Considering Indonesia is made up of thousands of islands, and has been colonized and conquered a handful of times over its history, the culture and cuisines from region to region very greatly. The foods found in Bali and Sumatra and Java may be, on the surface, similar rice-based diets with varying vegetables and meats. Dig [your spoon] deeper, and these regional cuisines become quite different.
I live in West Java, where Sundanese food reigns. This food is similar to other Indonesian regional styles in that we eat mainly rice accompanied by a small amount of boiled or stewed vegetables, and a small amount of fried chicken, tempeh, or tofu. It’s the flavors and eating style that give this food away as Sundanese along with the unmistakable “appetizer,” lalab.
Lalab is a type of salad, served cold or room temperature, usually comprised of a combination of lettuce or cabbage leaves, cucumber, tomato, leunca (black night shade), chayote, and eggplant. No matter what is in the salad, it is always served with a side of sambal, spicy fish and pepper paste, whose flavors also vary greatly from region to region and can be found easily across Indonesia.
Upon sitting at a Sundanese restaurant and ordering, you are usually brought a few platters of lalab (depending on how many people you are with, usually a platter per four people) and hot tea. It’s wonderfully refreshing to munch on these raw vegetables as you wait for your food, and also a nice palate cleanser while enjoying your meal as Sundanese food is usually filled with spicy, sometimes stinky, flavors.
Lalab will be brought to your table automatically, and complimentary, at any Sundanese restaurant and even many street stands, so in order to find this common treat, all you have to do is head to your nearest Sundanese restaurant!
*Bonus Note: In Sunda culture, meals are usually eaten on the floor sitting on mats, and with your hands. There are usually bowls of water placed on the tables for you to dip your hands to clean them after your meal. I eat with a spoon at home, but have yet to see a fork anywhere in my village.