The Rice, The Table and The Asparagus

It's Indonesian, but you won't find it in Indonesia. You'll find it in the Netherlands, but it's not Dutch. If you've been to Amsterdam, you'll know I'm referring to the traditional feast known as the rijsttafel, a very large number of tiny plates of Indonesian food served with rice. I ate this on my first visit to Amsterdam 30 years ago, enjoyed it very much, but gave its origins little thought.

I enjoyed another one during our most recent visit, but I really didn't think you'd forgive me for reviewing three non UK meals in quick succession. I got to pondering how it all started. I've just used the adjective, traditional. Yes, but traditional to whom?

If you've been out east, you will know that it is customary to be served a number of small plates, served at the same time, to be shared. You may be less aware that this was the habit at smart tables in Europe too. The practice of serving an individual plate to each diner was apparently introduced by a Russian ambassador in 1810. It spread to France and by the mid 19th century had become standard in grand establishments. Sadly, Indian restaurants in the UK have adopted this too. But we digress.

So what is Dutch about the rijsttafel? I discovered that, as I had suspected, it had something to do with the colonial past. We think of Britain as the great colonial power, but the Dutch got there first. They ruled most of Indonesia, then known as the Dutch East Indies. They took a liking to the cuisine of the region. For the rich and the powerful, food has so often been a symbol of wealth. By serving ever increasing numbers of plates, a statement was being made. The grandest hotels would serve a rijsttafel for Sunday lunch where it was not uncommon for 40 dishes to be on offer.

So why is it uncommon in Indonesia these days? Very simply, because it was linked with colonial rule. In the Holland of 30 years ago, it was shouted about from the rooftops. Today references to it are more muted: again, I guess, because of sensitivities about the C word.

Fortunately it is still readily available. When I referred earlier to the cuisine of the region, I was using the phrase in the widest sense. The idiots who bang on about cultural appropriation in the context of food really should travel more. The meal we had at the Tujuh Maret was proof of the diversity. The fact that it was run by Palmo and Norbu, a father and daughter team from Tibet was the first clue. The chef, I gather, is Indonesian. Our (small) feast had about 12 dishes, plus two types of rice. I particularly enjoyed the one with lemon grass and coconut. In the larger version they serve you 18 dishes. In each case they are arranged in order of spiciness. There was beef and tofu and egg and chicken and satay and all sorts. Some had Chinese influences. There was a rendang - a typical Malaysian plate. Interestingly, although it is commonly eaten in Indonesia, no pork was on display. Maybe that's a Tibetan thing.

One review which I read said that while it was very tasty, it wasn't stand out Indonesian. Fair point, but to us Westerners it was darn fine, and amazing value at €29.50 per person. There are many good reasons to go to Amsterdam. A rijsttafel is but one of them.

Ah, you were wondering about the asparagus. I am just back from visiting friends in Norfolk. There is a terrific permanent market in the centre of Norwich.  Two fruit and veg stalls next to each other, both of them selling fresh asparagus. On Twitter I expressed surprise at seeing it so early, assuming this to be an advantage of being 400 miles further south. A few pals have told me that Scottish asparagus is now available, and our cheery chums at Ardross Farm shop in Elie tweeted me to say that they are currently stocking it. Treats in store.

We ate at Tujuh Maret, Utrechtsestraat 73, 1017 VJ, Amsterdam

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