Rio Djiwandana; Netherlands, NL
Story Inspired by Rio Djiwanda
Pictures from Georgetown University, Kompasiana, Tugu Kunstkring Paleis, and Amsterdam Foodie
Beyond the Plate: Colonial Understandings of Dutch-Indonesian Cuisine
Today’s “food for thought” menu offers our readers the complex cuisine of colonial Indonesia: Rijsttafel. A popular staple for the Dutch elite in colonial Indonesia, Rijsttafel, or rice table in Dutch, is a colonial framing of classic Indonesian dishes designed to be served to the Dutch upper-classes. When we think of food in the colonial context, what features in the plate matters is of equal significance to (1) how, (2) to whom, and (3) by whom it is served. More than just a meal, Rijsttafel, in colonial Indonesia, was an event during which servants and waiters individually serve different, classic Indonesian dish, such as: Satay, Nasi Uduk, and/or Soto to the Dutch colonisers and Dutch upper-class. What renders this dish so important to our series is how it has traveled to different Indonesian cultures around the world, and how lovers of this dish can approach its historical significance in context.
This series was inspired by the experience of an Indonesian-American university student, Rio (see picture), from Georgetown University. During a holiday in Amsterdam, Rio remarked how prevalent Indonesian culture and cuisine are in the Dutch capital; the number of Indonesian businesses and institutions that populate the streets of Amsterdam immediately struck Rio: he had never seen such a large Indonesian community outside of his home in the U.S. During his walk, Rio was drawn to one particular Indonesian restaurant, in which Rio is greeted in Bahasa Indonesia by a very “Dutch-looking” waiter, according to Rio. While Rio was surprised to hear the waiter speak Indonesia’s national language, he was even more confused when the waiter recommended he try the Rijsttafel, an “authentic Indonesian” meal, as he described. Rio had grown up eating Indonesian food and experiencing Indonesian culture at home, in the U.S., but had never heard of Rijsttafel, in contrast to the many other traditional dishes served at the restaurant. When the waiter gave him a translation of this “authentic Indonesian dish of the Netherlands”, rice table, and described the components of the meal, Rio was still lost in an otherwise familiar setting. Never before had Rio heard of such a large array of Indonesian tapas, such as sate, nasi padang and kropoek, being served in such large variety and quantities, for one person; how, “obnoxiously extravagant,” by Indonesian standards, Rio thought. Rio decided to order another item off the menu, but his appetite for further clarification on Rijsttafel, and why he had never heard of it, persisted.
Rio conducted his own investigation of Rijsttafel, and found that it was not just a food in Indonesia, but a food prepared specifically for the Dutch elite by the Indonesian people, during the Dutch colonial period in Indonesia. Rio then reflected on his grandmother’s stories of growing up in Dutch-Indonesia, a time during which she was forced to adopt many Dutch cultural practices, including, but not limited to, learning the language. Rijsttafel, as Rio discovered, is a colonial framing of Indonesian food; long queues of servants would form for one single table of Dutch upper-class “elites”, offering 40 different dishes, each served by an individual waiter. When Indonesia got their independence in 1945, the Rijsttafel was rejected as a strictly Dutch colonial dish, and has since disappeared from popular Indonesian culinary culture. Rio also discovered that the Indos (those of mixed Dutch and Indonesian ancestry) were ordered to, “return to the Netherlands,” in the aftermath of Indonesian independence, despite having never left Indonesia, which explained the important presence of Indonesian culture in Amsterdam, and their nuanced understanding of Indonesian food in the post-colonial context.
Competing Identities: Rijsttafel as a Barrier Between Dutch and Indonesian Food Culture
Rijsttafel was indeed at the centre of complex Dutch and Indonesian identity tensions; Dutch colonisers disassociated themselves from the Indonesian population by avoiding the consumption of rice, as it was, “the staple food of the Asian masses,” according to historian, Susie Protschky. Yet, Dutch colonisers,according to Protschky, had to maintain a balance of, “familiarity with Indies culture,” while also distinguishing oneself as strictly Dutch. The consumption of rice, therefore, had to be reserved for special occasions, which is what gave rise to the rijsttafel. Rijsttafel did not only distinguish itself by featuring cuts of meat that were too expensive for common Indoneisan people, during the colonial era; the Dutch would often drink beer with their Rijsttafel, which is forbidden for the majority of the Muslim Javanese population. We can see how Rijsttafel was even more than an event, it was a way for the Dutch colonisers to create economic and cultural barriers between themselves and the colonised masses through. So, Rijsttafel’s colonial past erected barriers between cultures, but are those barriers still visible in the kind of Rijsttafel that Rio would find in modern-day Amsterdam?
