When you Google ‘rijsttafel’ you will see from the top results that the rijsttafel is an elaborate meal adapted by the Dutch following the hidang presentation of nasi Padang, an Indonesian dining ritual from the region of West Sumatra. It’s time to debunk this newly created myth.
When it comes to the history of Indo-Dutch culinary traditions there are no ‘alternative facts’, there is only the truth. When having nasi Padang, you see a lot of plates with different dishes served on the table. So, therefore nasi Padang must have been the source of inspiration for the rijsttafel. Whoever came to that conclusion must have thought: “looks like a duck, quacks likes a duck, it must be a duck!” Nowhere in my extensive research for my cookbooks did I come across nasi Padang being the source of inspiration for rijsttafel. It might actually be the other way around.
To proof my point I reached out to Mr. Fadly Rahman, food historian, author and researcher. He wrote the book ‘Rijsttafel’ (published in Indonesia) and his research was focused on the rijsttafel in the perspective of Indonesian history. He confirmed my findings. Like me, using different written sources from the 19th through the 20th century, he never found any mention nor any correlation between rijsttafel and nasi Padang. There is no historical connection. However, his research did show that inspiration for the rijsttafel came in part from the selamatan. This Thanksgiving type of meal was served in Javanese Courts and noble families. Many Dutch people who settled in Java also practiced this celebratory meal on different occasions. The wealthy Dutch (traders, merchants, plantation owners etc.) would impress their guests with an abundance of food, showcasing what the different regions and ethnic groups had to offer. After all, celebratory banquets and feasts have always been part of the lives of the royals and rich in Europe over many centuries.
An article on the site of The Jakarta Post of 2016 said this about Nasi Padang: “The history of this dates to the Dutch colonialism era in Indonesia. This may be hard to believe, but eating Padang food in the restaurant used to be more challenging than it is today, as only Dutch people and the rich were allowed to enjoy it sitting in. Most Padang restaurant owners wanted to be nice to the locals though, and therefore gave them bigger portions to take away.”
Back in the day there were not that many restaurants in Indonesia, as was stated by the late Indo-Dutch author and journalist Tjalie Robinson. He said: “Indonesian restaurant business has always failed at a higher level. There were hundreds of thousands of kenai nasi (eateries), but even until just before the Second World War Indië (Dutch East Indies) knew only one restaurant in the normal sense of the word Kadipolo on Glodok (and then mainly Javanese). This does not mean that the lack of large restaurants proved that Indonesia was (or is) culturally unenlighted. The much acclaimed hospitality made the need for “outside eating” superfluous for travelers and foreigners. Until today, within Indonesian and Indies (Indo-Dutch) circles (and many Indies-totoks) when one is announcing that one will be in town at a certain date, one will be sure to hear: “… and then you will of course eat with us” and then you can count on it that the woman of the house, grandmother or ‘kokki’ (cook) will do their utmost, and that even Hotel des Indes could not be any competition. Why then restaurants!”
It’s said that the rijsttafel as we know it, was given its name by a European Chef working at the famous Hotel Des Indes in Batavia (modern Jakarta). Most likely derived from a typical Dutch banquet called Brabantse ‘koffietafel’ where the main component is bread, instead of rice with different side dishes.
Even though the rijsttafel is called Indonesian Rijsttafel, it originated in the geographic area once known as the Dutch East Indies and therefore should actually be called Indische Rijsttafel (Dutch adjective for Indies or Indo-Dutch referring to the hybrid community and time period under Dutch rule).
December 1st, 2015 is a historic day, as the traditional Indische rijsttafel (a culinary icon of the Indische culture, with roots in the former Dutch East Indies) has been added to the National Inventory Cultural Heritage in the Netherlands. Read more about it here.
Long before Indonesia initiated its Gastro Diplomacy initiative of 2012 (to help boost tourism and the economy), the rijsttafel can be considered to be the trailblazer. For over 150 years the rijsttafel, as part of the shared culinary heritage, has been Thé Ambassador of Indonesian Culinary outside of the archipelago.
By Jeff Keasberry. Self-acclaimed curator of Indo-Dutch culinary traditions.