story by Pat Tanumihardja
Growing up, I didn’t bat an eyelid whether my mom served us bakmi ayam (chicken noodles) or macaroni schotel (macaroni and cheese) for dinner. Kroket (potato croquettes) was just as common as lumpiah (fried spring rolls) at snack time. Each and every food item fit seamlessly into my Indonesian-Chinese heritage, or so I thought.
Truth be told, I never thought twice about the dishes I ate as a child. Then, my friend Michelle came over for dinner one evening. I had promised her a home-cooked Indonesian meal and my mom made one of my favorite comfort foods, pastel panggang (also called pastel tutup), a shepherd’s pie of sorts. In my mom’s version, sliced hot dogs, shredded chicken, glass noodles, wood ear mushrooms, mixed vegetables, and hard-boiled eggs are layered in a casserole dish, topped with mashed potatoes and baked.
As my mom served Michelle a hefty piece, I noticed the bewildered look on Michelle’s face.
After dinner, Michelle proclaimed that the meal was delicious, but . . . where was the satay? Where was the beef rendang? She definitely wasn’t expecting shepherd’s pie.
“It wasn’t shepherd’s pie,” I retorted indignantly. “It’s pastel panggang! It has an Indonesian name. How can it be a European dish?”
Well, it turned out that we were both wrong. Pastel panggang and many other childhood favorites belong to a largely unknown blended Eurasian subculture called Indische Nederlanders, Indo Europeans (Indos, for short), or, most commonly, Indo Dutch.
The Indo Dutch community emerged during the Dutch Republic’s (now the Netherlands) centuries-long occupation of the East Indies (now Indonesia). Indo Dutch people are the offspring of Dutch European men and local Indonesian women. The term also refers to the Dutch Europeans who were born in the East Indies. To be clear, the term Indo Dutch refers to the ethnic community and its food culture that evolved in the time period of the Dutch East Indies and in the area now known as Indonesia. Even though the Dutch East Indies no longer exists, Indo Dutch cuisine and food traditions remain strong within the Indo Dutch diaspora.
Examples of similar fusion cuisines that originated in South and Southeast Asia include Anglo-Indian cuisine and Peranakan (Chinese and Malay) and Cristang (Portuguese and Malay) cuisine in Malaysia and Singapore.
History of Dutch Colonization in Indonesia
Indonesia has a long history of external influences. The Portuguese, Spanish, Arabs, and Chinese have each left their mark, but none of these groups had more impact than the Dutch.
The Dutch arrived in the region that is now the Indonesian archipelago in 1595 seeking spices. When they returned home, the spices they acquired—though a modest amount—turned a profit big enough to fuel the rapid colonization that led to the powerful East Indies empire.
In 1602, the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or United Dutch East India Company (VOC), was founded to capture a share of the lucrative oriental spice trade. The VOC was granted a monopoly on shipping and trade and made alliances and contracts with local rulers in Southeast Asia.
The VOC soon drove the incumbent Portuguese out of the archipelago and established its capital in the port city of Batavia (now Jakarta). By forcing local leaders to sell their spices at low, fixed prices and banning trade with other powers, the VOC monopolized the export of vital spices such as nutmeg and mace, cloves, and pepper. Then, in 1800, the VOC—overstretched, corrupt and bankrupt—folded and all its territories, including Indonesia, were passed to the Netherlands crown. The trading empire became a colonial one. By 1820, the Dutch had almost full control of the entire archipelago.
The Dutch ruled successfully until the Japanese occupation during World War II. Following the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, Indonesia declared independence. The Dutch tried to reassert ruling power, but Indonesian nationalists ousted the colonists, and thus nearly 350 years of Dutch rule came to an end. After the uprising, Dutch citizens were repatriated, many of whom were of Indo Dutch descent. Currently, about 1 million Indo Dutch people live in Indonesia, while over 500,000 live abroad in the Netherlands, the United States, and Australia.
