How Much of This Food Is Actually Indonesian?

The answer might surprise you.
Traditional Indonesian dishes

It's campaign season in Indonesia, which means that everyone's talking about food. On the surface, it's weird that food is getting so much attention, considering everything else that's been going on in Indonesia. The economy is in the dumps, religion is still a hot-button issue, and critics are accusing the incumbent president, Joko Widodo, of going on a witch-hunt under the guise of a counter-terrorism push.


But, right now, food is getting the press. That's because, in Indonesia, food is never just food. Here at VICE's Indonesia office, we've looked into how the price of chilies is a way to judge the economy. Food is so much a part of the national economy that it can get you votes, if you campaign on lowering the cost of staples like rice, tempe, and meat.

So when Prabowo Subianto, the rival presidential candidate, recently brought up the price of food on the campaign trail, it was pretty much expected. “Importing food is destroying the people's economy and the local farmers because we're giving our money away to foreign nations," he said in a declaration.

He then went further and said that, if he was elected president, he would put an end to all food imports. Now, never mind the fact that most experts say this is nearly impossible and that, if it was enacted, it would be a total mess. Why? Because so much of the stuff we eat is imported, way too much to suddenly cut out of our national diets.

How much? We went out and bought a very traditional Indonesian meal to figure it out.

Main Course: Oxtail Soup and Rice

Now, everything in this picture looks so Indonesian. that its gotta be local, right? Turns out that's wrong. Let's start with the rice: in the first quarter of 2018, Indonesia imported nearly 1,200 tons of rice, at the cost of more than $500 million USD. Why? Because there was a drought and Indonesian rice yield were too low to meet the demand and keep everyone fed.


On the side there's tempe and tofu. They're a super Indonesian pair, and, surprise, the main ingredient (soy) wasn't grown here. This year, Indonesia imported 1,167 thousand tons of soy, mostly from Latin America, Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. That's a lot of soy for stuff like tempe, tofu, and kecap manis, or sweet soy sauce.

The ox in the ox tail soup could be from Indonesia, or it could not be. That's because, last year, the country imported 77,000 tons of ox meat from Australia, Brazil, and the US. We also brought in 1,558 thousand tons of salt from overseas, so even the seasoning is foreign.

It keeps going. The chilies in the spicy sambal? Imported. The shrimp too. The price of chilies actually fluctuates so much that importing a much as 19,000 tons from neighboring countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia is needed to stabilize the price.

Drink and Dessert: Roti Bakar and Instant Iced Coffee

So what about dessert? Well, it's really difficult to grow wheat here, so this roti bakar is basically an import product too. Same goes for the noodles in your Indomie. The sugar, such a common ingredient in a country that has a serious sweet tooth, probably comes from overseas too. That's because there aren't enough sugarcane farms here to meet the demand.


The milk comes from countries like New Zealand, mainly because we don't have enough dairy farms. And the coffee? Well, if it is made from actual beans then it might be the only local thing on this table. But if it is instant iced coffee, then it's imported as well. The Ministry of Industry has even openly discussed this as a problem, saying that low-quality instant coffees were taking over the market. So even stuff that we grow a lot of here can end up an import in the end.

So what's left if the country stops all food imports? A mug of unsweetened black coffee. It's not much, but at least we'll all be really awake all the time.