Indonesia: Tempeh tantrums, dissapointing books and confusion reigns

Armchair traveller
4 min readFeb 11, 2024


There’s no Indon easier drink to make than rum and ginger beer

My first trip to Indonesia was in 1995. I mainly spent it on buses and boats plodding through forests that teemed with life, eating tempeh (fermented soybean cake) and sambal oelek (spicy sauce) at roadside stalls. It was cheap, bountiful and outside of Jakarta, surprisingly easy to get around. By my last trip in 2008, much had changed. The car was king, the forests were palm oil plantations, and wildlife was nowhere to be seen. I’ve only ever visited four Indonesia islands though, so I hoped this weeks’ travels would reveal a happier story about what was happening on the other 17,994. For Indonesia is enormous, its islands are home to many Indigenous Peoples, and it has been influenced by Chinese, Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, Portuguese and Dutch visitors. It is a single entity but expands from Sharia-run Aceh, to tribal West Papua and majority-Hindu Bali. East Timor has managed to free itself, and according to the Free Papua movement, other islands would like to follow suit…

More like Iceland than Indonesia…

So how did this massive conglomerate come to be? I got no answers from this week’s book, the Wandering by Intan Paramaditha — a choose-your-own adventure which ranks high in the most disappointing books I’ve read so far. I don’t blame Paramaditha for this, I blame those who call it a “must read Indonesian novel”. For while the action starts in Indonesia, it soon leaves, and at least in the adventure I chose, it never really comes back! There is much to like about the story of an Indonesian woman who is given red shoes by the devil which allow her to her homeland — but I learnt more about the complexities of narrative structure and the experience of escaping, than I did about Indonesia.

The perkedel really perked me up

I also got no answers from this week’s film. I had considered rewatching the Act of Killing, an essential yet heart-wrenching collection of interviews with perpetrators of the 1965–66 slaughter of communists that was masterminded by the US-backed dictator General Suharto; but decided to go for something happier. This is no easy task, given that Indonesians seem to love horror as much as Bollywood loved musicals! But finally I found Kartini, the sanitised true story of a woman born into a rich Javanese family, and her fight for female education and empowerment. She is an Indonesian hero, though I’m not sure how much of what she wanted is being enacted today.

Tofu nasi goreng and in the background something delicious I do not remember eating

I headed over to Wikipedia to finally find out how such diverse island cultures were packaged into the world’s largest island nation. The answer, of course, is colonialism, this time in the guise of the Dutch and their East Indies trading companies. If it wasn’t for them, Indonesia might instead be the Aceh Sultanate, the Bali Kingdom, the Lanfang Republic, the Pagaruyung Kingdom and many more.

Despite the fact that I was attempting Dry January and that I promised to steer clear of alcohol for majority Muslim nations, I ended up imbibing, thanks to the tempting story of Balinese rum. Nusa Caña (island of Rum) claims that rum was being drunk in Java in the 1600s and that Indonesian rum is the godfather of the rum world. I had to give it a go — especially as the bottle sports a barong mask. It was OK straight, but far better when mixed into a Fair Head (rum, ginger beer, and lime) — after all, ginger is native to many Indonesian islands. It was good, but not a patch on the Caribbean rums I’ve got to sample.

For food we headed to our local Indonesian restaurant only to find that their heating was broken and the head chef on holiday! Wrapped in distinctly un-Indonesian coats we chowed down on Nasi Goreng (fried rice and veg), Mie Goreng (fried noodles and veg), perkedel (fried potato patties) and a giant plate of tempeh with homemade sambal oelek. All were superb.

Having initially thought I was going to have to spend the whole week listening to gambang (xylophone) music, I was delighted to find a rich seam of 1970s gems which I made into this sweet little playlist! Which brings us to the end of one adventure and the start of another… Next week I’ll be in Iran! Exciting!



Armchair traveller

Near-zero carbon travel through books, drinks, food, films, music and the magic of living in multicultural #Birmingham.