The fascinating thing about the Indonesian rijsttafel is that it isn’t Indonesian at all: it is a Dutch invention.
Indonesian food is involved, of course, but the construct is a product of colonial Holland, which ruled Indonesia – calling it the Dutch East Indies – for more than 350 years.
Because yes, initially the Dutch colonists avoided the sweet and pungent local dishes, preferring to import their own fruit trees and bushes and seeds and even livestock.
This was initially a male-only duty station of plantation managers and government administrators whose families stayed back home. Over time the men grew accustomed to the foods prepared by the single ladies who cared for their culinary – and other matters.
But then something happened that would change food (not to mention world) history: the Suez Canal opened.
Once unable to undertake the lengthy journey and face the dangers of an unknown land, families began heading for the colonies and wives joined their husbands, bringing along their native foods and re-injecting these into local eating habits. Why someone would prefer a stodgy potato to fluffy rice is beyond my comprehension, but then, my parents grew up in the Middle East, where rice is queen.
Many Dutch food imports were shipped in tins, with weeks of sultry unrefrigerated transport adding the threat of botulism to the then-blandness of northern European cuisine.
As did their husbands before them, the women began incorporating ingredients and techniques from both homespun and indigenous cuisines into their cooking, guided by their local cooks.
The result of this clash of culinary cultures was an Indo-Dutch medley that outstripped either of its component parts and may well be the world’s first fusion cuisine.
The Dutch loved it.
The Maluku Islands, part of the archipelago, had already given the world most of its nutmeg, cloves and black pepper. Indonesia had already hosted, willingly or not, immigrant waves of Chinese, Arabs, Indians and Portuguese, all of whom left their imprint on food. The inescapable diversity of the country’s own thousands of inhabited islands made sure ‘boring’ would never be used to describe the food.
Dishes from all these cultures found a home.
In a land of local poverty, the most vivid social demonstration of colonial power and omnipotence was a heaving, superbly garnished table – the rijsttafel, or rice table, mountains of rice surrounded by a multitude of small, delectable dishes. Of course it was also a great excuse for a party.
A traditional Indonesian rijsttafel
The rijsttafel was a formal affair with a Dutch family seated around a table. I can imagine their faces, red from the humidity, dripping with moisture. When a fly landed inopportunely, a sigh would rise and a languid arm, heavy with heat, would wave the intruder away. Local jongos, or male servants, would buzz about barefooted, carrying spicy dishes ranging from hot-hot sambal sauces to sweet and cloying peanut satehs. Just another day in the tropics.
The ‘feast’ usually included around 40 dishes. Some went beyond the call of duty. The famous French-run Hotel des Indes in Batavia, Jakarta’s colonial name, boasted as many as 60 different for Sunday lunch. Some private regal feasts could ring up 100 dishes or more, served ‘Dutch-style’, each dish on its own plate, and sometimes followed by steak, with the rijsttafel an immense appetizer.
On a recent trip to Amsterdam I was asked what kind of Dutch food I wanted to taste.
I answered immediately: “Rijsttafel!”
Other than the barefoot waiters, it may not have changed much.
The table was already set with sambals, condiments and sauces when we arrived. Along came the rice – huge mounds of it – and the many courses, seemingly pell-mell, all deposited on a line of hot-plates. Platters kept arriving and I stopped keeping track, but a few, apparently staples, were memorable.
The snacker in me dove for the crunchy, crispy prawn crackers, or kroepoek, so airy they stick to the roof of your mouth, and the sateh, that luscious spicy peanut sauce slathered over skewers of barbecued chicken, begging you to lick the plate clean (I withstood the temptation – with difficulty). My favorite was beef rendang, whose caramelized coconut sauce was an experience sensuous beyond taste.
An unusual reverse migration was responsible for elevating rijsttafel‘s popularity in Holland.
As 19th-century transport links improved, Dutch tourists set sail for the colonies. They fell in love with the rijsttafel experience, food, waiters and all, and began taking the cuisine home with them. When colonial administrations rotated, recipes were brought back to Europe and handed down from mother to daughter, some closely guarded still today.
When the Dutch finally left Indonesia in 1949, the rijsttafel left with them, not only because the food was extraordinary but because, like most former colonial powers, a certain nostalgia set in. Subsequent waves of Indonesian immigrants cemented the fusion, sensing opportunity and opening the first rijsttafel restaurants in metropolitan Holland.
It may now be a favorite Dutch specialty but in Indonesia, resentment towards the former colonial power initially pushed locals away from this form of eating. Purely national ingredients and etiquette became symbols of independence and sovereignty. That resentment has eased and today this feast is found in many Indonesian tourist destinations.
It’s not uncommon for foreigners to look for an ‘authentic rijsttafel’ in Indonesia – whereas to get the real thing they’d best travel back to Amsterdam.