Jakarta. In no other country outside of Indonesia can one find Indonesian food, spices and condiments as easily as in the Netherlands. Seven decades after the Dutch left their biggest colony, dishes like rendang and nasi goreng have become part of the country’s national cuisine.
“Geef mij maar nasi goreng" ("I prefer nasi goreng") a popular golden-oldie Dutch song, can be heard several times a day on a hip radio station playing pop music for a young crowd. It advertises Toko Joyce, one of Amsterdam’s most famous take-away joints, which has been serving Indonesian dishes and snacks for almost half a century.
Food originating from Indonesia “has remained consistently popular here throughout the years,” says Leslie Boon, programmer at the Tong Tong Fair, a major event in The Hague celebrating Holland’s Indo community. At the fair, annually attracting over 100,000 people, food has always been an important factor.
“Whenever Indos get together, the first thing they talk about is food,” Boon says.
During colonial rule in Indonesia, many Dutch civil servants and merchants came to live in the archipelago, married local residents and raised families. After Indonesia became independent, hundreds of thousands of Indos — those of mixed Indonesian and Dutch heritage — migrated back to the Netherlands.
Indisch or Indonesian
While deriving from the archipelago, the Indisch kitchen — that of the Indos — is not identical to Indonesian cuisine. Cookbook author Marjolein Kelderman explained during a culinary discussion at the Tong Tong Fair last week: “Indisch is a mixed kitchen: Indonesian, Chinese, Dutch, Portuguese. It is the cuisine that came out of the Dutch who went to the Dutch East Indies and resided there.”
“Many of the Dutch who came to the East Indies worked as civil servants or were in the military, so they often moved around the archipelago. Thus, they became familiar with food from different regions,” says Tong Tong Fair director and cookbook author Ellen Derksen.
Kelderman, who is also a purchaser for prominent bookstore chain Athenaeum, gave an example: an Indonesian cookbook would never have a recipe for the Dutch potato salad dish huzarensalade, which on the other hand is fairly standard in an Indisch one.
“But the Indisch version of the salad would have slightly different spices, like cloves and beets.”
Derksen points out that the Indisch kitchen also came out with original recipes. “One example is zwartzuur [black and sour], which is chicken or duck cooked in kecap manis [sweet soya sauce], vinegar and wine. Wine, of course, is not really a common ingredient in Indonesian dishes.”
Derksen, whose mother was half Sundanese, had another interesting story to tell: “Did you know that nasi rames is actually an Indisch invention? Truus van der Capellen, or Tante Truus, headed the soup kitchen in Bandung for the Dutch community in the 1940s. Food was often scarce at the time, and she concocted a balanced meal of rice, vegetables and meat that would fit in one plate, and she called that nasi rames.”
From home cooking to standard fare
Indonesian dishes slowly made their way across the ocean as the Dutch who were sent overseas to the colony returned to their homeland, either on leave or permanently.
“Before the end of World War II, however, Indisch food was largely cooked in people’s homes,” Derksen says. For a long time, she continued, there was only one Indonesian restaurant in The Hague: Tampat Senang, which opened in 1922.
The big wave of repatriates and migrants from the former colony came in the decades since 1945. Derksen: “Many of those who came back to the Netherlands were confronted with the standard Dutch fare of meat and potatoes. So they started to cook Indonesian food, which was not easy at that time as many of the spices were not readily available here.”
One key factor for the growth of Indisch restaurants was the independence war the Dutch fought on Indonesian soil: between 1945 and 1949, almost 100,000 Dutch soldiers were drafted to go half a world away and try to prevent the loss of their colony.
“These men came back from several years of eating Indonesian food, and returned to their Dutch households. Unlike the Indos, they did not have families who could prepare the food some of them had come to like.”
So, Derksen explained, some of the Chinese restaurants that were already present in the Netherlands changed their names to Chinees-Indisch “to fulfil this new public demand.”
Currently in all Dutch towns, even in the small villages, one can find a Chinees-Indisch restaurant. According to a 2013 report from major Dutch bank Rabobank, restaurants described as "Chinees-Indisch" came to almost 2,000 from the total of some 11,000 restaurants in the Netherlands. They came second only to those labeled "Dutch/French."
Starting in the 1970s, Derksen says, Indonesian spices and condiments started to become available in supermarkets.
“At first it was a bit looked down upon by those who were used to cooking with fresh ingredients: ‘those spices in jars are for amateurs.' But the products gradually became better.”
Now, products like sambal terasi, kerupuk and bawang goreng can be found on every supermarket shelf in the Netherlands.
What will happen once the generation that returned from Indonesia has passed away? Boon, who is her 30s, is confident that Indisch cuisine has found a permanent home in the Netherlands.
“It is something that is passed on in families. The younger generation often knows more about the cuisine than they think they do. They grew up with the taste and the smell.”
Some parents are giving the next generation a helping hand, like Koo Siu Ling, who has published “Culture, Cuisine, Cooking: An East Java Peranakan Memoir,” a cookbook with 80 recipes that Koo adapted from her mother’s old cooking notebook.
The book, complete with impressive photos and a historical overview, is written in three languages: Dutch, English and Indonesian. Koo, who was born in Malang and has lived in the United States and the Netherlands, said that she wrote the book “for my children and grandchildren, so that our cuisine would continue into the next generation.”
Kelderman says that in the 15 years she’s been at Athenaeum book store, sales of Indisch cookbooks have remained constant. “They’re still quite popular, coming second only to Italian ones, and more in demand than French cookbooks.”
Maybe the best illustration comes from Tong Tong Fair visitor Karel ter Linden, 58, who was present during the Fair’s culinary discussion: “When my sons, now aged between 23 and 30, left home, I bought them Indisch cooking utensils like wajan [wok] and rice cookers. They all still cook Indisch, and their girlfriends are now doing the same thing.”