Culture and cuisine goes hand-in-hand. A country’s food culture tells you a lot about the country, its people and in part how they have evolved over time.
Take India for instance. Kind of food you find differs from region to region. If it is all about rice and sambar in Tamil Nadu, fish, red rice and coconut characterise Kerala. Go north, it is all about rotis, panneer and now I realise quite a preference for non-vegetarian dishes. The west is for vada pav and chat items and the East is known for wide variety of fish and meat and their unique cooking style.
When I was travelling overseas I loved trying out local food. For example eating waffles in Belgium is impossible to resist for the aroma that wafts from these freshly made delicacy is irresistible. Pasta and pizza in Italy is on everyone’s list given that not only Indians but world over people love a good Italian pasta. You cannot miss the Indonesian food in Netherlands.
Are you are wondering why try Indonesian in Netherlands rather than its own cuisine? According a Dutch personnel I was interacting with, the country’s cuisine is largely influenced by its colonies like Indonesia and does not specifically have its own eating culture. “Oh no I’m going to miss Indian food when I go back home,” she complained.
What the personnel said might not completely be wrong. Dutch food does not stand out and is bland compared to Indian taste buds. But it has accommodated the remnants of its colonial past that is evident from the numerous Indonesian restaurants post its Golden Age and in the 21 Century. Prior to that the Dutch food culture did boast of elaborate dishes that elites enjoyed, which are largely forgotten now.
Dutch East India company was in the spice trade for over a century, when they imported spices from Asian countries it colonised like Indonesia. They in fact monopolised salt herring exports that strengthened their place as a seafaring power. During their Golden Age in 17th Century wide varieties of vegetables, meat, poultry and salted, smoked or fresh fish and eggs were used for cooking. The meal started with green salads and cold or warm cooked vegetables with dressing, vegetable dishes with butter, herbs or edible flowers and continued with numerous fish- and meat dishes.
Exotic ingredients such as dates, rice, cinnamon, ginger and saffron were used used, thanks to Dutch East India Company’s exhaustive imports from Asian countries. In the 18th Century, potato became a staple food and it continues even today.
As their legacy waned and Dutch got past their Golden Age, their food culture became frugal. For one, the economy was bad and not many could afford the elaborate meals. So they got by with rye bread, potatoes and stew with vegetables and little meat.
By 20th Century Dutch food continued to remain frugal and have come to be consisted of bread, cheese, maybe some vegetables and little meat and potatoes. It is also at this time that the Indonesian dishes became popular as people from former Dutch colonies and of Eurasian descent, especially from Indonesia came to Netherlands after their Independence from the Dutch colonial rule in 1949.
In the book The Art of Dutch Cooking, Countess van Limburg Stirum states that ‘there exist countless Indonesian dishes, some of which take hours to prepare; but a few easy ones have become so popular that they can be regarded as ‘national dishes’’. That is how prominent Indonesian cuisine came to become popular in Netherlands.
When I was in Amsterdam, looking to experiment with new cuisine, with five other women we decided on Indonesian. It was not because we knew about the culture but rather because it was such a common sight in the city. These restaurants usually had a huge queue that made it difficult to grab a seat for six women. Also Indonesian-Chinese restaurants are not that uncommon either. Now that I think about it, I can connect the dots.
One of the most popular Indonesian dish is rijsttafel translated to Rice table. It is an elaborate meal consisting of several small dishes, mostly a Dutch-Indonesian fusion. While it is popular in the Netherlands, Rijsttafel is apparently now rare in Indonesia.
But Netherlands has its own cuisine too, however less popular they might be. They are stamppot, hutspot or zuurkool (all of them are made with mashed potatoes and vegetables) that are eaten with large sausages.
If given a chance I think I would prefer the colourful Indonesian cuisine to the frugal Dutch any day. Though I would not mind trying the vegetarian version of stamppot!