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Faraway, So Close

A colonial feast that brings everything to the table

Author Jay Cheshes

A rijsttafel spread at the Indonesian restaurant Puri Mas, in Amsterdam

AMSTERDAM—The rijsttafel, or “rice table,” is this city’s most famous feast, as emblematic as bike-riding grannies. Yet its foods don’t come from the Netherlands at all. The concept is a holdover from the Dutch colonial era, when plantation honchos in Indonesia, eager to impress visiting dignitaries, would introduce the many exotic tastes of their adopted home in one fell swoop. The spread included a mound of rice and up to 40 small dishes to go with it—iconic recipes from across the islands such as gado gado (vegetables with peanut sauce), sates (skewered meats), sambals (chutneys) and rendangs (coconut beef).

These days most of Amsterdam’s many Indonesian restaurants, catering to a Dutch audience, serve some version of the rijsttafel. Puri Mas, one of the more lavish such eateries, offers a royaal rendition with around 20 dishes. Blauw, a sleek, mood-lit spot that counts goat sate and cinnamon-dusted roast lamb among its rotation of dishes, prepares the whole thing to go if you’re hosting a banquet at home. Most rijsttafels are a major commitment—you need a big group, a huge appetite and a few hours to kill—but at Café Kadijk, you can slip in solo for a miniature take that features six or seven items on a single plate. It’s the city’s fastest and cheapest version of the classic feast, worth trying even if your only experience with colonies has been ant-related.

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