Spicy Indonesian food to test your tolerance level

There’s no greater love than the one shared between Indonesians and their many different sambals, or Indonesian chili sauce. In fact, we’re so used to how spicy our food is that when foreigners ask us for food recommendations, they might want to take our advice with an asterisk as our spicy tolerance level is way beyond that of mere mortals.

Ergo, we mean serious business when we say that there are some seriously spicy foods in Indonesia that even locals would think twice about before eating. If you’re keen on testing your tolerance level, these 10 spicy Indonesian foods are guaranteed to have you reaching for milk in a single bite.

1. Ayam Betutu – Balinese roasted chicken stuffed and coated with spices

ayam betutu
When served, ayam betutu is often cut in the middle to expose all of the spiciness inside
Image credit: @betutuzamrud

Bali’s plethora of Hindu temples and unique traditions set it apart from most of Indonesia but we’re still united by our love for everything spicy. This is made obvious from the island’s famed Ayam Betutu delicacy, a whole chicken stuffed and coated with spices and roasted with a method known as betutu.

The spice mix used in the dish varies but the most common ingredients are turmeric, ginger, black pepper, and a generous helping of chili peppers. The spice mix is then both rubbed and stuffed inside the chicken but that’s not as interesting as betutu’s original cooking method.

spicy indonesian food - ayam betutu basah
A wet variant known as ayam betutu basah also exists, served with peanuts and a broth of the spice mix
Image credit: @rmc.kitchen

The chicken is then encased in pinang leaves and wrapped in a bed of burning rice husks and covered with a clay pot for 8 to 10 hours, resulting in especially tender and richly flavored meat. This method of cooking in an earth oven is what’s referred to as betutu and while the traditional recipe uses duck, chicken is now often used in its place.

In the olden days, betutu was reserved only for celebrations due to the rather complicated method with modern variations opting for the easier pressure cooker instead. Still, the modernized variants are still just as good, with a lovely fragrant aroma and meat that is just as tender and flavorful as the traditional version.

2. Seblak – Sundanese boiled crackers served with proteins in extra spicy sauce

spicy indonesian food - seblak
A bowl of seblak with chicken feet and macaroni, two of the most popular toppings
Image credit: @tiffoodies

In the highlands of Bandung where the nights are often long and cold, it’s no surprise that its citizens are left wanting for a snack that’s both literally and figuratively hot. Enter Seblak, a popular street food of boiled kerupuk, or Indonesian traditional crackers, served in hot and spicy sauce with a cornucopia of other side dishes.

spicy indonesian food - seblak with mie
Seblak is often offered in multiple spiciness levels and unless you have a death wish, start with the lowest one
Image credit: @food.kampus

The word seblak itself refers to the spicy sauce, commonly made of kencur, or aromatic ginger, mixed with onions and garlic, and topped off with lots of chili paste. For toppings, kerupuk is a must but pretty much anything else is fair game, with noodles, chicken or cattle feet, meatballs, noodles, macaroni, and eggs being the more common ones.

The combination of the chewy wet crackers and the thick spicy sauce is what makes the dish sing. As a result, it has now outgrown its humble Sundanese origin in the streets of Bandung and is now found all over Indonesia.

3. Ayam Geprek – smashed crispy fried chicken served with a generous amount of sambal

spicy indonesian food - ayam geprek with cheese
If available, we recommend pairing ayam geprek with melted mozzarella and fried chicken skin
Image credit: @hannatheblues

Ayam Geprek, or literally ‘Smashed Chicken’, might be a 21st-century invention but you’d be wrong to underestimate the kick this dish has. In just a span of a few years, the popularity of ayam geprek has skyrocketed to a point that it’s now found not just all over Indonesia, but also in Malaysia as well.

Ayam geprek has its roots in the spicy Indonesian food ayam penyet but differs in that it uses crispy battered fried chicken like the ones in KFC instead. The chicken is then smashed and mixed together with a borderline excessive amount of chili paste, with fancier variations often adding melted mozzarella into the mix as well.

spicy indonesian food - ayam geprek with green chilli
This serving of ayam geprek comes with green chili peppers and served with instant noodles, combining our love for both spicy food and Indomie into one
Image credit: @ayamgeprekmaster

Today, ayam geprek is often offered with different types of sambal. While the red sambal bawang, or chili paste mixed with shallots and garlic, is the most common, the variant with Balinese raw sambal matah is not to be overlooked.

