Eating Away at 300 Years of Dutch Colonialism

By : Desi Anwar | on 11:05 AM December 24, 2013
Category : Opinion, Columns

Being in Holland makes me think of the Dutch things that one can still encounter in everyday life in Indonesia. The legacy, if you like, of over three hundred years of colonization. Because visiting the Netherlands, I can see a lot here that reminds me of home. For instance, going to the local supermarket Albert Heijn, there is inevitably a wall of shelves dedicated to all things Indonesian that you wouldn’t even find in an Indonesian supermarket. In the snacks and munchies section are packets of crackers or “kroepoek” (the Indonesian letter ‘u’ used to be the Dutch ‘oe’) in different shapes and sizes and flavors, including “empings,” the crackers made from ground melinjo nuts, described on the packet as “kroepoek melinjo.”

And then there are the spices, sauces and ready mixes of Indonesian meals beautifully packaged and labeled in a language familiar both to the Dutch and the Indonesian tongues, such as “sajoer boentjis,” “ritja ritja,” “rendang,” “sambal oelek,” “ketjap” and a plethora of culinary delights that provide a sense of comforting familiarity to Indonesian students who miss home cooking, and evoke a sense of nostalgia to the Dutch of Indonesian descent long settled in the country.

In The Hague, for instance, the number of Indonesian restaurants is so high, that I cannot be but amused by their choices of the most obvious names, such as “Garoeda,” “Jimbaran,” “Poentjak,” “Sari Manis,” and not all of them are necessarily owned by those of Indonesian descent. Certainly the patrons are not just Indonesians who cannot go without their daily rice or chilli sauce, but the ordinary Dutch who cannot go without their satay.

It is apparent that with the ubiquity of Indonesian food and restaurants in the country and the ease with which people order rijsttafel dishes such as “sate ajam,” when it comes to food at least, Indonesia is still very much a part of the Dutch life and culinary penchant. If anything, the fact that many of these Indonesian sauces and ready mixes are locally produced and packaged as opposed to imported, shows that what we recognize as our local cuisine is actually also very much part of Dutch culture and tradition. To them, they are not foreign dishes but Dutch ones, appropriated and adopted during their golden age of being masters of the archipelago.

Apart from the distinctive windmill of Holland Bakery, however, there really is not much evidence of Dutch culinary culture left here in Indonesia. Although there is a breakfast habit that I still practice until now, partly because it reminds me of my childhood, which is to have chocolate sprinkles on a slice of bread. This is very much a Dutch thing. Oh, and I’m also partial to having mayonnaise rather than tomato sauce with my potato fries, which is also peculiarly Dutch.

As to the food, I can barely count on my fingers the number of Dutch restaurants in Jakarta. It’s all burgers, pizzas, spaghetti and sushi these days. However, in some cafes, you can still get some Dutch snacks such as “bitterballen” and potato croquettes. And then there are those heavenly round pastries dusted with icing sugar that go by the name of “poffertjes” that by the way, invariably reminds me of the good old days in Bandung, also known as Parijs van Java, when we would go to a “theehuis” in Dago or the town center in Braga to enjoy these little treats with a glass of hot chocolate.

Also on the list of treats that Indonesian kids of an older generation grew up with, but now you have to go out of your way to find, are the wrapped treacle sweets called “hopjes,” ginger biscuits known as “speculaas” and “stroopwafels” (syrup waffles), as well as puff pastries with custard known in Indonesia as “kue soes,” most of which, by the way, you can still find in Bandung, a city that still retains some of that colonial feel both in the culture and architecture.

However, other than these nostalgia-inducing foods and some Dutch words that have become part of the Indonesian vocabulary (“kantor” for office, “asbak” for ashtray, “rokok” for cigarette, car-related words such as “bekleding,” “versneling” and “onderdil,” and the habit of calling your aunt and uncle “tante” and “oom”), there really is precious little evidence of over three centuries of Dutch presence.

But then again, while the Dutch history went back many hundreds of years, the Indonesian history only goes back a mere few decades. Which means we tend to look at what’s ahead of us, rather than behind.

Desi Anwar is a senior anchor at Metro TV. She can be reached at desianwar.com or dailyavocado.net.

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