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Nusantara Cuisine: Food That Transcends Southeast Asia's Borders

Nusantara in today’s language includes Malay-related cultural and linguistic land, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Southern Thailand, the Philippines, East Timor and Taiwan.


Fransisca Wijanarko, a technology savvy marketing manager with a steep marketing experience in the F&B sector.



What is Nusantara?


Nusantara in old Javanese terms literally means “outer islands”, the maritime name of Southeast Asia. In the Indonesian or Malay language, it is often translated as ‘archipelago’.

Back then, the areas were divided into countries and the Malay archipelago was from Southern Thailand to West Papua consisting of thousands of islands and kingdoms.

Nusantara in today’s language includes Malay-related cultural and linguistic land, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Southern Thailand, the Philippines, East Timor and Taiwan.



The Food Story of Nusantara


The region of the greater Southeast Asia maritime goes way back from the prehistoric era. It started with the Austronesian diaspora where Austronesian (Taiwanese indigenous people) migrated to the archipelago from the north.

Over 2,000 years ago, there were vast independent kingdoms exporting spices, silk and other luxury goods to the Chinese dynastic empires. One of the biggest kingdoms in the 3rd century was the Srivijaya Empire. By the 8th century after merging and taking over the neighbouring kingdoms, they controlled the main straits of Malacca and Sumba.

The Srivijayan were masters of the sea, merchants trading across straits in Southeast Asia, Southern India, all the way to the Madagascar coastline. This trade is known as part of the Spice Route. People from different cultural backgrounds traded spices, jewellery, fabrics, metals from Asia, Middle-east and Europe.

As a thriving port area and its residents from diverse communities, residents introduced their local specialities, exchanging culture through food and added flavours to the Nusantara culinary landscape till today.



Introduction to Nusantara Cuisine


The food culture of Nusantara cuisine is shaped by nature, history, enormous geographic and cultural diversity across the archipelagos. Regional cooking and spices created a diversity over the broader dishes shared across the archipelago and are altered to some local variations.

Here are some of the more known dishes internationally which are shared among the Nusantara archipelago:





● Satay (sate or satai), the earliest preparation is believed to have originated in Javanese cuisine but has spread almost everywhere around the archipelago; in modern days satay is associated as the national cuisine of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.





● Laksa, a spicy noodle soup with noodles, meat or prawns in rich coconut gravy. Laksa originated from the maritime of Southeast Asia and is now associated as national cuisine for Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Some of the local laksa variations are asam laksa, curry laksa, nyonya laksa, Penang laksa, Pangkor Mee Laksa, Medan Laksa, etc.





● Rendang, a dish that originated from the Minangkabau region in West Sumatra. This spicy dish is rich in herbs and fresh spices commonly served with plain rice as a main course. It is now associated as national cuisine from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.





● Rojak (Rujak), a salad dish of Javanese origin, a mixture of sliced tropical fruits and vegetables with spicy palm sugar dressing. Rojak is now associated as the national cuisine of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Indonesian variations of Rujak are rujak buah, rujak serut, rujak petis, etc. The Malaysian and Singapore variations are rojak mamak, rojak buah, rujak bandung and so on.



Picture credit to Permata Singapore – Nusantara Buffet Restaurant in Singapore


Nusantara cuisine is celebrated by chefs who combine the freshest of local, seasonal components and artisanal recipes. Discover the flavours of a world beyond Southeast Asia.



Culinary Ingredients in Nusantara Cuisine


The spice route is known by many names, such as the Spice Trail, the Spice Route or Maritime Silk Road. Native herbs and spices from the Nusantara region are cinnamon, cloves, nutmegs, pepper, and others.

"Rempah" or "bumbu" are the words commonly used in Indonesian or Malay as a spice mixture known throughout the world from the Spice Islands. As the traders are exchanging spices, food and culture throughout the spice route, other herbs and spices from India such as black pepper, turmeric, lemongrass, shallot, candlenut, coriander and tamarind were introduced as part of the common spices used for Nusantara dishes. Other ingredients introduced from China were ginger, scallions and garlic.





The Moluccas or The Spice Islands is better known in modern days as The Maluku Islands of Indonesia produced fragrant spices of cloves and nutmeg native to these islands, transported thousands of kilometres over the seas before the colonial days. The Dutch arrived in 1599 and competed with the Portuguese for the spice trade. The Dutch East India Company later on controlled the spice trade between Indonesia and Europe for decades.



Nusantara Cuisine in the West


Rijsttafel is a Dutch word that means ‘rice table’ and is an Indonesian elaborate meal and serving ritual that was introduced by the Dutch during their colony in Indonesia in the early nineteenth century. The ritual involved many servers who passed around a large number of various dishes from rice, meats, and vegetables and served the guests. Just like how chicken tikka masala is now a British national dish many of Indonesian origin dishes such as rendang, satay and more are a common staple in a Dutch takeaway.



Despite the never-ending "conflict" between Malaysians and Singaporeans or Malaysian and Indonesian, their shared love of food culture and history is something that still binds the nations together.

Singapore and Bali are some of the top destinations in Southeast Asia. A food-obsessed nation like Singapore is investing heavily in food tourism as one of the country's main attractions; introducing the local dishes to millions of tourists from around the world which increase the awareness of Singaporean cuisine worldwide.

Whether you're someone who's used to Southeast Asian flavours or not, the diverse cuisines of Nusantara are a culinary journey worth travelling.




Copyright images: Contributed by Fransisca Wijanarko