A common site from the hectic streets of Jakarta to the laid-back beaches of Bali, you’ll often come across a familiar sight – makeshift, back alley eateries. We’re not talking restaurants here, these are simple, thrown-together little spots decked out in plastic chairs and cheap food. These are what Indonesians know as warung.
These little spots are Indonesia’s equivalent to a British greasy spoon or an American dive bar; places that will never achieve a 5-star rating but provide a familiar feeling of comfort and wholesomeness that the common people yearn for. As such, they play a vital role in the everyday life of Indonesian people across this vast archipelago.
You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you visited any of the islands without dining in one. So in that case, here’s everything you need to know about Indonesian warung.
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Table of Contents
What is a Warung?
The term warung, translated as “shop”, is used for a wide variety of small businesses. Though food stalls are more accurately called warung makan, the shorthand version is the common term for any small family-owned eatery.
As routine as an early morning cup of coffee, visiting a warung is an equally vital part of Indonesian daily life. Their simplicity and authenticity make you feel as if you’re eating in a local Indonesian home, and oftentimes, you are! Warungs are typically set up in front of someone’s home or simply thrown together as a way to earn some extra income.
Simple plastic seating and a tarpaulin roof are typical indicators of a classic warung! Whether it’s slotted down a dark alley, precariously placed on the side of the road or functioning out of someone’s back room, they can pop up anywhere! Armed with a basic rice cooker and sometimes just a single gas stove, you’ve got yourself a warung ready for business!
You won’t find any websites and certainly won’t have any signs pointing you in the right direction. These are basic little eating spots that serve authentic food at fixed prices. No frills, no luxury, just simple good food for the common people.
Why are Warungs Special to Indonesian People?
What makes warungs so unique and culturally significant is the wide breadth of society that these places attract. These places become a common area for people of all social and economical standings to congregate with one common goal – to eat some delicious home-cooked food.
Dirt-ridden working-class men sit next to elegant ladies with their luxury cars waiting outside. Muslims dine next to Buddhists and hardened Christians, doctors next to road workers.
It’s a neutral space where people from all walks of life come to eat in a space where all judgement is reserved, a place where everyone is equal in the eyes of the warung.
What Kind of Warungs are There?
In a country of 270,000,000 plus people covering a range of socio-economic levels and even more sub-cultures, it’s fair to say that there are plenty of warungs to fit everyone’s individual tastes.
Some might have a basic single stove and plastic seating (if there’s even seating at all!). They could be set up outside of someone’s house with a tarpaulin roof or might be set up in a makeshift shed. There are also some spots that have the luxury of being indoors with wooden benches and even a refrigerator (how fancy!)
Generally speaking, the higher the standard, the higher the standard of hygiene. Seeing as many of these warungs stand amongst rat-filled alleys, it’s not surprising that some might not be sparkling clean.
As times change, so too are warungs. Higher class warungs continue to pop up in touristy areas which come equipped with AC, free Wi-Fi, a clean bathroom, English-speaking staff, and, more importantly, better food-safety standards. Though this luxury does naturally come with a higher price.
That also means that the old-school warungs are slowly disappearing in the shadow of fast food chains and Westernised street food. Traditional warungs have been forced to modernise to keep up with the ever-growing standards of the public.
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So, how much does a typical meal in a warung cost? Cheap, ridiculously cheap!
While restaurants while some restaurants mark the price straight on the menu, others work on a buffet-style set-up (where prices are rarely labelled). In the latter, prices are calculated by weight, or more likely, the owner tots up a number based on each item you chose. Either way, it will be one of the cheapest meals you’ll ever pay for.
Prices rarely reach over 25,000-35,000 rupiah for a stacked plate, though even this can be pretty expensive. Oftentimes, I had meals that barely broke 3,600 rupiah that’s about £0.20!!!
What Should You Try in a Warung?
Warungs typically have a simple selection of Indonesian classics, and you’ll likely see the same items on offer. Two dishes you should definitely get familiar with it nasi goreng (fried rice) and mie goreng (fried noodles). Many restaurants will have a myriad of variations based on these two.
It’s also common to see a bunch of chicken (ayam) dishes and a few satay sticks too. Additionally, there’s even a treat for the sweet-toothed among in the form of pisang goreng, a kind of banana fritter.
Other warung work on a buffet, pick-and-mix style where pre-prepared food is stored in a glass case for you to choose from. While some work on a help-yourself basis, in others you can simply point and choose.
Whether you eat in a set menu spot or a buffet-style offering, you’ll often come across the same classics on offer. Those include:
They’ll sit alongside other dishes which are smothered in some kind of tangy or spicy sauces, adding a mysterious yet delicious new flavour to your meal.
And one word of warning – beware of the spice! Indonesians have a whole new level of heat! It’s spicy enough to blow your head and arse off consecutively, which will definitely hamper your day of travel, so beware!
Is the Food Safe?
All the talk of back-alley food and lack of hygiene standards might give you the impression that these places aren’t the safest place to eat. However, don’t judge a warung by its greasy cover.
Is it as sparkling clean as a 5-star gourmet restaurant? No, far from it. Generally, warung run without government permits and thus aren’t required to keep to certain health standards. It’s also not uncommon to see cutlery cleaned in old plastic tubs with some pretty sketchy water, which certainly doesn’t help. Also, meat might not be stored correctly in fridges, or worse, left out in the elements. On top of that, when considering the buffet-style warungs, who knows how long they’ve been sitting there?
That being said, claiming that these places are dirty would be unfair. First and foremost, if these places were unsafe and unclean, locals wouldn’t be sitting there in the first place! Locals don’t want to spend the day evacuating their bowels either! On top of that, due to their popularity, turnover is usually high, meaning that fresh produce is always being rotated.
Plus, the higher class and more modern the warung is, the higher the hygiene standards, generally speaking. Either way, don’t be afraid to eat as the locals do. When in Rome.
Many are too afraid to try some street food in case they get sick!
Easy answer! As this is true, authentic, home-cooked Indonesian cuisine, it’s imperative that you visit one during your time in the country. No matter what 5-star reviews or hotel recommendations you may have seen, this is as traditional and authentic as it gets.
It’s where the heart of Indonesian cuisine truly beats, where some of the most delicious dishes are prepared, and a place which won’t damage your fragile banking funds. During my time in Indonesia, I refused to eat anywhere else other than warung, you should too!
Thank You for Reading! Check Out These Other Helpful Links!
Thank you so much for reading What Are Indonesian Warungs and Why You Should Eat in Them! Also, be sure to check out these other helpful articles!
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.