Indo-Dutch vs Indonesian Cuisine: Similar, But Not Identical

When I first set foot to the Netherlands, I was shocked to find quite a number of Indonesian restaurants in my town, and Indonesian foods were considered one of the popular foods in the country. Suddenly, the thought of finding a nice, hearty bowl of bakso (meatball soup) dawned upon me. Boy, I was wrong.

It took me four years to find the perfect bakso, and I find it in a small shop in Den Haag.

The first Indonesian toko I visited was a small joint located in Leiden. I ordered a portion of nasi rames with ikan Bali (mackerel fish with Bali sauce). I asked the shopkeeper if the food was spicy, to which he replied, “Oh yes, it is spicy!”.

Results? The dish was far from spicy and the flavors were so foreign to me! I thought to myself, “What blasphemy is this?”. Little did I know that it was my first introduction to Indonesian cuisine’s long-lost twin brother: Indo-Dutch cuisine.

So… what is Indo-Dutch cuisine?

As we all may know, the Dutch set foot to the archipelago known now as Indonesia to find spices, the superstar of commodity in Europe at that time. Finally, they managed to monopolize the trade of the most expensive spices to Europe such as cloves and nutmeg.

Long story short, the colonization of Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) also created a fusion culture in food preparation. There were many Dutchmen/women who went to the Dutch East Indies to work and eventually married indigenous women/men, creating Indo-Dutch families. In my opinion, Indo-Dutch foods were created as a ‘compromise’ in these households, using the colony’s rich spices mixed with Dutch ingredients, creating new taste with similar appearance.

How similar is Indo-Dutch cuisine to the authentic Indonesian foods?

I would say it is 80-90% similar. I personally feel that Indo-Dutch cuisine are the ‘nostalgic’ version of Indonesian foods. This opinion may differ from others, but every time I go to Indo-Dutch restaurant and ordered something that also exists in Indonesian cuisine (e.g. rendang), I cannot help but feel that there’s something nostalgic about Indo-Dutch rendang.

Rijsttafel is one of the most popular Indo-Dutch cuisine practices. Literally meaning ‘rice table’ in English, it is a method of serving food by putting small plates of different foods on the table. Inspired by the hidang presentation of nasi Padang from West Sumatra province, it was said that the Dutch introduced this method not only to taste different foods at once but also to show their guests the exoticism of their colony’s foods.

Unlike the Dutch, I didn’t know rijsttafel before living in the Netherlands. This is mainly caused by the difference of how Indonesians eat vs how they eat. On the table, we only have a bucket of rice accompanied by one chicken/meat/fish dish and one vegetable dish. For us, consuming a lot of foods at the same time is equal to wasting money.

I want to try real Indonesian foods! But how to distinguish them from Indo-Dutch restaurants?

This takes practice and patience because there are A LOT of Indo-Dutch restaurants using “Indonesian restaurant” brand to market their business. Maybe they don’t realize that Indonesian foods have evolved since they left. After four years of trial and error, I can finally give you some tips on how to distinguish these identical twins.

The first tip would be to check the restaurant’s target market. Check their Facebook/Yelp page for user reviews. If they have more Indonesian people reviewing the restaurant, most likely it is an Indonesian restaurant serving Indonesian foods.

The second tip would be to recognize the name of the foods mentioned in their menu. Here are the most common foods served in an Indo-Dutch restaurant. (Disclaimer: The names below are based on the exact spelling in an Indo-Dutch and Indonesian restaurant. Please Google them if you want to see how they look like.)

  • Rijsttafel
  • Ajam (ayam in Indonesian modern spelling) smoor
  • Ajam cashew
  • Rendang
  • Daging balado
  • Daging smoor
  • Ikan Bali
  • Orak-arik
  • Sambal tempe
  • Sambal boontjes (buncis in Indonesian modern spelling)
  • Atjar ketimun
  • Terong balado

Meanwhile, these foods are most likely served in an Indonesian restaurant, while also serving Indo-Dutch foods:

  • Mie ayam/jamur/bakso
  • Nasi goreng ayam/kambing
  • Mie goreng Jawa/ayam/kambing
  • Tahu telor
  • Tongseng kambing
  • Bubur ayam
  • Bebek/ayam/ikan/tempe tahu penyet
  • Bakso
  • Pempek
  • Snacks, such as siomay, otak-otak, pangsit goreng
  • Cold desserts, such as es cendol, soda gembira, es kacang durian, es dawet
Mie ayam

Last but not least, the third tip is to find an Indonesian friend. They are very proud of where they come from and will be glad to show you their favorite Indonesian joint. After all, it’s where they go if they get homesick and too lazy to cook at home.

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