‘Rijsttafel’ revisited – a bit of history
An amazing combination of dishes, all relating to different geographical parts of Indonesia are placed in a symmetrical way on the table. Warm and cold dishes, sweet and hearty, dry and wet. A treat in the Netherlands, showing the rich heritage of a complex and tasteful cuisine relating to our not so commendable colonial past. I remember it well from the time my parents took me as a kid to the famous restaurant Bali at Scheveningen. A festive occasion, where the waiters carefully explained me what I should try first and what next. A culinary trip both to an unknown country and into the past.
For what is ‘rijsttafel’? Most of the ‘Indische cuisine’ in the Netherlands is pure nostalgia, far away from the reality of life in Indonesia, as it was in the almost post-colonial times and rather far away from the real Indonesian dishes, due to adaptations to the Dutch taste. In her book Indo Rock (2019) Vanja van der Leeden fulminates against the ‘rijsttafel’ as it is an abominable combination of dishes that would never meet during a meal in Indonesia. Bali isn’t Sumatra isn’t Java isn’t Bantam and so on. All have their own ways of preparing food, of food preferences, of preparing bumbu.
So why is ‘rijsttafel’? Vanja and I discussed this to find out what we could about the history. It isn’t well documented. Somewhere in the 19th century, but possible even before that time, it became a ‘thing’. The Dutch living in Indonesia adopted much of the food, so much richer and tastier than most 19th century food ‘in patria’, at home. But many of their living habits the Dutch transplanted one-by-one. Also in table manners. Also in style. Let’s not forget that receiving guests for a meal is and has always been also about showing off your wealth, your position in the world, your nose for interesting things to delight your guests. During the 19th century Europe transformed from the service à la Française (many dishes symmetrically on the same table) to the service à la Russe (one dish after an other in a proscribed order, portioned plates). Even in the 1880s one can find menus in the Netherlands that smack of the ‘old’ ways. In parts remote in the country or overseas old habits never die. Nostalgia, again, the way things were.
So can I find a paper trail? The first mention of ‘rijsttafel’ in the newspapers to be consulted via Delpher Kranten dates back to 1863 and the context makes it clear that this meal is certainly a ‘common’ thing. Also from the subsequent mentions of that and the next decade one gets the idea that is was a usual meal to be consumed midday, followed by an afternoon nap. Beer was the preferred drink to go with it. One could go to a chic restaurant, or a took in the passar, it could be served on board of a ship, or at home: rijsttafel was well known and appreciated by many. It took some time to find a place in ‘patria’ though. Also in literature the 1860s crop up, with a mention in Nederland – Praktische Menschen by N. Donker and H.J. Schimmel, part I, from 1863. A description of the meal is given on pages 166 -168. It’s just a small selection in a quick scan of what’s available on line via Delpher.
A first (?) cookbook appears in 1872, with mrs G.G. Gallas Haak-Bastiaanse’s Indisch Kookboek – bevattende voorschriften om op de beste, eenvoudigste en goedkoopste wijze, Indische gerechten, zuren, ijzen, gebakken en geleien gereed te maken. It was printed in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. (http://worldcat.org/identities/viaf-290245580/) Confirming that the rijsttafel was by then a very well known and integrated part of the culinary culture.
We decide that the ‘rijsttafel’ is probably a cultural appropriation avant-le-lettre, where the Indonesian cuisine is fitted to the Dutch habit of service à la Française by probably thoroughly acculturated Dutch, or Dutch-Indonesian families. Then it makes sort of sense. Time to relegate the current version to the Food museum. All this was well communicated a couple of years ago, by the way, and any one exploring ‘rijsttafel’ could have called Vanja – she’s easy to find on the web. And if not Vanja, then certainly Dorothy Porker (nice alias). Both well versed in the Indonesian cuisine. This is absolutely not the ‘final word’ about the history of ‘rijsttafel’. So much primary sources will need to be identified and explored. I certainly will dive in the letters of Johanna van Riebeeck again, but oh, got a book to finish first! Back to the subject.
Because I read in a recently published book, The Philosophy of Curry, by Sejal Sukhadwala, 2022, that “‘rijsttafel’ was invented by Dutch planters in the late 19th century, probably based on a traditional Javanese ceremonial meal. Rijsttafel was served in a grand style for Sunday lunches, dinner parties and on steamships.” No source for this, nothing that gives a possible reference in the literature list. And as the last part of the quote refers at least to the eating habits in de 20th century, I totally miss the historical part of the Dutch, or rather West-European, eating habits of the 19th century, with a different way of serving food, and different times for déjeuner, dinner and supper. And the dating to the late 19th century is at the least ambiguous, as the newspapers and books from mid-19th century tell us.
My observations on The Philosophy of Curry will be continued – a book with a Large Title raises expectations, after all.
Vanja van der Leeden www.vanja.cc
Dorothy Porker https://dorothy-porker.com/
Delpher rijsttafel 1863
Heritage (in Dutch)
De rijsttafel staat inmiddels ook op onze nationale inventaris immaterieel erfgoed. Een mooi overzicht al ben ik het met de ‘roots’ van de rijsttafel niet zo eens. De rol van de Nederlandse huisvrouw met een kokkie in de keuken volgt de al bestaande traditie en past die aan, maar ligt waarschijnlijk toch niet ten grondslag aan het ontstaan van het fenomeen.