It was always hard to escape the intoxicating smell of my uncle’s outdoor grill—hot dogs, hamburgers, but, most importantly, the sweet sate meat skewers. While my cousins swirled around the yard, I stayed planted near the grill, pulling at grass, waiting for the next batch. And when it was finally ready, my family would crowd around for a few skewers before they ran out. I never felt luckier to be Dutch Indonesian than when I was eating garlicky, slightly charred sate (or satay) underneath the California sun.
Dutch Indonesian (a cultural hyphenate often referred to as “Indo”) food was a constant throughout my childhood. I thought I knew most Indo dishes until stumbling across something called rijsttafel (RYE-stah-ful) in an Indo cookbook. My limited Dutch vocabulary was no help in translating the word, and everyone I asked seemed to be puzzled as well. We had never eaten it at any of our family gatherings or at the very few Indonesian restaurants my parents dared to try. Rijsttafel intrigued me—it looked like a buffet of Indonesian food, so why the Dutch name?
I soon realized that the dish was created when present-day Indonesia was a colony of the Dutch empire. In English, rijsttafel translates to “rice table.” It is both a meal and style of eating that can feature up to forty Indonesian dishes from across the archipelago served simultaneously to families or small groups. Typically, it features various vegetable, fish, and meat dishes such as sate, a vegetable salad with peanut sauce called gado gado, and beef rendang, a spiced curry made with coconut milk, served alongside the requisite white rice, sauces, and sambals (chili pastes).
But much like how the fortune cookie does not exist in China, rijsttafel does not exist in Indonesia—at least not for locals. You can find rijsttafel restaurants in Bali, but these appear to be hotspots for tourists.
In the Netherlands, however, the Dutch have made rijsttafel for decades. In fact, in November 2022, rijsttafel was added to the country’s register of intangible cultural heritage, demonstrating its long-standing popularity and honoring the importance of Indonesian cuisine to modern Dutch culture. Mark Rutte, the Netherlands’ prime minister, even took French President Emmanuel Macron out to a rijsttafel dinner during an official visit in January 2023.
But rijsttafel also reflects the country’s troubled colonial history with Indonesia. So, despite its popularity in the Netherlands, I was worried that rijsttafel might actually represent a whitewashed version of the complex family recipes I was raised on. How could rijsttafel ever compare to homemade Indo food?
Though often skipped over in American history classes, the Dutch and Indonesian people share a long, complicated colonial history. Dutch colonization of present-day Indonesia began in the late sixteenth century when merchants realized the potential of the spice trade within the islands. Dutch colonists settled in the islands of Indonesia, then an archipelago of separate islands and tribes, and in 1602 established the Dutch East India Company. When the company dissolved in 1799, the Netherlands formally colonized the archipelago, known as the Dutch East Indies, exploiting both its natural resources and the labor of the native Indonesians.
During World War II, the Japanese invaded the islands, maintaining control until their surrender in 1945, after which revolutionary leader Sukarno declared Indonesia an independent republic. The Dutch, who had expected to retake power, instead found themselves negotiating with the newly galvanized Indonesian revolutionaries. Finally, in 1949, after four years of bloody conflict, the Dutch and Indonesians reached an agreement, ending centuries of Dutch rule and creating the Republic of Indonesia.
Rijsttafel’s origins have proved elusive, though it is clear the dish was created during Dutch rule by the colonists. Some claim that rijsttafel was adapted from a style of eating called nasi padang—white rice surrounded by small servings of various Indonesian foods, named for the capital of the West Sumatra province.
However, Jeff Keasberry, California-based Indo chef and author, disputes the idea that rijsttafel came from Padang. “It was inspired by Java, on the slametans [communal feasts]. Feasting, celebrating, and ceremonial meals were a way of showing thanks and involving people.”
The most common story of the rijsttafel’s origins suggests that Indonesian servants, when hired to cook for Dutch colonists, simply prepared what they knew, resulting in a wide array of dishes. De Aardappeleters (The Potato Eaters), a Dutch television show that explores the origins of popular dishes, suggests that it was the colonists who decided to eat all the dishes simultaneously, creating rijsttafel as we know it.
Sri Kurniati agrees with this theory. She runs Warung Barokah, an authentic Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam that doesn’t serve rijsttafel. “Usually, when [the Dutch] eat, they like to have a bunch of sides, instead of just one side and a lot of rice,” Kurniati explained through our translator, Alila, over a recent video call. “When Indonesians eat, we’re just happy with one or two sides.”
