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or: Indonesian food and the mystery of the ‘Rijsttafel’

The relationship between Indonesia and the Netherlands has influenced life in both countries as the Dutch and Indonesian cultures have been woven together since the Dutch landed on the shores of the world’s largest archipelago in 1596. They sought control of the international spice trade by forming alliances with the native rulers and the ever-increasing Chinese immigrant population. They fought with the Portuguese (as well as among themselves) and this led the Dutch government to form the United East India Company to provide military strength.

For the next two hundred years, the Dutch dominated the world’s spice trade from their stronghold Indonesia, with its three thousand islands, located ten thousand kilometers from the Netherlands. It used to be called the Dutch East Indies, or simply ‘the East’. In the course of the centuries many government officials, soldiers and merchants from the Netherlands, as well as adventurers from other parts of Europe, settled there. Through their mingling with the native population – from the nobility to the poor – a checkered society with a wide range of cultural and social levels developed.

The Dutch domination ended in World War II when in 1942 the Japanese sank a combined Dutch-Anglo fleet, brutally seized control of the islands and interned the European and half-European colonials. Immediately after the capitulation of Japan, the Indonesian people grasped the opportunity to claim their independence as a sovereign nation. In the years that followed some 120.000 soldiers of the Dutch army were sent to the archipelago, but in 1949, after years of bloody fighting, the Dutch surrendered sovereignty over all of Indonesia (except New Guinea) to the federal Republic of the United States of Indonesia.

A few years later the colonials, Dutch and half-Dutch, as well as the native soldiers who had served in the Royal Netherlands Indies Army, were expelled and moved with their families to the Netherlands, many of them settling in The Hague. They of course brought their food culture with them. And the Dutch soldiers who had fought in the East had become acquainted with the Indonesian cuisine during their tour of duty. The impact that the two cultures had on each other remains strong to this day, especially in the Dutchman's acquired taste for the flavourful and unique foods and spices of Indonesia. And that is why this multi-faceted art of cooking is so very popular in the Netherlands, especially in the region of The Hague.

Approximately 400 years ago when the Dutch colonized Indonesia the ‘Rijsttafel’ (a phrase coined by the Dutch which literally means: ‘Rice Table’) was developed. A typical Dutch colonial household had many servants from various regions of Indonesia. Each servant would prepare a dish from her region to be served with rice for the evening meal. As the Indonesian people ate rice twice or three times a day, it comes as no surprise to learn that cooking took up several hours per day. A great variety of dishes was the outcome and by cooking more than was needed, there was always some left for the next meal. When two or three ‘side-dishes’ were prepared in addition, every meal was thus accompanied by a wide variety of traditional dishes. The result: a symphony of flavours.

The story goes that the Dutch first approached this Indonesian food with a great deal of caution, first sampling one dish and than another. From this the ‘Rijsttafel’ as we now know it evolved, sometimes consisting of more than thirty dishes! Whether this story is true or not, the fact remains that to this day, a ‘Rijsttafel’ is the most favourite way to sample a great variety of Indonesian dishes.

My aim is to set before you in one meal this centerpiece of Dutch-Indonesian cuisine: the ‘Rijsttafel’, in a refined, well-balanced combination of its principal features.