|The ‘Rijsttafel’ or ‘Rice Table’|
As we have already learned, the ‘Rijsttafel’ (or ‘Rice Table’) was taken to the Netherlands by the ex-colonials of the former Dutch East Indies who retained on repatriation the tastes acquired from their long years of sojourn in the East Indies. Although usually called Indonesian ‘Rijsttafel’, it was, in fact, invented by the Dutch colonists.
Indonesian people traditionally take a meal from a central plate of steamed or fried rice with other dishes arranged around it. Usually including some fish or meat, a vegetable dish, and a spicy sauce known as sambal. The early Dutch planters, with their great appetites, added more and more dishes (sometimes even as much as thirty!) and so the ‘Rijsttafel’ originated. It was served on the plantations and at home parties, partly as a means to show off with a parade of small dishes the size of their kitchen and the number of servants employed. Still later it was combined with hotel menus, each dish served separately by a waiter. Served in the restaurants of yesteryear, enjoying a rijsttafel involved first heaping a dollop of rice onto your plate and then adding a spoonful of each dish as it was borne out by a waiter.
Today the ‘Rijsttafel’ is presented in a modern Dutch way by laying out the different dishes on a rechaud or food warmer. It consists of rice and a multitude hot and cold side-dishes of meat, fish, chicken, vegetables, pickles, nuts, etc. Nowadays, their number depends mainly on the number (or the importance) of guests or the grandeur of the occasion: the more dishes, the higher the guest is valued. Now, before you begin to imagine thirty dinner-sized plates of food, it’s important to mention that the dishes used to serve this meal are small and the portions served are gauged by the number of people expected to share them. Remember, the idea is to have tastes of many things rather than a full meal of any single item. Also, there are no separate courses: the dishes arrive all at one time, like a culinary avalanche, the sweets along with the sours and the spicy, so you’re left to plot your own course through the extravaganza. Due to the location in the Museum of Antiquities, today’s ‘Rijsttafel’ will be served in the form of a buffet.
The basic concept of a ‘Rijsttafel’ is to eat a bit of this and a bit of that, blending the flavors and textures. A simple, unadorned bed of rice is the base and the mediator between spicy meats and bland vegetables or fruits, between sweet-and-sour tastes, soft-and-crunchy textures. To enjoy it to the full, a definite pattern has to be followed. The meal is eaten from a large or soup plate with a fork in the left hand and a spoon in the right hand, the latter being used to convey the food to the mouth. You start by placing a little of the hot white (or yellow) rice in the centre of your plate, which you surround with a number of the side-dishes: alternately highly spiced and mild ones, thus titillating the palate with the characteristic taste of the various traditional dishes.
The small amounts heaped around the rice should be tasted separately with a little of the rice. Do not mix the side-dishes with each other or with the rice because the fine taste and the special charm of the Indonesian food will then be completely lost. When your plate is empty, you start again on the same principle, varying the accompanying side-dishes once more. Sample the milder dishes first and then work your way to the more fiery ones. Take your time to savour each dish and enjoy the different rich flavours.
No Indonesian meal is complete without the sambalan: the hot spices used in the food. If you wish you can also put a small quantity of sambal on the rim of your plate, wherewith you may season the food in accordance with your taste. Should you feel things getting too ‘hot’, pause to take some acar, krupuk or selada. If you eat the ‘Rijsttafel’ this way, the flavours will be brought out fully because each of the side-dishes has a special and distinct flavour of its own.
The recommended beverage with this feast is beer, mineral water, or a similar cold drink. However, a dry white or rosé wine is also appropriate.
Selamat makan! — Enjoy your meal!