RIJSTTAFEL was the word coined by the Dutch in the Netherlands Indië to denote a substantial meal of rice accompanied by many other cooked dishes. The word probably came into general use after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which greatly reduced the sailing time between Holland and the Indies and allowed large numbers of Dutch colonials to be accompanied by their wives and children. Hitherto, single men had been accustomed to engage the services of young Indonesian women, who kept house and cooked for them, and often became their mistresses. These nyai, as they were known, naturally cooked the food they were familiar with, and the Dutchmen quickly grew to appreciate it. This process of acculturation continued when Dutch women arrived, bringing to the colonies European eating habits, cooking techniques, and ways of serving food. This was how the rijsttafel became popular in the Dutch community, and before long was ‘exported’ to the Netherlands as tourism in the Indies developed in the decades after 1870. T.J. Bezemer (1921) relates his experience as a passenger on the S.S. Rotterdam Ship from Holland to Batavia: at lunch or dinner, thirty or forty stewards were lined up in the dining saloon, the first bearing a silver platter laden with white rice, the others with dishes of meat, fish, vegetables, and sauces. When the passengers had chosen and eaten as much as they wanted, Dutch beefsteak was served, without which the Europeans would not have considered the meal complete. The most celebrated rijsttafel in the Indies was served for Sunday luncheon at the Hotel des Indes in Batavia and the Hotel Homann in Bandung, where the rice was accompanied by sixty different dishes.
Most of these dishes were Javanese. But they were served Dutch-style, each on a separate plate, instead of being placed on a large side-table for guests to help themselves. This was true even of acar (pickles), sambal (hot chili condiments), and krupuk (shrimp or fish crackers), which Javanese people would not regard as ‘dishes’ at all. The usual drink in rijsttafel was beer - sometimes a good deal of beer. This weekly ritual perhaps gave hard-pressed plantation managers and their wives a chance to relax and meet friends; but it was also a statement of Dutch authority, underlined by the adoption of indigenous foods, adaptation of selected local dishes, and the mock-formality of white-suited, barefoot waiters (called jongos, from the Dutch word jongen, ‘young men’). It all made a favourable impression on western tourists who came in large numbers to Nederland Indië in the 1920s and 30s. It has had one positive result: a more general recognition of Javanese food, and Indonesian food generally, as an authentic haute cuisine. As served in many Indonesian restaurants in western countries today, and in tourist locations in Indonesia itself, the rijsttafel is less successful because too many dishes are laid before the bewildered guest and too many of them taste the same, having been kept hot for hours so that everything is stewed. But a good rijsttafel, sensibly approached, can be a very satisfying gastronomic experience.
(This article is an abridged version of my thesis at University of Padjadjaran entitled Rijsttafel; the Development of Foodways in Java [1870 - 1942])