On the rice table
Is rijstaffel the key to catapulting Indonesian cuisine to the international stage? Eve Tedja travelled to Amsterdam and discovered that the traditional Dutch-indo ritual is alive and thriving.
“Just give me fried rice and egg, with sambal and krupuk and a glass of beer! There’s no rice cake, pork satay, no spiciness anywhere. No shrimp paste, fried grated coconut, milkfish, and tofu with petis sauce. Lapis cake, ondeonde, no cassava or bakpao, no sticky rice, no Javanese palm sugar…,” lamented Wieteke van Dort in a song that she wrote in 1977 after she had to leave Indonesia with her family due to the anti-dutch sentiment. At first, the Surabaya-born singer and actress found her new home, Netherlands cold and its food unappealing. To her Indonesian palate, rice was still the best. The song, titled Geef Mij Maar Nasi Goreng, went to become a classic hit in Netherlands, tugging at the heartstrings of its inhabitants whose ancestries and roots are deeply intertwined with
Indonesia through the bitter sweet history of Dutch colonisation.
There are approximately more than 2,000 Indonesian eateries in Netherlands. From a simple eatery that the Dutch fondly call toko to a fine dining establishment with an elaborate rijstaffel or rice table setup, Indonesian cuisine has been an inseparable part of Netherland’s multicultural food lexicon. On the other hand, if you visit any city in Indonesia today and ask a local where to eat rijstaffel, you will most likely get a blank look. A rijstaffel,
a Dutch-indo culinary fusion, was created during the colonial period in 1870s. It was an extravagant dining experience where one could enjoy a wide variety of Dutch and Indonesian dishes in one sitting. At its most grandiose, a rijstaffel dining experience could feature 40 different dishes during a single meal. Each dish was carried by waitresses lining up to serve the mijnheer and mevrouws. After Indonesia proclaimed its independence in 1945, this Dutch colonial ritual gradually disappeared. Instead, a more egalitarian approach in the form of nasi rames eateries took its place.
The precise numbers of Indonesian diaspora and their descendants are hard to tally due to different periods of immigration and intermarriage. According to Ebed Litaay, president of Indonesian Diaspora Network – Netherland Chapter (2015-2017) in an interview with SWA, an online magazine, there are roughly 1.8 million Indonesian diasporas living in the country. The first generation emigrated from 1946 to 1968. The second- and third-generation grew up eating savoury nasi uduk
for breakfast. There is also a large community of Mollucans who immigrated to the Netherlands in the 1950s and a sizable Javanese Suriname community.
Taufik Rachman was one of the first waves of Indonesian immigrants who left his hometown of Surabaya and moved to Amsterdam in 1970. “Back then, there were probably less than 10 Indonesian eateries in Amsterdam and ingredients were quite hard to find and expensive,” says the soft-spoken 69-yearold restaurateur. In 1992, he opened Terang Boelan, a takeout Indonesian eatery in the quiet district of Jordaan. A large clear glass covered counter full of Indonesian delicacies such as urap sayur, sayur lodeh, beef rendang, lamb curry, and sate ayam
stands in the middle of the joint. Customers can choose between white rice and fried noodles and combine their carbs with few kinds of meat and vegetable dishes, customising a plate of hearty
nasi rames based on their personal preference. Everything is cooked from scratch daily by Rachman and his team of helpers. “I think the artistry of Indonesian cuisine is that you don’t have to use expensive ingredients to create flavourful dishes. It just takes time to prepare, that’s all,” explains Rachman while warmly greeting one of his loyal customers.
Terang Boelan is one of many toko in Amsterdam that caters to the Dutch’s growing appetite and appreciation for Indonesian food, according to Asri Anisa Prasadani. A second-generation Indonesian who was born and raised in Amsterdam, Prasadani’s parents moved to the city more than 40 years ago and she grew up eating her mother’s home-cooked Indonesian dishes, such as soto ayam, and celebrated her family’s milestones with nasi
tumpeng, the cone-shaped yellow rice which she jokingly calls the real Indonesian rijstaffel. She admits that there has been a resurgence of Indonesian cuisine as pop-ups and fine dining restaurants are opening up in Amsterdam’s trendy areas. “It is heartening to see a growing interest in Indonesian cuisine
although I think there are still so many of our regional dishes which are still unknown here. We have all the ingredients available. What we need are more Indonesian chefs and restaurants who dare to go beyond serving gado-gado and prove that there is so much more to Indonesian food than just peanut sauce,” enthuses Prasadani.
