or, Rijsttafel to Go

Approaching something new and strange, we look for a familiar aspect of it to use as a handle. As often as not this turns out to be a prejudice or a cliche. I’m going to limit my examples to food - exotic food - though what you regard as exotic depends on where you come from. As an Eng. Lit. student in Java in the early 1960s, I got the impression that the English lived mostly on roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, the Americans on hot dogs and hamburgers. And like all cliches, these were assumed to be eternally true; traditional foodways never change.

In fact, of course, food habits are changing all the time, often fast. “Traditional” foods are embedded in time as firmly as they are in place. When I came to live in the west, I soon realised that its inhabitants were avid for change and the food scene was an agitated kaleidoscope. But westerners still had some fixed ideas about oriental food, and in the thirty-five years since I got off the boat at Naples a lot of these have scarcely shifted. Nothing is harder to move than western perceptions of my own country’s food. Indonesian? That must be rijsttafel. Outside the Netherlands, most western journalists can’t even spell it right, but that doesn’t stop them pontificating about what Indonesian food is and how it should be served.

Rijsttafel has become embedded in the western consciousness as the traditional Indonesian meal. I have not yet tracked down the earliest use of the word, but it obviously originated in colonial times and I should guess that rijsttafel’s glory days were the last century of Dutch rule. It gave unlimited scope to chefs and banqueting managers to show off, piling the buffet high with dozens of different dishes against a background of artistically-stacked tropical fruit. Dutch merchants at the Hotel des Indes in Batavia, planters weekending in the Savoy Homann in Bandung, passengers on luxury liners plying between Rotterdam and the Indies, diners in posh restaurants in Amsterdam, all demanded this reassuring display of solid food, which bore the additional cachet of its origins among simple peasant folk.

In this way, rijsttafel acquired the prestige of a famous brand name but without any legal limitations on its use. The damage was compounded by restaurants outside Indonesia, which were, and are, mostly owned and run by non-Indonesians; even in the Netherlands, most Indische restaurants are Dutch or Chinese-owned. In any case, “Indonesian” restaurants in the west cater mostly for non-Indonesian customers, so again the cliche is reinforced. I have investigated restaurants where the menu offered a rijsttafel for two people - 24 dishes, each in minute amounts but still far too large a meal for the average couple’s health or appetite. Too much, also, for the small restaurant kitchen, where basic dishes are cooked early in the day and kept hot for hours, to be dressed piecemeal and distinguished from each other merely by one or two ingredients in each sauce. Among these pathetic shadows of ostentation, the most important part of the meal (for an Indonesian) is sometimes overlooked; I have even been offered a rijsttafel with no rice.

This is far indeed from the village feasts which were probably the models for the rijsttafel: harvest thanksgivings, weddings, or simply communal meals assembled to feed a large labour force at important times in the farming year. I know from my childhood days in West Sumatra that behind the jollity and gourmandising of these occasions (remember that everyone’s enjoyment depended solely on the food - there was no alcohol) there lay intense rivalries among the cooks of the various households. Even in Indonesian cities today, you will find neighbourhood cooks who are well known locally as the best in the area for their particular specialties, though I fear that the number of these men and women street food vendors is dwindling.

Saddest of all is that the rijsttafel’s prestige has carried it into present-day hotels and restaurants in Indonesia itself - because it is what foreign visitors expect, and what expat executive chefs think is expected of them. In the foyer of a very big, very smart hotel in Bali I saw a poster advertising “a traditional Indonesian rijsttafel” on a particular night each week. It was illustrated with a photograph of a young western man and his western wife or girl friend sitting at a small table in the hotel restaurant, while behind them a line of beautiful Balinese maidens, in brightly-coloured local costume, queued to serve them with the regulation array of traditional, authentic dishes.

Indonesians love big parties with lots of good food. I’ve cooked countless table-loads to feed anywhere between a dozen and two hundred guests, many of whom rubbed their hands gleefully and said, “At last! A real old-fashioned rijsttafel!” I took this as a compliment, but I never used the word myself. My cooking was lighter, my dishes were fewer in number, and each dish was completely distinct from all the others; I was looking back to the feasts of my childhood, and forward to what I wanted Indonesian food to become.

Today, I still dream of burying the inappropriate, untimely rijsttafel and replacing it with an appreciation of good, contemporary Indonesian cooking, using the best and freshest ingredients. I would love to see Indonesian restaurants in Europe, America and Australia serving modern Indonesian food in smart, modern surroundings - table d’hote and a la carte menus, meals arranged as a series of separate courses, each course cooked to order and plated in the kitchen. True, you won’t find this in small restaurants in Sumatra or Java, or in the roadside eating places that cater for the hard-up traveller anywhere in the archipelago. But such places serve traditional food in their own way, with not a rijsttafel in sight; I love them, but I was brought up on their food, and for the average tourist they give too much chilli and offal and too many chopped-up bones. My dream of the perfect Indonesian restaurant in London or New York or Sydney just won’t leave me. The absence of rijsttafel is not simply a matter of political correctness; we should be standing up for gourmets rights.