Indonesian versus Indo Dutch Cuisine
The extended Dutch colonial rule had many long-lasting impacts on Indonesia, most notably a unique fusion cuisine now called Indo Dutch cuisine.
Indo Dutch cuisine is hard to decipher.
For one thing, many of these dishes have been swept under the umbrella of an overarching Indonesian cuisine. In addition, Indonesia has had so many external influences over its long history, it’s not always possible to trace a dish’s exact provenance. “Indonesia takes all culinary influences for granted” and no origin is mentioned, says Indonesian culinary expert William Wongso. It’s all considered “regional cooking.”
Wongso is confident of one fact though: Indo Dutch cuisine originated mostly in regions where the Dutch had governance and conducted trade. These areas included central Java, East Java, North Sulawesi, Menado, and some parts of Sumatra.
Indo Dutch cuisine is often just called Indonesian cuisine, but Indo Dutch food expert Jeff Keasberry says that’s oversimplifying it. It’s “not entirely wrong when you consider it originated in the same geographical area,” he says. “Yet, it doesn’t cover it all.”
Keasberry, who authored Indo Dutch Kitchen Secrets—Stories and Favorite Family Recipes from Stroopwafel to Rijsttafel, considers Indo Dutch cuisine an ethnic cuisine just like Balinese, Sumatran, or Javanese regional cuisines. “Apple is fruit. But not all fruit is apple,” he explains.
Considering the Indonesian archipelago consists of more than 17,000 islands and over 300 different ethnic groups, it’s not surprising that the cuisine is so diverse. Every region has an individual cooking style shaped by history, religion, terroir, dominant ethnic groups, and other influences.
Defining Indo Dutch Cuisine
Indo Dutch cuisine is a multifaceted cuisine. Its repertoire features indigenous and regional dishes as well as European- and Dutch-inspired dishes, all mixed and matched to produce one fascinating cuisine.
During tempo doeloe (Indonesian for “the olden days,” or the time period when Indonesia was part of the Dutch East Indies), European cuisine was considered the cuisine de rigueur for the upper classes of society. In the households of Javanese nobles and educated locals, it wasn’t uncommon to marry regional dishes with European ingredients and cooking techniques. Selat solo (Solo salad), also called bistik jawa (Javanese steak), a dish from the city of Solo in central Java, is the perfect example of this fusion.
A Javanese take on European beef steak, the dish comprises beef tenderloin braised with kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, garlic, nutmeg, and black pepper. It is served with boiled vegetables such as carrots, string beans, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, fried potatoes, and sweet-and-sour mayonnaise on the side.
Selat solo may be unrecognizable as steak but it is a perfect fusion of Javanese and Dutch cooking traditions. The European influence shows up in ingredients such as Worcestershire sauce and mayo, while the Javanese preference for sweetness is obvious in the use of kecap manis.
Today, meat braised in kecap manis spiced with nutmeg and/or cinnamon is a popular comfort food. It is known as semur daging (braised meat; semur comes from the Dutch smoren, meaning “to braise”).
Other Dutch-influenced dishes—adapted to personal tastes, of course—such as sop buntut (oxtail soup), macaroni schotel, and erten (split pea) soup are also mainstays.
Baked goods encompass a large part of Indo Dutch cuisine as well. Klappertaart, or coconut cake, is a very popular Indo Dutch snack or dessert. The word klappertaart is derived from klapper, the Dutch iteration of the Indonesian word for coconut (kelapa), and tart, from taart a Dutch word that refers to cake. Surrounded by coconut plantations in Manado, North Celebes (now Sulawesi), Dutch women experimented with young coconut meat in their cake recipes. Thus, klappertaart was born!
Spekkoek (spice cake) is another typical Indo Dutch cake. This rich, decadent confection is similar to pound cake, but it is infused with fragrant spices plentiful in the Dutch East Indies. To make this cake an even grander affair, cooks alternate thin layers of plain white batter and duskier-colored spiced batter in a pan, baking one layer before spreading the next. This produces a beautiful layered cake (up to 25 layers!) with a variegated effect.
