My husband and I visited Amsterdam recently. While I am sure there are many excellent reasons to go there, for me there was just one - the chance to eat an authentic Rijstafel!
A Rijstafel or rice table, consists of Southeast Asian cuisine presented in a style invented by Dutch settlers in colonial Indonesia. A monument to excess – the Rijstafel’s guiding principle seems to be, why be satisfied with one dish when you can have a dozen, or even better, two dozen? Modern Indonesia has little time for such extravagance, so the easiest place to find Rijstafel today is in Holland.
After much research, we decided on restaurant Tempo Doeloe, reputed to be the best place to eat. We ordered the set menu of 25 dishes, probably too much food for the two of us but we had come a long way to eat this!
Our Rijstafel started with Sateh Babi - skewers of succulent grilled pork with a sweet, spicy peanut dipping sauce, followed by Soto Ajam - spicy chicken soup. Kroepoek (shrimp crackers) added crunch to the meal while Gado Gado (vegetables in peanut sauce) tasted slightly sweet, nutty and crunchy. The Dutch influence was very much evident in dishes like rissoles or pancakes with beef and Perkedels, meat and potato croquettes. Other dishes that will live on in my memories are Ajam Roedjak (chicken cooked with coconut milk and chillies), Rendang Padang (beef cooked with fiery hot chilli peppers and coconut milk), Semur Daging (beef in a tomato soy sauce), Babi Ketjap (pork in soy sauce). When the spices in these dishes became overwhelming we sprinkled Serundeng - sweetened shredded coconut - over the rice to mellow their heat. Our menu also included Orek Arek (shredded cabbage with garlic and herbs), Oerapan (fresh vegetables cooked with shredded coconut), and Sambel Goreng Boontjes (fresh green beans cooked with coconut and spices). In addition, there were a variety of different Sambals to further liven up the food, as if it needed it!
Our host in the restaurant advised us how to eat the feast before us - start by placing a small portion of rice on our plates, then add the various dishes that surrounded it. I preferred to sample each dish individually with the rice so as not to get all the flavors mixed up. We started with the mildest, a sweet and sour cucumber carrot salad, working our way through the various degrees of spiciness in the dishes until we reached the last bowl, the one we had been repeatedly warned about - beef Rendang.
This was supposed to be the hottest of them all - one that few diners could finish, but we were ready. Being Indians and accustomed from a young age to eating hot and spicy food, we laughed at all this concern. "Bring it on", we said to our waiter who was standing by with a large bottle of water. One minuscule taste of the curry and we quickly changed our minds. This was by far the hottest thing we had ever tasted. Tongues tingling, mouths on fire, smoke coming out of our ears, we gratefully reached out for the shredded sweetened coconut Serundeng and that large bottle of water. As we staggered out of the restaurant after that gargantuan meal, we had only one regret - that we had not finished the beef Rendang.
Oh well, there is always next time.