Food For Thought: Indonesian Cuisine in the Netherlands

By: Rio Djiwandana

May 22, 2015

A few weeks ago, I spent an absolutely incredible weekend in Amsterdam. While I had a great time bicycling through the city and trying to differentiate between the identical-looking canals, something in particular caught my attention—the city’s large Indonesian population. As someone who grew up in the United States, where there are only around 100,000 Indonesians spread out throughout a country of over 319 million people, walking around the Netherlands (which has four times as many Indonesians despite having a population twenty times smaller than that of the United States) took me completely by surprise. I had never expected to see so many Indonesian people outside of Indonesia!

Despite my initial shock, however, I realized that this made total sense—after all, Indonesia had been a colony of the Netherlands for several hundred years and only officially won its independence in 1949. My grandmother, who had lived through the Dutch occupation of Indonesia as well as the Indonesian National Revolution, used to tell me stories of the Dutch (orang belanda) and how she and her siblings even had to learn the Dutch language in school. After Indonesia secured its independence, many Indo (those of mixed Dutch and Indonesian ancestry, as well as Indonesians who had assimilated into the Dutch way of life) were banished from Indonesia and ordered to “return” to the Netherlands, (even though many of them had lived in Indonesia all their lives), which helps to explain why there are so many Indonesians living in the Netherlands today.

Walking around Amsterdam and passing by so many Indonesian restaurants made me both hungry and excited! After all, I hadn’t eaten good Indonesian food in months. After finally choosing and entering an authentic-looking Indonesian restaurant, I entered and was completely thrown off guard when the waiter, a middle-aged man that looked completely Dutch, began speaking to me in Bahasa Indonesia. Apparently, he was born in Indonesia to an Indo family and moved to the Netherlands as a child. Upon asking him what he recommended from the menu, he told me to order a rijsttafel.

“Apa itu?” I asked him. “What is that?” I had seen the word scribbled on every Indonesian restaurant I had walked by, but the dish was completely unfamiliar to me. The waiter then explained that a rijsttafel was a collection of tapas-sized dishes that consisted of a variety of Indonesian cuisines, from sate to nasi padang to kropoek and beyond. In the end, I chose to order something else, but my conversation with the waiter left me with so many questions. Primarily: the waiter said that the rijsttafelwas a typical Indonesian dish, but if that was the case, then why had I never heard of it?

After conducting further research, I learned that while the dishes served within the rijsttafel are very much Indonesian, the rijsttafel’s origins are colonial. In the Dutch East Indies (what Indonesia was called before it won independence), the concept of the rijsttafel (a word that means “rice table” in Dutch) was introduced not only so the Dutch could extravagantly enjoy a wide variety of Indonesian dishes at once, but also to impress guests with the exoticism and rich culture of their colony. During this time, lines of servants and waitresses in sarongs often served up to 40 different dishes during a single meal. When Indonesia proclaimed its independence in 1945, the rijsttafel, along with many other Dutch colonial customs, was rejected and has since disappeared from Indonesian culture. After all, the act of consuming so many dishes at once is considered obnoxiously extravagant by Indonesian standards. However, the rijsttafel is still quite popular in the Netherlands and other Indonesian restaurants abroad.

With all this in mind, I realized that the rijsttafel is so much more than another option on a menu; its very existence alludes to the Dutch conquest and exploitation of the Indonesian people, land, and culture, and the complex history between the two nations. I’m not saying that modern-day Dutch-Indonesian relations are still tense (because in my experience they’re not), or that the rijsttafel should stop being served in restaurants, but I do think that learning the history behind the rijsttafel is important and culturally significant—“food for thought” indeed.

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