Amsterdam receives roughly 5.7 million visitors per year. To many pleasantly surprised tourists, Amsterdam is where they experience Indonesian cuisine for the first time, making the city the perfect getaway to introduce the flavoursome cuisine from the archipelago to a wider audience outside its country of origin. “We have been serving the rice table concept to international guests and they were always blown away,” shares Meta van den Boomen, manager of Restaurant Blauw.
First opened in Utrecht, Restaurant Blauw quickly gained recognition for serving authentic Indonesian cuisine in a contemporary setting. It opened its Amsterdam branch 10 years ago, powered by a team of talented Indonesian chefs with their own heirloom family recipes, from Ikan Asam Padeh to the crowd-pleasing Sate Kambing Restaurant Blauw offers à la carte dishes as well as three different rijstaffel set menus; these gastronomic treats are served in exquisite small bowls.
Nearby, a new Indonesian restaurant has been making a splash in the leafy historical neighbourhood called the Plantage. Mama Makan Indonesian Kitchen, located adjacent to Hyatt Regency Amsterdam, has been receiving rave reviews for its swanky design and flavourful Indonesian delights. Its association with a five-star hotel has also elevated the image of Indonesian cuisine and cemented its international reputation. At the heart of Mama Makan Indonesian Restaurant, is Rosmina Napitupulu, an Aceh-born and Jakarta-raised chef. Together with her Indonesian kitchen team, the culinary veteran is upping the ante on Javanese and Balinese regional cuisine.
“There’s no doubt that introducing Indonesian cuisine to other countries would be a great success” - Meta van den Boomen, manager of Restaurant Blauw
“Indonesian food is all about sharing. That is why Mama Makan’s signature rijstaffel remains everyone’s favourite,” says Napitupulu as she works behind her open kitchen and grinds pastes and spices in a mortar and pestle, the familiar fragrant aroma wafting delightfully in the air. Accompanied by crafted botanical cocktails, which are inspired by herbs and spices from the archipelago, the restaurant showcases the best of Indonesia to cosmopolitan guests and Amsterdammers alike. Nutmeg, a concoction made of celery gin, vermouth, cherry liquor, tonic water and nutmeg, is the perfect companion to a rijstaffel feast that includes a heartwarming bowl of Soto Madura.
Tiny gems arrive on the table in the form of grilled banana leave wrapped fishcake and spicy shredded chicken and chicken satay bathed in peanut sauce. As the dinner progress, so does the level of heat. It is a sign that the authentic Indonesian experience is alive and happening as Fried Fish with Sambal Matah, Sambal Balado Eggplant, and Woku Shrimp Sambal next appear. Opor Ayam, Gulai Kambing and Beef Rendang complement the meal perfectly. Each and every dish is lovingly made from scratch, a time-consuming feat that quite often makes Indonesian cuisine challenging to replicate. By way of presentation, rijstaffel certainly stands out. Who wouldn’t feel special when they are presented with lavishly prepared delicacies in one go?
“I have found out since I was young that I love to make people happy through food. That’s why the dishes that we have here are the ones that are close to my heart. Food that I have cooked, shared, and enjoyed with my loved ones. Hopefully, our guests will enjoy it too and it will become part of their memory and experience,” says Napitupulu. Indeed, there is nothing to stop Indonesian cuisine from shining on the global stage when passion meets rijstaffel in a delightful burst of authentic flavours.
The Indonesian talents behind Restaurant Blauw: Isti, Asep Kuswandi and Felix Pontoh.
Restaurant Blauw’s tasty rijstaffel also caters for pescaterian and vegetarian diets.
Terang Boelan’s Indonesian fare. Taufik Rachman of Terang Boelan
Chef Rosmina Napitupulu and her colleague, head chef Martin Robl.