One of the joys of travelling is tasting local food. In Holland you may first think of typically Dutch food. Also remember that Holland was once a colonial nation. Therefore it houses quite a few migrants from the former colonies, specifically from Indonesia and Suriname. Migrants brought their culinary traditions with them and there are many places in Holland for you to enjoy that. In this blog I’ll introduce you to Indonesian food. Why not try some during your stay in Holland?
Indonesia and Holland: a very short history
Indonesia is a former Dutch colony in South East Asia, that gained its independence in 1949. In the 3,5 centuries before that, there were strong ties between Holland and the Indonesian islands, starting with the arrival of a Dutch merchant in 1596. In the centuries after that the influence of the Dutch on the islands grew. It developed from a trading relationship to colonial power and suppression. There is a lot to tell about this relationship, but this blog is about food! So I’ll keep it short.
After the second world war and after independence in 1949 two groups of people moved from Indonesia to the Netherlands:
- About 300.000 people of Dutch descent who were no longer welcome in the new Republic of Indonesia. Some of these families had lived in Indonesia for generations and had never been in Holland before.
- People from the Moluccas. They had served in the Dutch colonial army, and fought against the independence fighters of Indonesia. Staying in Indonesia was not safe for them, so they came to the Netherlands, thinking this was a temporary move. It wasn’t. They hoped for an independent Moluccan Republic, but they and their children and grandchildren still live in the Netherlands. About 50.000 people in total.
With them came Indonesian food and this is why there are still many Indonesian restaurants in the Netherlands. Dutch people have adopted the Indonesian flavors, most of all saté sauce (peanut sauce) that is a popular sauce even to combine with Dutch food such as fries.
What is typical Indonesian food?
A tough question to answer as Indonesia is a huge country that consists of many islands with different culinary traditions. Think of combo’s of rice, spicy meat & fish and vegetables. In a way, typically South East Asian, just without the curries and coconuts (most of the time). Are you visiting an Indonesian restaurant in Holland? Here are some suggestions for what to order!
Rijsttafel (rice table)
If you have no idea what to choose from the extended list of dishes on the menu of your Indonesian restaurant your best option is to choose the rijsttafel (rice table). It’s a bit like the Indonesian version of Spanish tapas. You will be served a collection of small dishes along with a big bowl of rice. This is a great way to taste a lot of different dishes. A warning: don’t choose the rice table if you’re not too hungry! This tends to be a lot of food.
What the rice table actually contains depends on the restaurant. Usually it’s a mix of meat, fish and vegetable dishes. In some restaurants you can choose between complete vegetarian rice tables, fish rice tables and rice tables with mainly meat dishes. A rice table is the kind of dish to share; often restaurants won’t even serve this to just 1 person.
And did you know that the rice table made it to the list of intangible cultural heritage in the Netherlands? Eating a rice table is a cultural act! Two birds with one stone, just saying…
If you’re not hungry enough for the rice table, or if you are dining by yourself, another good option is nasi goreng. Basically this is fried rice with spices and soy sauce. It is usually accompanied by krupuk, satay, sambal, a fried egg and sometimes by small rations of other meat or vegetable dishes. Anything that is left over in the kitchen, originally. This is one of the most popular Indonesian dishes!
You may also encounter bami goreng, which is a similar dish, but with thick noodles instead of rice.
Saté is the name of two things for the Dutch: it’s the name for a dish of barbecued meat (pork, chicken or – less frequent in Dutch Indonesian restaurants – goat) or shrimps on a thin skewer. Some restaurants serve a vegetarian saté using tofu; but that’s uncommon. Saté is also the name of a peanut sauce that is often served with this dish. Apparently that’s a Dutch thing; in Indonesia they do put a sauce on their saté, but not this particular peanut sauce that the Dutch love so much.
Saté is not a main dish, but more of a side dish (for example with nasi goreng) or a starter.
A solid choice for vegetarians is gado gado, a dish containing white rice, green beans, bean sprouts and cucumber. Often it comes with a boiled egg and saté sauce and sometimes with tofu. There are quite a few takes on this dish, so if you’re a vegan it is wise to check the composition of this dish before ordering.
Ikan means fish. So any dish starting with the word ikan is a fish dish. The second word is the name of the preparation method, ikan bali being a common dish on the menu of Indonesian restaurants in Holland. It’s spicy! Usually restaurants don’t specify the kind of fish they’re using. Usually they use mackerel though, a fatty fish that carries the spices well. Be prepared for picking out the bones; Indonesians are not much into filleting their fishes.
The most popular meat dish in the Indonesian kitchen is rendang, a spicy dish originating from West Sumatra. Most rijsttafels will contain rendang. But you can order it separately too. Usually (though not exclusively) it’s made of beef that’s slowly cooked with spices and a small amount of coconut milk.
If you order rendang it will usually be served with white rice only. The idea of Indonesian kitchen is that you order several dishes to share with your fellow diners. So if you need some veggies, order vegetable dishes separately.
Soto is a chicken soup. Apart from chicken and herbs it usually contains bean sprouts, an egg, potatoes and noodles. It’s almost a full meal! Interestingly this dish is very popular in Surinamese cuisine as well. Javanese migrants brought it with them to South America.
Without kroepoek (pronounce krupuk) an Indonesian meal is not complete. At least, that’s how the Dutch feel about this side dish. Kroepoek is a deep fried cracker made from starch and other ingredients that serve as flavouring. There are many ways to make kroepoek; the one found in Holland usually contains shrimps (so be sure to check if you’re allergic, or if you’re vegan). Most Indonesian restaurants will serve you kroepoek as a free starter, or as a side dish with many other meals.
Dutch people like kroepoek so much that they eat them as if they were crisps; you can find them in any supermarket.
To finish your meal go for a slice of spekkoek. It’s a layered cake that’s quite complicated to bake and therefore usually not cheap. It’s quite herbal.
Where can I find Indonesian food?
Practically any Dutch town has at least one Indonesian restaurant. The best Indonesian food is to be found in The Hague, which is where most of the Dutch returnees settled after 1949. There are so many nice Indonesian restaurants that I won’t even start to give suggestions here, the list would be too long. Be aware though: quality may differ, so check review sites before you book.
Another word of warning: avoid the Chinese-Indonesian restaurants that are widely spread all over the Netherlands. These restaurants are usually run by Chinese, who do some Indonesian food too. This is not the real deal if you want to taste Indonesian flavors.