Why is Rijsttafel important to us beyond the plate?
One of the reasons that Rijsttafel should be important to our understanding of food culture is that, while it is no longer strictly served to the Dutch elite by only Indonesian waiters in the Netherlands, there are still a number of establishments in Indonesia that offer Rijsttafel for patrons seeking the colonial experience. The Tugu Kunstkring Paleis (Tugu Art Circle Palace) is a hotel and restaurant group with establishments dating back to the Colonial era. Still operational today, the restaurant attracts tourists to explore colonial-era Indonesia, which the palace describes to have been enjoyed by Dutch plantation lords, through the Rijsttafel experience. The menu that one would find at the palace would feature dozens of plates from the Java region of Indonesia, each served by an individual waiter (there could be 32 waiters for a party of just one person). One of the most striking elements of this menu, issued in 2013, is that the servants are all darker skinned, while the patron, is a white man, which begs the question as to whether Rijsttafel is for Indonesians, or merely made and served by Indonesians, today.
What is so intriguing about Rijsttafel is that it has been made more accessible and less “obnoxiously extravagant” as it has travelled to Holland, relinquished from its intended purpose of decadently serving the Dutch upper-class, but has conserved the colonial-era experience it offered in fine-dining restaurants and luxurious hotels in Indonesia. Rijsttafel was not a cuisine or type of dish, but a decadent, expensive experience designed to dazzle its patrons. By contrast, when one has a Rijsttafel in modern-day Amsterdam, one will find a large plate containing a variety of Indonesian specialties, rather than several individual plates served by a myriad of wait staff. As Rijsttafel has become one of the most popular and accessible local dishes one can have in the multitude of Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam, it begs the question as to whether the dish belongs to Indonesian, Dutch or Indo culture, and whether it would be prudent to even categorise accordingly. Another question this raises is whether Rijsttafel, as a dish, has changed in its manifestation in Holland, as it is no longer reserved to any class of people. Through this transformation, has Rijsttafel in the Netherlands just become a new way of appreciating and discovering the complexity of Indonesian cuisine, or should those who order Rijsttafel question whether their consumption of the dish undermines the long, painful history of a 300-year colonial era?
Rio’s story sheds light on the ways in which food can reveal more about ourselves and our ancestors, and the difficult past that many had to endure at the hands of the few. Rijsttafel may be perceived as a harmless iteration of Indonesian food, today, but it absolutely reflects the pain of colonialism and the extent to which Indonesian people were brought to abdicate vital elements of their culture. This is not to argue that Rijsttafel should be removed from every restaurant; much like monuments and artefacts from history that remind us of a dark, cruel past, it is important to ensure that these stories are passed on through generations. Food, like Rijsttafel, has an important role to play in the present, as it is a necessary reminder for Amsterdamers of various origins who enjoy going out for a Rijsttafel that they have a responsibility to find commonality and place in light of the dark history that their shared ancestry holds.
(Click the picture to read Rio's full story)
A dual shot of how Rijsttafel was served, and as importantly, who was eating it, during the Dutch colonisation of Indonesia. Rijsttafel was typically served by Indonesian servants to the Dutch upper-class. We see this in the clothes that the Dutch gentleman is wearing, as well as the “obnoxiously extravagant” (as Rio described) amount of food that the Dutch are being served.
Modern Rijsttafel Menu in Indonesia, depicting several Indonesian waiters serving a single white man individual dishes.
The caption reads:
Enjoy the most legendary and splashy menu in the Dutch East Indies era. Enjoy the exoticism of the emerald equator menus in the colonial atmospheres of the East.
Rijsttafel in Amsterdam (Tempo Doeloe restaurant), served in smaller plates on one larger tray, by a single waiter, priced at an affordable 27.75 EUR.