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Rijsttafel and Other Indonesian Cookery

by Len du Midi

Chinese Food in Europe

Summer Volume: 1997 Issue: 4(2) page(s): 11, 12, and 18

Thanks to the many letters written to the editor asking for more information about Indonesian Rijsttafel, this reply advises that yes, Rijsttafel has many origins in China. After all, it is a Chinese-type food eaten Dutch-style here in my country (the Netherlands) and in its country of origin, Indonesia. As foods of any cuisine, it has many variations. It is a main plate of rice with variations be they white, yellow (with kunjiti or tumeric and often with santen or coconut milk), or served as Nassi Guri, a rice with spices and vegetables. All are served with lots of other small dishes.

One's daily Rijsttafel has at least one sajur or vegetable soup and two side plates. A special Rijsttafel might have over twenty different plates or more. (Your editor advises that she and her husband gorged on one with forty different dishes.) These 'plates' are smaller dishes that are made with fish, meat, vegetables, fruits, and spices or seasonings. Most are with foods cut into mouthful-sized pieces and eaten Indonesian style, with spoon and fork. All are placed on the table at one time, then the diners begin their eating.

Typical Indonesian flavor in these dishes or plates are many and include trassi which is shrimp paste, asem or tamarind either fresh or as paste, gula djawa (a brown Javanese sugar), kemirie which is a kind of almond, santen (see above), and sambel ulek, a hot pepper sauce. Available are bumbu's or combined spices for different plates, as well as other but lesser known seasoning materials.

Not everyone realizes that not all Indonesian food is cooked. One of the plates can be a bowl of krupuk or shrimp crackers, others might be salad type foods, even fruits. Cakes and puddings are less appreciated, but when served, are mostly steamed.

For those that do not use trassi because they do not like or can not eat shrimp, try crumbling a beef bouillon cube as a substitute. If you are vegetarian, try crumbling one of vegetable instead. Other substitutes for foods typical to the Rijsttafel are potato chips or thinly sliced deep-fried eggplant, radish, or other vegetable instead of the ever-present shrimp chips.

For the main dishes, a dry beef dish cooked in grated coconut is popular as is a rich spicy vegetable stew. These are eaten with a kebab or sate of some sort, and dipped in a sambal kecap or chili relish. You can do likewise with the shrimp chips or crackers. The suggestions above makes a five plate Rijsttafel.

People's appetite for the amount of rice consumed varies greatly, an average of two cups of rice per person is common at a main Rijsttafel meal. It might be served any of the suggested ways or come compressed and stuffed with vegetables, meat, or egg. One that we adore is lemper, a rice roll stuffed and filled with goodies and cooked in banana leaves. We eat ours warm or cold.

Left-overs from Rijsttafel meals are served together on one plate and known by the name of Nasi Rames; it means miniature Rijsttafel. Indonesian leftovers are not second-class citizens of the food world, they are enjoyed because they often taste better the next day when spices and sauces have melded.

For those who want to try their hand at the recipes that follow, do not worry about making too much, Indonesian food not only keeps well but many dishes can be frozen. Consult some Indonesian cookbooks for lemper and other dishes, and your horizons will be widened, your taste buds delighted.

Chinese tea (Jasmine preferred), fruit juice, and clear Java tea go with Indonesian food. The Dutch introduced beer, and it is an ideal drink, but not necessary. Many folk drink plain ice water as they finish their Rijsttafel meal. Lest you worry about what variety of rice, use a long-grain rice. The Dutch would use a patna-type, or Javanese rice, a perfumed Thai rice, even a sticky sweet rice. As to the shrimp crackers, try to find them or Emping crackers, made with nuts, if you can. And please, don't forget to deep fry and enjoy them as they expand manyfold. Do a few at a time, with enough oil in your pan. Fry them at an appropriately maintained temperature and drain them on paper towels immediately after frying. That way very little oil is absorbed.
Len du Midi is an enthusiastic cook, reader, writer, and ballet dancer. She offers the dishes below blending Chinese and Dutch flavors that are appropriate for your Rijsttafel, and hopes you will enjoy them.
Dengdeng Ragi or Dried Beef Ragi
1/2 pound top round or flank steak, sliced thin cut into small squares
3 shallots, sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground galingale
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 Tablespoons tamarind water
2 kaffir leaves (optional)
1/2 pound unsweetened grated coconut
salt to taste
1 Tablespoon oil
Preparation 1. Mix meat, shallots, garlic, chili powder, galinagale, sugar, tamarind water, kaffir leaves, is using them, and one and a half cups of water and bring to the boil, then cook on medium heat for forty minutes.
2. Add coconut and salt and let the mixture bubble until all the water is absorbed by the coconut. Stir until dry then add the oil and cook until the coconut is golden brown.
Serve hot or cold.

Sayur Lodeh or Vegetable Stew
1 medium-sized eggplant
2 Tablespoons salt
1/4 pound very young string beans
1/4 pound bamboo shoots, sliced thin
3 scallions minced fine
1 teaspoon trassi
4 canlenuts or macadamia nuts
3 cloves garlic, minced fine
1 chili pepper, minced
6 shallots or 1 small onion, minced
1 cup stock or water
1 Tablespoon dry shrimp (optional)
1/4 teaspoon brown sugar
1 and 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 bay leaves
2 to 3 Tablespoons greens
2 cups thick coconut milk
1. Slice eggplant and sprinkle with salt. Let stand for half an hour. Then rinse well, and dry with paper towels.
2. Mix the bamboo shoots, scallions, chili, and shall, and the stock and simmer for five minutes. Then, add shrimp, if used, spices, and sugar, and cook for five more minutes.
3. Add beans and coconut milk and simmer gently, stirring continuously until hot. Remove from the heat and discard the bay leaves and greens. Serve hot.

Sambal Kecap
2 Tablespoons kecap manis (an Indonesian sweet soy)
juice of half a lemon
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
2 shallots, sliced very thin
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
1. Mix all the ingredients with one tablespoon of boiled water, then serve.

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