Around the World in the Strip

    Amsterdam’s Rijsttafel

    Amsterdam. The name conjures up images of the Rijksmuseum, Rembrandt—and rijsttafel. The dinner is a classic Dutch treat. It is not a single dish. Rather, it is a meal of separate dishes—think of it as a smörgåsbord of small plates—accompanied by rice. Usually it is yellow rice for a festive flare, which is traditionally served in large quantities mounded into a cone; hence the name rijsttafel, which means “rice table.”

    A rijsttafel dinner was a major goal for our recent trip to Amsterdam, in large part because the meal is not a typical offering even at such purely Indonesian restaurants as exist in the United States.

    The dishes are representative of 6,000 inhabited islands—there are actually over 17,000—that comprise Indonesia. Each can have its own twist on flavors due to locally available foods plus influences from nearby countries. The Indonesian dumpling siomay is derived from the Chinese shumai, for example. Some islands have fiery hot food, but only one island, Hindu Bali, serves pork in an otherwise Muslim country. Coconut inspires food from Sumatra. Other notes are fish sauces from Vietnam, complex spice combinations from India, and peanuts from Thailand. It may seem odd, but cloves, mace, and nutmeg—those spices that western Europe of centuries past craved, and for which the Dutch went searching—are not featured in Indonesian food. Instead coriander, cardamom, cassia, ginger, galangal, star anise, pepper, and turmeric are.

    Popular side dishes include egg rolls, sambals, satay, fish, fruit, vegetables, pickles (for cooling the palate), nuts, and condiments; I like the spicy/smoky taste of sambal oelek. A proper rijsttafel is comprised of multiple textures (crispy, chewy, soft, hard, gelatinous) and tastes (sweet, salty, sour, bitter).

    The idea for rijsttafel originated in the Padang region of West Sumatra where there was a tradition of restaurants allowing customers to choose from a variety of displayed dishes. The Dutch expanded the concept into a formal dinner in part to display the vast abundance of their colony; it was not unusual to have 100 dishes presented by dozens of servers. Returning Dutch nationals and Indonesian expatriots brought rijsttafel with them after independence in 1945, while it virtually disappeared in Indonesia as a reaction to colonialism.

    And so we come to our rijsttafel dinner. After much research, I chose Restaurant Blauw, run by a family from Indonesia (and recommended by the concierge at our hotel as the best in Amsterdam). A short taxi ride—it is almost impossible to find places along Amsterdam’s narrow, winding streets—brought us to a small, almost nondescript space. We chose a beef rijsttafel of 17 courses.

    The food was served in boat-shaped dishes holding an average amount of about 4-5 ounces; multiply that by 17 (plus rice, chips, pickles, condiments) and you realize how much food there actually was. And it all just kept coming until the table was filled, with warm dishes placed on a heater built into the table.

    That fits with the idea of rijsttafel, which is to take a bowl of rice, or in this case a plate, add a bit of each food plus a condiment, chip, or pickle, finish—and then head to the next dish of choice. The idea is to fully savor each of the tastes and textures mentioned above separately, completely, and cleanly. It was a challenge to finish, but we did it, topped off by dessert of course.

    All the Indonesian ingredients for a proper rijsttafel are readily found in the Strip District at any of its Asian markets, such as Wing Fat Hong.  Rice is the centerpiece of the meal, as it is for Indonesians who eat it for all meals; I would recommend jasmine in general, although sticky rice is also used. For condiments and accompaniments choose rice prawn crackers, nut crackers, pickles, and the condiment sambal oelek—my favorite, with a fiery/smoky taste, also available at Asian markets.

    Indonesian food isn’t that hard to make at home. Think satays, thin strips of meat on a skewer. I suggest using skirt steak from Strip District Meats. The freshest vegetables, herbs, and spices, as for the delicious and easy-to-make gado gado salad (a rijsttafel favorite; recipe below), are of course available throughout the Strip. For quick peanut sauces use raw peanuts (most authentic) or roasted/salted (my preference anyway); both are available at Penn Mac.

    A favorite Indonesian expression is “Kalau belum makan nasi, belum makan” (If you haven’t eaten rice, you haven’t eaten). To which I can add: If you haven’t had a rijsttafel, you’ve missed a marvelous dining experience.

    INDONESIAN GADO GADO SALAD (Serves 4)

    For the salad:
    1. 1 lb peeled and thinly sliced potatoes, fried until just lightly crisp in peanut oil and drained
    2. 8 oz extra-firm tofu, cut in ½-in. chunks, lightly fried in peanut oil and drained
    3. 4 hardboiled eggs, in quarters
    Prepare and set aside the potatoes, tofu, and eggs.
    4. 8 oz shredded regular or Chinese spinach
    5. 8 oz green beans or Chinese long or string beans in 1-2-in. pieces
    6. 1 ½ cups fresh bean sprouts
    7. 3 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced, preferably at an angle
    8. 1 small head Chinese or Napa cabbage, shredded
    9. 1 regular or Chinese cucumber, unpeeled, in ¼-in.-thick slices
    Blanch ingredients 3-8 quickly, no more than 30 seconds. Rinse in cold water to stop cooking and drain thoroughly. Note: Blanching is the traditional way of preparing the vegetables, but the salad will still be delicious if served raw (although I would still blanch the long beans and rinse the bean sprouts).
    10. 1 cup shredded cilantro
    11. 4 oz fried shallots, available at Asian markets
    12. Fish or shrimp chips, available at Asian markets

    For the peanut dressing:
    1. 1 ½ cups raw unsalted peanuts, lightly fried
    2. 6 oz chunky peanut butter
    3. 3-4 Tbsp soy sauce, to taste
    4. 2 Tbsp rice vinegar
    5. 1 ½ Tbsp grated fresh gingerroot
    6. ¼ cup roasted sesame seeds
    7. 1 ½ tsp Indonesian shrimp paste, fried in peanut oil until fragrant or roasted, or 1-3 tsp fish sauce to taste
    8. ½ cup palm or dark brown sugar
    9. 2 cloves garlic
    10. 1 Thai bird chili, roasted, seeded, membranes removed, optional (these are very hot)
    11. 1 Tbsp palm or rice vinegar
    12. 2 Tbsp tamarind concentrate
    13. Juice of 2 limes
    14. 3/4 cup water
    15. ¼ cup coconut milk, optional

    Blend all of the peanut-dressing ingredients in a food processor until smooth. If it seems thick, add more water, lime juice, or coconut milk (if using) to taste and desired consistency.

    To assemble the salad:
    Divide the potatoes among the four serving plates. Divide the vegetables into four portions, putting each on top of the potatoes. Put the eggs evenly around the vegetables. Pour the dressing over the salad. Sprinkle the shallots and fried onions on top. Serve the chips separately.

    Cynthia F. Weisfield is a freelance writer whose articles about art and food appear regularly in multiple publications. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago and has recently completed a biography about noted abstract expressionist artist Sonia Gechtoff. She lives in Mt. Lebanon.