Stumble Into Indonesia's Unseen Places
Submitted by mumunmumun on 23 May 2017
I would describe the ‘rijsttafel experience’ as eating like kings. In many Hollywood movies, including cartoons, I’ve always seen elaborate serving of food on tables of kings or leaders. I’ve had some interest in them ever since my logic kicked in, thinking ‘No one can finish that much food on the table, so why do they keep having an elaborate meal?’. Being part of an Indonesian family, and a developing nation still learning to manage its resources including that on the table, I’ve always been taught to finish what I had started on the plate. So, in the case of rijsttafel, a Dutch tradition which spelling constantly needs double checking, I would think it’s the equivalent of meals of kings. The question remains, how does one enjoy such an experience, if one is not from a monarchy of any sorts.
Rijsttafel was developed during the Dutch colonial days in Indonesia. Translated to ‘rice table’, it’s an elaborate feast for official dining events or just merely to impress guests that came over. Countless dishes are served and it is said 40 variations can be easily considered as normal. During the colonial days, serving of the food was conducted by a line of waiters and waitresses, each holding one dish and walking to around the table serving what was in their hand. The more the dishes, the more people lined up. As elaborate that may sound, there are some restaurants that are willing to recreate the experience. One of our favorite Indonesian restaurants in general, Kunstkring, from the Tugu Group, located in an authentic Dutch building aging more than 100 years old. It was some experience to enjoy an old luxurious experience and surrounded by European-Javanese antiques, aside to those located in the Suzie Wong bar.
Fallen short on this, I did envy Vira that dressed to the nines (at least compared to her daily apparels). Good food in a restaurant that is usually visited by ambassadors and where higher government officials love to wine and dine their guests, I think it is worth the effort. Despite it’s not a must to dress up, because the staff will still be super nice to you whatever you wear, dressing up is just fun and appropriate for the occasion. Did I mention that Victoria Beckham once had dinner here?
The building is more than 100 years old. All of the artefacts, allegedly, are authentic, all the way to the Suzie Wong bar. If it had a ticket table, it would officially be a museum, but its’ not. You’re free to enjoy the arts and sometimes ask the staff about the artefacts, especially if you’re a history buff. Marvel at the items that could have been around older than yourself. My favorite part of the Suzie Wong bar is the poster, that is said to be an authentic hand drawn poster from the movie screening back in the days. While in the main hall, I have to say the 9-meter long painting steals the show. While not many might have some interest of the meaning of the painting, the fact that the owner painted it is something to enjoy for a few extra minutes.
Whether it’s before or after the meal, have a glass of wine of a cocktail for the luxury of it all. You’ll be surprised, as I was, on how delicious some of the home recipes are. I had the pleasure to enjoy ‘A Kept Woman’s Stolen Heart.’ It had me at rambutan, the topical fruit that looks like a red plastic hair ball for cats, but flesh taste like lychee. It’s rambutan fruit sprinkled with cinnamon powder. Though it sounds odd on paper, it’s blended really well with each other. The sweet fruit was evened out by the bitter of cinnamon, yet it also complimented it. The bartender probably marinated the rambutan in something, and it’s my new love. Of course, there’s a whole list of drinks for you to choose from. So if you drink, have a go at their original recipes or their selected wines and champagnes.
Rijsttafel is served to you by numerous waiters. It’s a dark history that Indonesians used to serve the Dutch as servants back in the day, but it does serve the purpose of luxury. In the event of the modern rijsttafel, the waiters and waitresses would come out with your food, breaking into Betawi—Jakarta ethnicity—music and dance. They serve to entertain, as I was, entertained as I saw Vira taken to the dance floor. And if they ask you to dance, indulge! There’s no better time to break a move when you’re sober in a room of people that understand, you’re doing it as part of the whole luxurious experience.
I don’t mean you’re allowed to be rude. I’m just saying it’s inconvenient. The rijsttafel service in Kunstkring will have the waiters place food on your plate for you. Being polite, I said thank you to every spoonful of food placed on my plate and for some reason, I felt that the waiter felt annoyed having to say ‘you’re welcome’ for every spoonful. So, enjoy that time where you don’t have to say thank you during food serving, as if you’re entitled to it. Just go on with whatever conversation you were in. By the end of the serving, say thank you with the sincerest heart, for the many food presentations in front of you.
To my knowledge, much of the food recipe in all Tugu restaurant is authentic Indonesian recipe or carefully modified to still have that thick Indonesian touch to it. While kings are usually seen talking or observing his subjects during dinner, it’s better to observe your food instead and ponder on how beautiful and how many things that are on your plate. It was, as if, a whole farm was presented to you on a plate. I’ve become a fan of the ‘sate lembut’ or soft satay, minced meat clumped on a lemongrass and cooked to be so tender, it melts in your mouth. There were no subtle food aside to the rice that kind of blends all of the spices, herbs, and protein out. Because there are numerous foods that will be served, take some time to enjoy each one separately, rich in herbs and spices.
Need I say more? Yes. No respectable royalty leaves their chair with the smell of shallot dominant breath. Usually people of luxury have power over time and so should you! Spare time for dessert, it won’t be disappointing. The selendang mayang at the time was a sweet soft dough of pandan mix, even out with the coconut milk broth. I was ready to slip into bed after that sweet sweet dreamlike dessert.
I struggle to think that there was so many leftovers. If this was a serving to express one’s wealth, the many leftovers would be a good sign of prosperity, but in this modern age, I feel like it’s a waste. I think there was an option of brown bagging it but with a full stomach, it became an unbearable responsibility, so it didn’t pop in mind. Nevertheless, it’s probably doable.
As a public transport gal, I failed to fulfill this last point. I closed my rijsttafel experience with the commuter line and that trains were late that night. Buzz kill. My recommendation, no matter how fast you want to get home, avoid two-wheel transport and get a taxi, being it Uber or public ones. It just seals the deal, having someone drive for you as you sit in the back seat, remembering the good food that is in your belly.
As I read through these tips again, I realise I wasn’t sharing, more to advocating. There’s a lot of exclamation marks, just emphasising the necessary. Which is a lot. The night of rijsttafel was a great one, especially when we got to catch up. Good food, good company. How better else do you end a good day, other than to close it with a good night?