Do note that ayam geprek is typically offered in multiple spice levels, with the highest level, usually 10, best reserved only for masochists of the highest order. You’ve been warned.

4. Mie Aceh – curried spicy noodles from the western tip of Indonesia

spicy indonesian food - mie aceh
It might be missing that shade of red, but mie aceh’s combination of spices is still capable of burning your tongue
Image credit: @herryfahrurrizal

Aceh might be known as Indonesia’s most socially conservative region but when food’s involved, the region holds nothing back. The Mie Aceh, or literally ‘Acehnese Noodles’, mixes Chinese and Indian influences onto a single plate, before topping it off with an extra spicy kick typical of Indonesian food.

The thick yellow noodles used for the dish are inspired by Chinese cuisine while the curry-like soup is of Indian origin. The curry alone, made of shallots, garlics, chilis, black pepper, and a host of other spices such as cumin and cardamom, is what gives the dish its signature spicy kick and is worth the price of entry.

spicy indonesian food - mie aceh with crab
Fancier variations of mie aceh even add a whole crab into the mix for a wholly indulgent meal
Image credit: @mimolette_1106

Owing to Aceh’s heavy Islamic influence, mie aceh is often served with beef or mutton with seafood also available as an alternative. The dish is then completed with a serving of emping, slightly bitter Indonesian crackers made from melinjo nuts, a type of plant native to Southeast Asia.

A dry variant called Mie Aceh Goreng, or ‘Acehnese Fried Noodles’ exists but we believe the soupy Mie Aceh Tumis, or ‘Stir-fried Acehnese Noodles’, is the best way to enjoy this dish.

5. Ayam Taliwang – grilled young ayam kampung seasoned with fiery spice mix

spicy indonesian food - ayam taliwang
One whole ayam taliwang served with plecing kangkung on the upper left
Image credit: @taliwangpapin

From the idyllic paradise of the Gili Islands to the gorgeous lake of Mount Rinjani, we can come up with dozens of reasons why you should visit Lombok. For foodies, that would be Ayam Taliwang, the island’s signature dish of grilled young ayam kampung, or traditional free-range chicken.

The chicken is seasoned with a spice mix consisting of garlic, shallots, shrimp paste, and a healthy amount of chili peppers. Because ayam taliwang uses only young free-range chickens, which are typically leaner than those bred for their meat in confined spaces, they’re often served whole even for individual diners.

bean sprouts with plecing kankung
When served as a side, bean sprouts and fried peanuts are often added to plecing kangkung
Image credit: @parjilahmartapura

For an extra dose of spiciness, ayam taliwang is often accompanied with a serving of plecing kangkung, a dish of water spinach topped off with sambal plecing. This unique sambal is notable due to the addition of tomatoes into the mix, resulting in a somewhat watery texture.

6. Oseng Mercon – spicy stir-fried beef that explodes in your mouth

spicy indonesian food -oseng mercon
Even seeing oseng mercon being cooked is enough to get us sweating
Image credit: @nastitijodhi

One of Yogyakarta’s signature dishes, Oseng Mercon is a good example of how Indonesia’s love for pedas-ness borders on masochistic. Oseng is just an Indonesian term for stir-fried, but mercon actually refers to a type of firecracker and it aptly describes the fiery explosions you’d feel in your mouth after a single bite.

The explosive recipe behind oseng mercon is actually quite simple. The dish consists of beef and fat trimmings, locally known as tetelan and koyor, cooked with copious amounts of chili pepper with hints of palm sugar to help balance the flavor.

spicy indonesian food -prepackaged oseng mercon
These days, pre-packaged oseng mercon is also available for purchase as a souvenir
Image credit: @medanicipicip

While the addition of palm sugar might seem odd, it’s actually common practice in Yogyakarta, with the region’s famed gudeg also cooked with palm sugar. Besides, trust us when we say that oseng mercon still has more than enough kick to spare even with palm sugar being thrown into the mix.

7. Sego Tempong – extra spicy Indonesian salad served with rice

spicy indonesian food -sego tempong
A plate of sego tempong with chicken, tofu, and tempeh
Image credit: @rednaxela.doof

Sego Tempong, which literally means ‘Rice that Slaps’, is the ultimate comfort food of the Banyuwangi region but there’s absolutely nothing comfortable about this dish. Consisting of mixed boiled vegetables served with rice and proteins, the dish is then drenched in a devilishly spicy sambal, hence the rather dramatic name.

