How the dish became a staple of Indonesian food, and what it secretly tells you about Indonesia as well as its people and psyche.

In 2018, the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism declared fried rice – better known as nasi goreng – as one of the five national dishes alongside the likes of gado-gado (assorted vegetables coated in peanut sauce) and soto (traditional soup composed of an assortment of meat and vegetables). 

What’s interesting about these choices is that they share a similar trait, which is their malleability. Although there’s a universal definition or understanding of each dish, their serving or presentation may differ from each Indonesian region to the next; gado-gado, for instance, may transform into lotek, karedok or pecel in other regions, all of which essentially employ the similar principle in composition but perhaps contain slightly different ingredients.

The same also applies to nasi goreng. Although not native to Indonesia – the origin of nasi goreng is often said to hearken back to China and the world-famous Chinese fried rice – the dish has become so iconic and singularly Indonesian thanks to its distinctly aromatic, earthy and smoky taste profile and most importantly, its versatility.

At present, there are roughly around 60 variations of nasi goreng known across the archipelago, ranging from all-veggies to meat-heavy. Furthermore, there is no single defined recipe for nasi goreng, as every fried rice dish with certain mixtures, additions, ingredients, and toppings could lead to another recipe of nasi goreng. 

However, there are three main components that are typically found in most nasi goreng variations: ingredients (sweet soy sauce, cooking oil, vegetables, egg, meat), bumbu or seasoning (garlic, fresh shallots, salt, chili pepper), and condiments (fried shallots, crackers, slices of cucumber and/or tomato). And, of course, nasi goreng tastes best when the rice is a leftover from the night prior, instead of its freshly cooked incarnation.

So what values or philosophy can we learn from all this blurb on nasi goreng?

In the Western world, the saying goes “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. In Asia, and perhaps especially Indonesia, “when life gives you rice, make nasi goreng” is perhaps more like it. Using leftover rice as its main ingredient can be understood as not wasting what you already have; instead, you can turn it into something highly tasty and flavorful with the help of other entities – in this case ingredients, seasoning and condiments.

There’s also something to be said about the versatility of nasi goreng. That its cooking method, presentation or even taste may vary from one region to the next reflects the flexible and easy-going disposition of Indonesian people – or to put it in a proverbial context, Indonesians like to roll with the punches. The simple delicacy of nasi goreng also demonstrates that these punches make the most delicious and satisfying serving for anyone and everyone, anytime and anywhere in the country. Truth be told, very few dishes are quite this democratic. 

So what better way to enjoy a scrumptious plate of nasi goreng surrounded by stunning Indonesian nature and on an all-male naked cruise? We daresay it’s a feast for the mouth and the eyes! The question is: do you have it in you to be as versatile – and satisfying – as nasi goreng?