In the Indonesian language “nasi” means rice and “campur” means mixture, and nasi campur is basically a dish that mix steamed rice with other dishes: meat, fish, vegetables or egg, seasoned with sambal (see below).
In Java, the nasi campur is usually served with a portion of fried noodles, a style that hardly be found in other Indonesian Islands, which probably is an old influence from Chinese gastronomy, as also the tofu that is a regular presence in the Javanese cuisine.
In a certain way, nasi campur (pronounce as “champoor”) is quite similar to what can be found in Sumatra Island, called nasi kapau or nasi padang, but with different ingredientes and recipes, with the Javanese food being cooked with less gravy, less spicy and more sweetness than the neighbouring island. The presence of noodles, tofu and tempeh also makes a difference from this rice dish served in Java and in other islands.
Thanks to the usual presence of vegetables (sayur in Indonesian language) like green beans, papaya and cassava leaf, bean sprouts, cabbage, spinach and other green leaf vegetables… the Indonesian cuisine, despite not being vegetarian (not even in Bali that is an island dominated by Hinduism) has a lot of options for vegetarians. And the frequent presence of tofu and tempeh especially in Java, Bali and Lombok create a wider range of options, even for the ones that want to avoid eggs.
But watch out if you are a “purist” about vegetarianism as there are a few animal products hidden in some of the Indonesian dishes, like the shrimp past that is used in the sambal… some super-small fishes mix in tempeh and vegetable dishes… and also in some crackers served with gado-gado and other salads that are flavoured with peanuts or shrimp past.
Something about tempeh…
But the Javanese cuisine as something unique to offer: the tempeh!! Tempeh is made from fermented soybean, that gets aggregated forming a soft but compressed block, sometimes warped in banana leaf, which is sold fresh in local markets all over Java but that can also be found in nearby islands of Sumatra, Bali and Lombok.
Due to its compact consistency, the tempeh can be cut in slices or chopped in small pieces. Unlike most of the soy products, the tempeh isn’t an influence from China, but an Indonesian product that is present almost in every restaurant that serves rice dishes.
Is difficult to identify the taste of the tempeh as it isn’t something that stands up in a dish despite being a fermented product, but it can be described as something between beans and mushrooms, resulting from the fermentation of the soybeans that creates a thin layer of mould. It has a heavy and thick consistency but smooth on the month, giving a feeling sensation in the stomach.
The same way as the tofu, the tempeh can be simply deep-fried (goreng) or simply fried in a pan, but can also be cooked with fry peanuts in a sweet and red sauce made from spices and sugar… that is one on the reason why the Javanese food is famous for the sweetness.
Sambal (don’t mistake with “sambol” a Sri Lankan dish made from coconut) is a spicy condiment made from chilies, usually with a bright red colour but that can also be found in green. The sambal is a must in any nasi campur plate and gives a special touch to any meal. Sometimes a meal can just be some fried tempeh seasoned with sambal and served with a portion of steamed rice!
The sambals in Indonesia are hot but not extremely spicy and the recipe also includes tomato, garlic, shrimp paste and lime juice… but can have more other ingredients, with each restaurant having its own recipe.
The Indonesian sambal change from island to island, from market to market, from restaurant to restaurant… but are a mandatory presence at any rice dish served in Indonesia.
Where to eat nasi campur?
Basically, you can find nasi campur everywhere! It is served in a la carte restaurants, in informal eateries where the food is exposed in trays at the window, in a improvised stall set up in front of a house, in a hidden back street kiosk or inside the markets in a kind of food courts. The nasi campur can also be found in street hawkers that usually hang around the food markets, caring a basket loaded with the familiar paper cones that wraps the food.
Early morning is the best time to find this informal way to eat the nasi campur, as many housewives set up a table on the street selling food, most of the times for take-away by people on the way to the work, but where is always possible to ask for a plate and seat on the side walk, interacting with other customers and enjoying the movement of the street.
Despite the fried rice being the dish easiest to find in Indonesia, mostly due to the easy and quick way to prepare, the nasi campur can be considered the most popular Indonesian food staples, including here all the variations resulting from the different cultures, traditions and climates that characterise this huge country!