These recipes, and others like it, were disseminated in various ways. Most Dutch household hired kokkies (local cooks) to help in the kitchen. They learned to make Dutch favorites and improvised on local dishes to make them palatable for their employers. Upper class Indonesians who mingled with the Dutch also wanted to learn the recipes for foods the Dutch were eating. Many local women were intrigued and wanted to make these recipes at home too. Thus, the advent of cookbooks helped spread recipes across the archipelago and beyond.
Of all the Indo Dutch food traditions, none is more prominent than the rijsttafel (“rice table,” in Dutch).
According to Indo Dutch intellectual and writer Tjalie Robinson, also known as Jan Boon, the seed for rijsttafel was planted by the Portuguese, who were in Southeast Asia a century before the Dutch arrived in Indonesia.
The rijsttafel was probably the European interpretation of the local tradition of indigenous communal eating. While the dishes served are very much Indonesian, rijstaffel was definitely an obnoxious way for them to enjoy an extravagant variety of foods at once. Nonetheless, the Dutch were the ones to elevate rijsttafel to its current level of fame.
Dutch dignitaries served rijsttafel to impress guests with the exoticism and rich culture of their colony. When they threw dinner parties, a neverending line of batik-clad servants would have served as many as 150 items during a single meal, says culinary expert Wongso.
In his book, Rijsttafel—Budaya Kuliner Di Indonesia Masa Kolonial 1870-1942, Indonesian food scholar Fadly Rahman writes that the most celebrated rijsttafel in the Indies was served for Sunday luncheon at the former Hotel Des Indes in Batavia and Hotel Savoy Homann in Bandung. Rich plantation owners and their wives would congregate weekly to relax and meet friends. Most of the dishes were Javanese. But they were served Dutch-style, each on a separate plate, by white-suited, barefoot waiters called jongos (from the Dutch word jongen, “young men”).
Above all, the rijsttafel “was a statement of Dutch authority, underlined by the adoption of indigenous foods (and) adaptation of selected local dishes,” says Rahman. Fittingly, the Indo Dutch exported rijstaffel to the Netherlands after 1945, where it is now officially part of the UNESCO list of Intangible Dutch Cultural Heritage.
When Indonesia declared independence in 1945, rijsttafel, along with many other Dutch colonial customs, were rejected. Since then, they have either disappeared or integrated seamlessly into Indonesian culture.
Furthermore, the generation of people who experienced the Dutch occupation are now very elderly or have passed away. And while Indo Dutch cuisine can still be ordered or catered for special occasions, it is considered “memorabilia,” part of Indonesia’s past, explains Wongso. “We never mention these dishes are influenced by the Dutch except when asked.”
However, Indo Dutch cuisine has continued to evolve outside the former Dutch East Indies, mostly in the Netherlands and North America.
According to cookbook author Keasberry, the Indo Dutch community repatriated from Indonesia to the Netherlands after World War II and changed the Dutch culinary landscape forever by bringing with them both Indonesian and Indo Dutch food traditions: “I can wholeheartedly say that the Indo-Dutch community . . . influenced the Dutch palate and made Dutch cuisine more exciting, or in my words, Indonized it!"
In turn, Indo Dutch cuisine was influenced by Dutch ingredients and cooking styles, while staying true to authentic tastes. Today, Indo Dutch dishes are considered traditional foods in the Netherlands.
Even though the Dutch East Indies as a country no longer exists, its hybrid community and fusion food traditions survive. Now, it belongs to the Indo Dutch diaspora and has also become a part of Dutch national cuisine.
“This cuisine needs to be marked [and] recognized for its unique dishes and influence, to get it the accolades it so richly deserves,” says Keasberry.
Above all, Keasberry emphasizes that Indo Dutch cuisine is a shared culinary heritage that can be proudly claimed by both Indonesian and Dutch people alike. “It belongs to both countries.”
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