Aside from fitting the colonists’ eating habits, rijsttafel functioned as a way for the Dutch empire to portray its wealth to others. By serving foreign guests an extravagant and flavorful feast of Indonesian food—a very different kind of cuisine from Dutch food that would be perceived as “exotic”—the Dutch were able to tangibly display the easternmost reach of their empire for others to admire.
Between 1945 and 1968, the Indonesian government forced Dutch colonists to repatriate back to the Netherlands. It was during this period, many believe, that rijsttafel also migrated to the Netherlands, where it became a staple of the food scene.
“It was like colonizer food,” Kurniati said. In Alila’s experience, rijsttafel is expensive and can sometimes feel “whitewashed.” But she feels that overall, “It doesn’t have negative connotations, and it’s just the way it is.”
It seems that many of the rijsttafel restaurants in Amsterdam are fighting to preserve authenticity, or at least the illusion of it, in their kitchens. One rijsttafel restaurant’s website boasts, “In the kitchen, there are only chefs with Javanese roots. They know better than anyone ‘how things really are.’” And yet, another restaurant holds a different philosophy: “You don’t have to be Indonesian to work here. We welcome everyone with open arms who, like us, has a passion for Indonesian cuisine.”
Perhaps for some rijsttafel restaurants, authenticity isn’t necessarily the priority, but then again, who decides what is authentic? Does having only Javanese chefs guarantee authenticity? Or is their heritage irrelevant, as long as they follow Indonesian recipes and techniques?
Authentic Indo food is difficult to define. To my family, it has always been my oma’s (grandmother’s) recipes, brought with her to the United States from Indonesia. Keasberry, however, believes that taste and, in some ways, authenticity is dependent on the person.
“Everybody has their own signature,” he says. “Your grandmother cooks differently than my grandmother, but they both make good nasi goreng [fried rice]. Yes, you’re more likely to get the authentic thing if the person who cooks it is familiar with the traditions, recipe, and taste. You have to learn the taste. It’s about feel and continuously tasting.”
Keasberry grew up in the Dutch restaurant industry. At the age of eighteen, he inherited his family’s Indo business, Restaurant Djokja. When I asked him about the authenticity of rijsttafel, he shared a brief anecdote. “I once ate at a restaurant in Haarlem. The name of the restaurant was The Rijsttafel. And I ate it, and I thought, wow, this is really good. To then find out, when I asked the waiter to relay my compliments to the chef, that the chef was Greek. I was in shock.”
Ultimately, Keasberry believes that anyone can cook Indonesian food as long as they take the time to learn and appreciate the different flavors and ingredients. “I say the best can only be eaten in the country itself, because of the climate, the soil, and the atmosphere. It is the vibe that gets you into the mood. When you go outside of that sphere, in another country, and you try to emulate it, you can get close.”
Based on their reviews and popularity, these rijsttafel restaurants seem to have gotten very close. Even Kurniati believes this. But at her restaurant, Warung Barokah, authenticity is a given. It’s written above the door: “Javaanse & Sumatraanse Authentieke Gerechten” (Javanese and Sumatran Authentic Dishes). Kurniati learned her cooking techniques in Indonesia, where she grew up, before emigrating to the Netherlands in 1990. But her menu differs from rijsttafel restaurants in a major way.
Alila points to the diversity of Kurniati’s menu from her personal experience as one of Kurniati’s customers. “On her menu, she has dishes that other Indonesian restaurants [in Amsterdam] don’t usually serve. For instance, bakso—she has great bakso. She also makes menus that are unique, so that’s why people come to her restaurant, because they don’t serve it in any other Indonesian joints.”
Warung Barokah and rijsttafel restaurants also cater to and serve different groups of people. Kurniati established her restaurant in an area popular with Indonesian students like Alila, who often visit for familiar flavors, textures, and smells reminiscent of home. However, students aren’t the only patrons of Kurniati’s restaurant. Alila says, “Her place is a neighborhood spot, so it’s mostly locals that live around the area. It’s a local takeout spot. That’s what attracts people to her restaurant, and it’s still very affordable,” Alila says.
On the other hand, according to Kurniati and Alila, rijsttafel restaurants appeal mainly to white Dutch people and tourists who eat rijsttafel “for family gatherings” or for fancier special occasions.
