Many may not realize that the influence of colorful presentation of Minangkabau dishes from West Sumatra origin inspired the creation of rijsttafel, a novel feast designed during the Dutch colonial era almost two centuries ago in Indonesia.
Rijsttafel, literally means ‘rice table’, is a Dutch-colonial originated banquet encompassing famous dishes from the many islands of Indonesia. What makes rijsttafel different is the special feature of a dozen of waiters or waitresses involved for this feast and each of them serving different dish at same time. For rich Dutch plantation owners, rijsttafel involved everyone they can gather around their households from the maids, chauffeurs, and even gardeners to act as the servers.
On larger rijsttafel banquets, the Dutch even incorporated up to 30 or 40 dishes at one time. Not only that it became a personal pride for Dutch colonials, rijsttafel was also meant to impress foreign dignitaries during diplomacy or official visits with such an impressive vast array of dishes rarely seen before and came from the richest yet biggest archipelago in the world.
During its heyday, history recorded two famous hotels in Indonesia that served rijsttafel. The first one was Hotel Homann from Bandung which now still can be seen although the façade already underwent a unique art deco transformation back in the 1930s. Mrs. Homann was said to serve the best rijsttafel in town and renowned for it especially after Bandung achieved a stature as a city for colonial holiday retreats. The second hotel known to serve rijsttafel was the beautiful Hotel des Indes during the old days of Batavia (now Jakarta) known to many with its exemplary hospitality, though we can no longer found the hotel anymore as it was demolished a few decades ago to make way for a shopping complex.
It was believed that after the transition of Indonesian government, the rijsttafel became somehow extinct as the nationalism sentiment made Indonesians remove any colonial influences remaining within their daily lives. Today, probably rijsttafel is much more popular in restaurants around The Netherlands, USA, and as far as South Africa or probably other former Dutch colonies.
Back in 1979, an attempt to revive the rijsttafel experience was made by Oasis, a luxurious fine-dining establishment in Jakarta, proved to be hugely successful. With its well-maintained classic façade used to be owned by a Dutch millionaire from the early 20th century and its excellence in many gastronomy aspects, Oasis has been serving rijsttafel ever since and popularize it further by serving famous personages such as Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Mahathir Muhammad, Zinedine Zidane, and many more. Until today, no other restaurant in Jakarta except some in Bali that serve rijsttafel but perhaps not all of these establishments featured the one dozen servers for it.
After all, the individual dishes that came from all over Indonesia are ultimately the most important part of rijsttafel. While there’s no real pattern of what should be served in a rijsttafel but clearly the famous satays from Indonesia have always been traditionally stars of the show. One usually can browse through various satay from chicken, lamb (sate mentul), beef, and fish (sate lilit).
Other than these fantastic delicacies, we can often found beef rendang, dendeng balado (thinly sliced dried beef with chili flakes), beef empal (shredded beef with spices), grilled fish, grilled chicken, grilled prawns, beef stew, fried duck and other main dishes of Indonesian origin.
For the sides we can also enjoy a wide range of dishes such as gado gado (vegetables with peanut sauce), steamed beancurds in banana leaves, fried beancurds with vegetable fillings, stir-fried long beans, serundeng (shredded and roasted coconut), spring rolls, fritters, and a lot more. Even for the rice, you can find several versions from white, white with corn, red, nasi tutug oncom (steamed with oncom and shallots) and many other creations unfamiliarly heard before.
It’s pretty much impossible to describe the contents of rijsttafel as the combination may vary every time and the options itself are basically limitless as Indonesian dishes are probably the most diverse cuisine in the whole world. Again, that’s the reason why larger banquets may serve up to 40 dishes at one time.
From the inception of the concept, rijsttafel was designed to achieve many aspects not only from the dishes variety. In an era where gastronomic features were not yet familiarly encountered, rijsttafel had achieved a high level of complexity not only from flavors but also the colors and the textures. Indonesian dishes we know now are affluent in fragrance and taste from sweet to spicy, from sour to savory, and all using spices indigenous of this country. Additionally, these created a harmony between the many textures of the dishes as well. Much to that era’s surprise, all of these came from a single corner of the earth far from the Old World and everything assimilated into a splendor of one single entity worth its weight in gold for the experience.
Published in Dreams, Heritage Edition 2013
Photos courtesy of Oasis Restaurant, Jakarta