Sunday, March 3, 2013

Eating Big in Jakarta - an Elaborate Culinary Tradition is Alive and Kicking

“One of the most remarkable things ….in Java is the “rice-table” [rijstaffel] served at tiffin time [lunchtime] in a peculiar way such as is only seen in Dutch colonies…...  The dishes are handed round by native servants, whose bare feet render the service very silent, dressed in clothes of a semi-European cut incongruously combined with the Javanese sarong……….”
From “JAVA THE WONDERLAND” (Guide and tourist handbook dating back to the early 1900s)
A typical Rijstaffel luncheon during the early 1900s  (Photo from Trompenmuseum)

68 years after our Dutch mothers left Indonesia for Australia/NZ after WW2, my cousin Siane and I – both on flying visits to Jakarta - meet up at the Oasis Restaurant on Jalan Raden Saleh for our first Rijstaffel experience.  Accompanied by her husband Tim, she meets me precisely at the opening time of 6pm. We have to start early as I am on my way to the airport, bags ready and waiting in the back of Pak Ahmed’s car.   “If I leave two and a half hours before the plane departs, it should be ok” I wager as I play a mental game of roulette against the infamous Jakartan traffic.

 “For my part, I shall never forget my first experience of the thing [rijstaffel].  I had just come in from a ride through the town, and I suppose the glaring sunlight, the strangely-accoutred crowd, the novel sights and sounds of the city must have slightly gone to my head (there are plenty of intoxicants besides Gin....). 

For our part, a refreshing G&T enjoyed in the bar lounge of this grand Colonial building, built in 1928 as the private home of a Dutch plantation owner, is just what is needed. 

Notes from a set of traditional gamelan musical instruments – at once chaotic and melodious - draw us into the main hall off of which is the Kalimantan dining room where a large chandelier hangs gregariously over the diners from the high, beamed ceiling, and casts a golden light onto rich and elaborate fabrics hanging on the walls.    

Rejected after Indonesian independence in the 1940s as an example of colonial extravagance, I am aware of no other restaurant in modern Indonesia where this kind of banquet - an elaborate Dutch adaptation of the traditional local Nasi Padang - is served in the traditional manner with 12 waitresses offering up dish after dish.  A lavish spread or “Makan Besar” …….literally:  “Big Eating”.  
“I looked at the […] table groaning under its dozens of rice bowls, scores of dishes of fowls and fish, and hundreds of sambal [chilli sauce] saucers, arrayed between pyramids of bananas, mangosteens and pineapples, as if I could have eaten it all by way of “aperitif”
Round 1:  The team in blue.   Tim is optimistic and all looks well
Like children suddenly faced with the agonising pleasure of too much choice, wide-eyed, we hastily select everything:   Red rice, white rice, soup, corn fritters, fish, spicy chicken, spicy prawns, beef and chicken satay with peanut sauce, bean curd with vegetables, deep fried beef, grated crispy coconut with peanuts, Kerupuk (shrimp crackers), mixed sauteed vegetables in coconut gravy and…… less than four kinds of freshly made, fiery red sambal (chilli paste).
“[I] Sat … down [and] heaped my plate up with everything that came my way…”
“What followed, I have no words to express.  Suffice it to say, that in less time than I now take to relate it, I was reduced to the most abject misery – my lips smarting with the fiery touch of the sambal ; my throat  the more sorely scorched for the hasty draught of water with which, in my ignorance, I had tried to allay the intolerable heat; and my eyes full of tears, which it was all I could do to prevent from openly gushing down my cheeks in streams of utter misery...........
In the spirit of over indulgence, we progress eagerly to round two.  This time, emboldened by the now-full restaurant’s lively atmosphere (it seems to be a favourite for expats and Indonesians alike), and by a second glass of red wine, all four of the sambals find their way onto our plates.
Round 2: The team in red.
 Tim, a beaten man
It’s at this point that an otherwise elegant evening morphs, somehow seamlessly, into the incongruous:
A group of four guitar-toting musicians in traditional Batak (Northern Sumatran Tribal dress) move from table to table, playing folk songs and draping their Ulos [traditional sarong) around our shoulders.

A large 18th century gong in the main hall begs to be hit
“ People began to leave the table and I was told it was time for the siesta – another Javanese institution, not a whit less important, it would appear, than the famous rice-table......  Perhaps the preceding meal possesses somniferous virtue; or, perhaps the heat and glare of the morning predispose one to sleep; or, perhaps – after so many years of complaining about “being waked too soon” – the sluggard in us rejoices at being bidden, in the name of the natural fitness of things, “to go and slumber again”. 
For us, there are no thoughts of slumber.   Perhaps it is the sambal palpitations, or perhaps the marginally cooler temperature of the evening (not the traditional time for rijstaffel) or perhaps – after so many months of complaining about under-stocked bars -  the epicurean in me rejoices at being able, in the name of the natural fitness of things, to have “just one more glass” of that very respectable red.
Vowing to return again sometime for another multi-sensory whirlwind feast, we say our goodbyes.  Pak Ahmed nervously checks his watch before he sets off down a system of “Jalan Tikus” (literally “mouse roads”) - narrow lanes that snake between, beside and below the high rises and main throughways of Jakarta  - short cuts that he hopes will get me out of the city proper and to the airport in time for my flight.
No sooner have I landed in my seat, than a deep and enduring sleep hijacks my flight to HK. 
The OASIS restaurant also serves Rijstaffel at the more traditional lunchtime. But be warned:
“Even those who kick most vigorously at the rice-table, lie them down with lamb-like meekness to the siesta.”
Jalan Raden Saleh no. 47, Jakarta 10330, Indonesia
+62(021) 3150646
Monday to Sunday: 11am - 3pm & 6pm - 10pm


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