Moving to Indonesia is an exciting experience. You get to learn a new culture, new language, meet new people, and basically just start your life from zero again. You have to adapt with everything that is probably way different from your hometown.
One of the things that newcomers have to adapt to, is the food. Some people need to adjust their palate and stomach with Indonesian food. Even though you can always cook at your home by yourself, trying Indonesian food is also one of the ‘rituals’ during your initial days in Indonesia.
There are a few things you need to remember before you try or buy Indonesian food, especially if you buy it from traditional market or peddlers on the street. Make sure that you only buy safe food, free from preservatives and other chemicals that are dangerous to your health.
Fish and seafood
Make sure the fish or other seafood you’re going to buy is fresh. To check, open the gill of the fish—if the color is bright red, then it’s fresh. Press the fish with your index finger, if it’s firm, you can guarantee that the produce is fresh. Always be careful if you buy frozen seafood, it is always wise to buy fresh produce instead.
If you’re buying dried fish, be careful if the color is too white and not smelly (dried fishes have unique smell like saltwater). If flies perch on the fishes, then don’t buy!
There has been an issue about tofu (tahu) in Indonesia. Some ‘mischievous’ producers are adding formalin to the tofu dough to make it firm and last longer. If the tofu is too firm and hollow, you need to be careful. Tofu without formalin is usually softer and mushier than the ones with formalin.
Gorengan (Indonesian fritters)
Many newcomers fall in love with gorengan on the first bite. It’s crispy, savory, and addicting. However, you need to be cautious if you find cold gorengan that is still crispy in a few hours. The common practices that gorengan sellers do to make their products stay crispy for hours is by melting plastic in the cooking oil (yes, you read it right). Usually, they use minyak curah (bulk oil) in plastic package to fry the gorengan. Instead of cutting off the plastic and pour it to the frying pan, they will simply heat the pan and place the oil package until it melts. Rumor said that the plastic will add the crispness of the gorengan.
Other thing you need to watch is the color of the oil. Many gorengan sellers still use overused oil to fry the products. If the color of frying oil has become dark brown or black and looks thick, don’t buy the gorengan.
In traditional market, you can find many choices of fresh noodles (mie basah). However, there are also many naughty producers who add borax or formalin to preserve their products. If you find that the noodles aren’t sticky, flexible, look shiny, and still fresh after two days (in room temperature), it is almost positive that the noodles contain formalin or borax.
Meatball is one of the favorite snacks for Indonesian. However, before buying, you need to see the color of the meatballs. Meatballs with dangerous preservatives have pale color, extra chewy textures and still good after two days in room temperature.
If you order iced tea or other iced drinks in warungs or small restaurant in Indonesia, look at the ice used in the drink. Many warungs use ice blocks that are usually used for fish storage, and made from unhygienic water. You may not see the original form of the ice blocks when you buy the drink, but if you have sore throat or cough after having drunk it, it is probably from the ice cubes. Bottled tea or water is way safer choice.
Street fruit juice
There are many fresh fruit juice sellers on the streets in Indonesia. While the fruits are usually fresh, we need to be careful with the unhygienic ice and sugar syrup used in the juices. Sometimes the sellers add saccharine to the sugar syrup, which can cause cough and sore throat. If the juice has a bitter aftertaste and itchy feeling on your throat, it is most likely caused by the saccharine.
You need to be suspicious if the kerupuk is too white to be true, too crispy, has shocking color and a little bit tart, because those are the indications that the kerupuk contains borax in it. Avoid buy ready-to-eat kerupuk at warungs, and just buy a packed raw kerupuk at supermarkets (from the brand like Finna) and fry it in your home.