Keasberry feels similarly and touches on what I believe to be a hallmark of both Dutch and Indo identities: frugality. “And us Indos, we don't necessarily go to a restaurant with rijsttafel because we’re cheap. And also, my mom cooks better than any restaurant. You know that is a given.”
A Sense of Belonging
During our video call, Kurniati took me on an impromptu tour of her restaurant, which included the small but busy kitchen where chefs were hard at work. One customer review describes Warung Barokah’s kitchen as similar to real Indonesian warungs (shops or stalls): “When I walked into the kitchen and saw the ingredients and preparations across the room, it was like teleportation; I was home.”
Alila tells me this feeling is common for Indonesian patrons. “Last time, I talked to this very nice old couple, and it just feels like we’ve known each other for a long time because of that sense of Indonesian community. It’s a big part. People don’t go there just because of the food but also the people and Tante [Aunt] Sri herself.”
The sense of Indonesian community was evident even through my phone. As Kurniati showed me around the room, I realized that the people who filled the seats of Warung Barokah looked like me and my family. With warm smiles, they greeted me in Dutch and English, and I was transported back to those family parties, surrounded by loved ones and good food.
Reclamation and Community
Having never experienced it myself, I was curious about how other Indos viewed rijsttafel. My dad (who I’m pretty sure knows everyone Indo in the United States) connected me with Marghuerita, an Indo woman who was born in the Netherlands and immigrated to the United States with her family when she was a child. Over email, she recalled memories of her mother and other women making rijsttafel to share their Indo culture with their rotary club.
Much like her mother, Marghuerita also makes her own: “I have put a rijsttafel together for my friends, to introduce them to Indonesian food.”
Similarly, some of my Dutch Indo cousins in Amsterdam have fond memories of rijsttafel. “I am actually raised with the dishes from the rijsttafel,” my cousin Carmen told me. “My oma from my mother’s side was a cook in the former Dutch Indies.” In her family, rijsttafel is often made for occasions like family gatherings, birthdays, or funerals.
Though I’ve never made rijsttafel, I’ll always cherish the hours spent cooking Oma’s recipes with my family, laughing and sharing stories over steaming pots and messy kitchen counters.
Whether Indos make rijsttafel to eat together or to share with others, the community aspect of it has become central to its significance within Dutch and Indo cultures.
According to the foundation responsible for the recognition of rijsttafel as intangible cultural heritage, the Kenniscentrum Immaterieel Erfgoed Nederland, “[Indonesian] cooking was but still is a social affair, where knowledge, traditions and skills are shared and passed on to each other… This intangible heritage is therefore part of the socio-cultural community that has its roots in the former Dutch East Indies, which has survived and developed after decolonization.”
I was surprised at the positive memories that Dutch Indonesian people associated with rijsttafel. I hadn’t thought that rijsttafel would have a relevant, let alone special place in their lives. But why wouldn’t it? From its roots in the Dutch East Indies, rijsttafel seems to have evolved into a way of connecting our two cultures. It didn’t begin as such, and the colonial origins of the dish will never go away—that, we cannot change.
Marghuerita agrees but asked me an important question: “Many countries and many people did things to other people out of ignorance throughout the centuries, but because of that, do we need to negate everything?”
The history of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia has ultimately created a shared culture. There are Dutch stores in Indonesia, Indonesian stores in the Netherlands, and Indo people everywhere. A permanent bond has been formed, for better or worse.
“The me I am would not exist if it were not for Dutch colonialism,” Marghuerita wrote in her email to me. “In fact, the Indo [community] would not exist. We are a good, resilient people.”
For Keasberry, “It connects people. It is a sense of belonging and rhythm. And why is it comfort food? Because it’s related to stories from the Dutch East Indies, from memories shared with us. The food has a history and a cultural element to it because it’s at the center of our Dutch East Indies community.”
Like the Dutch Indonesian identity, rijsttafel represents a complicated past, but it has become a part of Indo celebrations and community—in public and private, with friends and family. Perhaps the next time my family gets together, we’ll make a rijsttafel spread and try a few new recipes to go with Oma’s classics. With the abundance of other dishes, there should be more than enough sate to go around. But just in case, I’ll be sure to stay close to the grill.
I would like to dedicate this article to my Oma Bea, without whom this piece would not exist. Special thank you to Sri Kurniati, Alila, Jeff Keasberry, Marghuerita, and Carmen for sharing your knowledge and experiences with me.
Gwenna Claproth is a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a senior double majoring in film and history at the University of California, Santa Cruz.