Feeding The Nation
Words by Theodora Hurustiati
If asked what the month of December evokes in me, I immediately answer that I associate it with the smell of butter and spices in my late grandmother’s kitchen.
From the beginning of the month, she used to bake cookies and cakes relentlessly to be given away as presents and to be served to guests during Christmas. I could eat enormous portions of her speculaas spiced biscuits and rich layered lapis legit cake, or spekkoek in Dutch literally ‘fat cake’.
My grandmother was from Bangka Island, which lies off the east coast of Sumatra. When she was a young woman, she used to work in the kitchen of a Dutch convent on the island, helping the nuns prepare their meals and learning their recipes. Historically, missionaries helped introduce Dutch culinary influences to Indonesia, as they assisted the less fortunate by providing food, shelter and, sometimes, also work.
Of course, Dutch officials – along with their families – also played a significant part. Representatives of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) first came to Indonesia in the 1600s, and played a leading role in the trade of spice, silk and other sought-after commodities for centuries. The Indonesian priyayi, or nobility, had plenty of contact with the Europeans as many studied in
Dutch schools, especially in Java, hence the diffusion of Dutch culture among upper-class Indonesians. No matter how conflictual the relationship when two cultures intermingle, inevitably both parties tend to influence each other in many aspects of their lives, from language to food, especially over the centuries.
Nowadays, more than 70 years since the end of Dutch occupation, the influence on Indonesian cuisine is ubiquitous. Consider a typical Indonesian breakfast: alongside the traditional nasi goreng (fried rice), it’s very common to find slices of bread served with pindakaas (peanut butter) and hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles), known as meises in Indonesia, although in the Netherlands this would be another type of sprinkles made using aniseed.
Then there’s the ontbijtkoek breakfast cake, an airy sponge made with brown sugar, flavoured with cinnamon and sprinkled with shaved almonds your busy week will definitely feel lighter if you have this for breakfast every day!
Another popular pillowy-soft sweet treat is poffertjes, usually served with melted butter and sieved powdered sugar. The Indonesian interpretation of these small fluffy pancakes is called kue cubit, after the Indonesian word for ‘pinch’, as you have to ‘pinch’ them with a bamboo stick to flip them and take them out of their moulds. Poffertjes pans are plain and round, while those for kue cubit come in different shapes, from fish to flowers.
The Dutch influence on Indonesian food is mostly seen in baked goods, from bread to cookies and cakes. Examples include the spiced roti gambang from Semarang, a port city on Java’s north coast; a bread also known as gandjelrel, which reflects how its shape resembles the wooden blocks that used to hold the railways; as well as breads filled with sausages and minced meat. At Ramadan and Christmas, the shelves of Indonesian patisserie shops and grocery stores are usually packed with nastar, from ananas taarten (round spiced cookies filled with pineapple jam), and kaastengel, cheese sticks made with aged Edam or Gouda cheese. Indonesian holiday tables just aren’t complete without these addictive morsels being offered to guests.
Speaking of pastries, delicacies featuring crêpes like the sweet pandan and coconut dadar gulung (rolled pancakes) or the savoury semar mendem (glutinous rice and chicken cakes) and sosis Solo (Solo ‘sausage’) wrapped in thin omelettes are presumably inspired by the Dutch pannekoek, combined with the Chinese style of folding rolls.
If there is one taste that Indonesians have undeniably inherited from the Dutch, it is a love for borrelhapjes, fried savoury snacks that are essential companions to a glass of cold beer in the Netherlands. The most popular ones are potato kroketten (croquette) and perkedel, from frikandel a sausage-shaped ‘meatball’ in its country of origin. In Indonesia this is a round potato ball, sometimes with the addition of minced meat, fried in a thin layer of beaten egg. Among all the rich fried Dutch delicacies, my personal favourites are bitterballen: you simply can’t stop popping these tiny crunchy and creamy meatballs into your mouth, one after another.
As noble Indonesians had the most exposure to Dutch culture, many Indo-Dutch dishes are very decadent and use expensive ingredients, which explains why they’re more commonly served on special occasions such as birthdays and religious festivals. One classic baked dish that many people make for their children’s parties is the macaroni schotel a baked macaroni pasta casserole, usually with minced meat and eggs.
Meanwhile, Javanese dishes using beef as the main ingredient are often inspired by the European taste for steaks, stews and soups. The city of Solo in Central Java, for example, is well known for its bistik selat Solo (‘beefsteak salad’, meaning beef with vegetable sides) and chicken galantin, which are believed to have originated as Indonesian interpretations of the Western versions. In Jakarta, known as Batavia in the colonial era, semur betawi, a rich spiced beef stew inspired by the Dutch smoor, is still a must have at Eid (Idul Fitri) lunch for many families. Again, here, somewhere along the way, the tomato used in the Dutch version has been replaced with sweet soy sauce in the Indonesian one.
Finally, there are the heart-warming soups, comfort food for many Indonesian families, like sop buntut (oxtail soup), sop sosis (sausage soup) and brenebon or sup kacang merah (red bean soup) – all made using Western cooking techniques.
If I had to choose the one dish I think could be a perfect representation of how the fusion of two cultures can produce wonder, I would pick a dessert from North Sulawesi (North Celebes) called klappertaart (coconut tart). The sweet treat is a perfect marriage between a quintessential Indonesian ingredient with European custard and meringue, resulting in a luscious union.
Just as the Dutch have left indelible marks on Indonesian food culture, Indonesia has influenced the Netherlands’ culinary scene. This is evident from the numerous Indonesian restaurants in the country, using rijsttafel (table of rice) style, adapted from the Asian feast tradition of sharing and tasting a variety of dishes together on one convivial table.
The fusion of culture through food is nothing new; it is a process that has been going on as long as human beings have travelled. Food, after all, is a language that needs no translation. In Indonesia, the cultural legacy of the Dutch is associated with some of the country’s favourite celebrations and delicacies and no doubt inventive chefs will continue to experiment with this heritage of culinary ideas.
Theodora Hurustiati is a chef and food writer based in Italy. Born in Jakarta to a multicultural family, she embraced diversity from an early age, and uses her love of food from around the world as a way to bring cultures together as she did with her former column, Taste Bud, for The Jakarta Post. Her proudest culinary achievement was when she cooked Indonesian nasi tumpeng at the United Nations office in Vienna, Austria.