As with its close cousin, the Sundanese salad lalapan, the vegetables used in the dish vary but spinach, kangkung, and slices of cucumber are a common sight. A local specialty, fried salted fish, is typically used as the protein but most sego tempong stalls in Banyuwangi offer plenty of alternatives from chicken to cuttlefish.

spicy indonesian food -warteg
The system works a bit like the ubiquitous warteg, where you’re free to pick out as many side dishes as you’d like, which will then be added onto your bill
Image credit: @laperdok

The glue that holds the dish altogether though is the special sambal used, which includes a wrinkled tomato breed known as ranti. Rather than being spicy for spiciness’ sake, this tomato grown all over Banyuwangi imbues the sambal of sego tempong with its signature freshness and sour notes.

8. Bebek Madura – fried duck with darkened sambal

spicy indonesian food -bebek madura
The darkened sambal dressing is the centerpiece of bebek madura with the serundeng serving as a nice compliment
Image credit: @bebekalasdaun

The long story short when it comes to everything pedas in spicy Indonesian food is that the redder it is, the spicier it is. Or at least, that’s how it used to be before Bebek Madura came along. This dish of darkened fried duck from the island of Madura just off the northeastern coast of Java might not look the part but burn your tongue it definitely will.

The dark colour of the dish comes from the cooking process where the sambal is cooked for hours with vegetable oil. This method results in an especially greasy yet spicy and flavorful sambal that will simultaneously have you reaching for seconds and a glass of water at the same time.

These days, bebek Madura is often served together with serundeng, a side dish of savory crispy coconut flakes that also goes down well with the blackened sambal.

9. Rica-rica – Manadonese red hot spice mix that goes well with everything

spicy indonesian food - ayam rica-rica
For ayam rica-rica, the chicken is usually cut into smaller pieces
Image credit: @dapur.oma88

For the Minahasan people of Manado, North Sulawesi, spicy food is practically a way of life. In the Minahasan local dialect, the word rica means spicy so you can probably guess what they’re trying to do when they bestow the name Rica-rica onto their spice mix.

spicy indonesian food -cakalang rica-rica
Shredded cakalang rica-rica can accompany almost every meal
Image credit: @sweetsalty_koe

Combining green and red chili peppers together with cabai rawit, or bird’s eye chili, in one single plate, this fiery spice mix definitely lives up to its lofty name. Lime juice is typically sprinkled into the spice mix as well, adding a citrusy feel that accentuates the boldness of rica-rica.

Chicken is the most popular companion but the Minahasan eat rica-rica with almost everything they can find, including cakalang (skipjack tuna), beef, and duck.

10. Balado – fried sambal cooked together with proteins

spicy indonesian food -dendeng balado
Padang fusion connoisseur Pasta Padang serves dendeng balado with Italian angel hair pasta
Image credit: @pastapadang

While most Indonesians treat sambal as a condiment in most spicy Indonesian food dishes, the Minang people of Padang think so highly of their sambal that it’s integrated with the dish. Balado isn’t quite a spice mix but it’s not exactly a type of sambal either – it’s more of a cooking philosophy where sambal is cooked together with the main ingredients.

The sambal itself isn’t anything out of the ordinary, with grounded red chili peppers mixed in with shallots, garlic, and just a little bit of lime juice. It’s then stir-fried together with the main protein, which covers anything from chicken, prawn, to even eggplant.

spicy indonesian food -terong balado
Many in the Padang community consider terong balado, or balado eggplant, as their ultimate comfort food
Image credit: @nanjing_corner

The most notable balado dish is probably the dendeng balado, a delicacy of thinly sliced dried beef not unlike jerky covered in sambal balado. This dried beef is made to last for days and it’s said that when the Minang people embark on their merantau tradition where they journey to discover the world, slices of dendeng are always found on their person.

Spicy Indonesian food to try

Indonesia may consist of thousands of islands that are home to dozens of different tribes but if there’s any common thread that binds us, it’s our love for spicy food.

If you think you’ve got what it takes to hang with us, see how many of these 10 spicy Indonesian food items you can check off your list before you lose all sense of taste.

For more travel guides to Indonesia, check out these stories:

Cover image adapted from @betutuzamrud, @tangerangfoody, and @ayamgeprekmaster

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