When in Amsterdam, or Jakarta? Have some rijsttafel. What is it, and why does it translate to rice table? If you know your Dutch history, or for that matter, your Indonesia history, you know about the close ties between the two countries, beginning back with the Dutch East India Company.
Founded in 1602, it was an amalgam of Dutch trading companies, chartered to trade with India and SE Asian countries (also known as the Spice Islands). It granted them a twenty one year monopoly of the Dutch spice trade. In reality, it was a conglomerate which diversified into multiple trade and industrial activities, including food, sugar, wine (from South Africa), as well as shipbuilding. Naturally, this “colonization” of Indonesia led to many cultural and economic ties, not the least of which is the famous rijsttafel.
Passing by an Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam, the smell from their food may seem somewhat strange at first. So, what is it? It would appear to be an endless stream of small dishes, usually SEVENTEEN, along with a bowl of rice, and plenty of cold beer. The dishes are Indonesian, but the concept of rijsttafel was created by Dutch colonists living in Indonesia. It was inspired by Nasi Padang, an Indonesian dish of rice surrounded by multiple meat and vegetable dishes with Indonesian spices. This feast was meant to sample as many Indonesian dishes as possible in one sitting. At lavish banquets, the number of dishes could run into the hundreds!
Along they way, the Dutch (from 1602 to 1942) were able to impress visitors, as well as show off the culinary wealth of their new colony. After World War 2, many Indonesians settled in Amsterdam, and set up restaurants. They knew how much the Dutch loved rijsttafel. Most importantly for tourists like us, we get to sample a wide array of Indonesian food for a reasonable price. So, anywhere from twelve to twenty five dishes is what I am told.
Without going into great detail, here are five of the more common items in rijsttafel: Beef rendang (beef in curry coconut sauce), tempeh blado (spicy, sweet tempeh), sate’ (skewers of chicken or beef with peanut sauce), pisang goreng (banana fritters), and sambal goreng telor (fried egg with sambal). Are you hungry yet?
Quite often, Indian mixed pickles are served to cool the palate. Other spices and condiments are usually available. The topper is an Indonesian spice cake called spekkoek. Rijstaffels strive to provide variety in both flavor and texture (and temperature). The flavors range from salty, bitter, sweet, and sour. The common items listed above, along with house specialties, or what I might call “leftovers”, vary from place to place.
And fortunately for us, one of the best and original is walking distance from our hotel. Of the US cities I have visited, Chicago seems to have the most Indonesian places. During my very first visit here, back in 1971, I had rijsttafel at least once, that I can remember. Just a mere 48 years ago.