This colonial-era culinary experience did not originate where you think
Lithograph after an original work by Rappard, The Rice Table. Photo Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures
The fascinating thing about the Indonesian rijsttafel is that it isn’t Indonesian at all: it is a Dutch invention.
Indonesian food is involved, of course, but the construct is a product of colonial Holland, which ruled Indonesia — calling it the Dutch East Indies — for more than 350 years.
Because yes, initially the Dutch colonists avoided the sweet and pungent local dishes, preferring to import their own fruit trees and bushes and seeds and even livestock.
This was initially a male-only duty station of plantation managers and government administrators whose families stayed back home. Over time the men grew accustomed to the foods prepared by the single ladies who cared for their culinary — and other matters.
But then something happened that would change food (not to mention world) history: the Suez Canal opened.
Once unable to undertake the lengthy journey and face the dangers of an unknown land, families began heading for the colonies and wives joined their husbands, bringing along their native foods and re-injecting these into local eating habits. Why someone would prefer a stodgy potato to fluffy rice is beyond my comprehension, but then, my parents grew up in the Middle East, where rice is queen.
Many Dutch food imports were shipped in tins, with weeks of sultry unrefrigerated transport adding the threat of botulism to the then-blandness of northern European cuisine.
As did their husbands before them, the women began incorporating ingredients and techniques from both homespun and indigenous cuisines into their cooking, guided by their local cooks.
The result of this clash of culinary cultures was an Indo-Dutch medley that outstripped either of its component parts and may well be the world’s first fusion cuisine.
The Dutch loved it.
The Maluku Islands, part of the archipelago, had already given the world most of its nutmeg, cloves and black pepper. Indonesia…