in the country’s traditional dishes, both savoury and sweet.
Kecap manis for the sweet tang of Nasi Goreng
Nasi goreng is Indonesian fried rice, flavoured with chilli sambal, shrimp paste, kecap manis (sweet Indonesian soy sauce) and sugar. You can add what you want to the rice, but traditionally it is made simply with spring onions and fresh chillies and served for breakfast with a fried egg.
Similar to other fried rice recipes in Asia, some commentators have suggested that Indonesian-style nasi goreng can trace its origin from Southern Chinese fried rice and was likely developed as a way to avoid wasting rice.
Kecap manis is a soy sauce, but it has a generous helping of sugar—either palm sugar or demerara sugar—that gives it a distinct and intense combination of sweet, savoury, slightly smoky, malty, toffee-like flavours.
The kecap manis and the terasi (Indonesian shrimp paste) sets nasi goreng apart from other fried-rice variations you’ll see in other countries. Within Indonesia itself, the 14,000 islands have produced an almost infinite number of local versions: there’s nasi goreng kambing with mutton, nasi goreng ayam with chicken, nasi goreng keju with cheese and nasi goreng gila, or crazy fried rice, which contains anything the cook has to hand. Corned beef, sausages and even intestines can go into the mix.
Cooling down Indonesian style with es sari tebu
Es sari tebu is an Indonesian iced sugar cane juice. In the Indonesian language, ‘tebu’ means sugarcane and ‘es’ means ice. Sold from roadside carts in the towns and cities of Indonesia, the juice is extracted from raw sugarcane using a pressing machine to squeeze out the sugary sap. Always served cold with ice cubes, street vendors can add lime, lemon or ginger for extra flavour.
Green sugar cane is best to make es sari tebu—or ‘es Tabu’ as most Indonesians say, as the skin is soft, making it easier to press and extract the most juice. The earliest record comes from a 9th-century inscription, dated from the Medang Mataram period (a Javanese Hindu–Buddhist kingdom that flourished between the 8th and 11th centuries), that describes a sweet drink called Nalaka Rasa, which translates as ‘sugarcane juice’.
Getuk ubi: the slightly savoury dessert
Getuk ubi is a starchy and delicate Javanese dessert. It’s made from cassava (the ‘ubi’ part) that’s peeled, mashed, steamed, and layered with a topping of grated coconut and soft dark brown sugar. There are many types of Getuk in a number of different colours. Some are more savoury desserts, with less sugar and without coconut.
When you bite into it, the intense flavour of the grated coconut and brown sugar on top contrast well with the plain cassava bottom. Cassava is plentiful in Java, so Javanese people use it to make many of their traditional foods, seeing it as a humble ingredient and a symbol of modesty. If you travel to Kediri, a city in East Java, you’ll find a sweet treat called Getuk Pisang, made with banana (pisang) instead of cassava.
All over the Indonesian archipelago, sugar has worked its way into the diverse regional cuisines. Whether the sweetness comes from the native palm sugar, or the sugarcane that the country now must import in ever-growing quantities, sugar is the ingredient that never goes out of fashion.