On first glance, the cuisines of the cold-climate Netherlands – frites drowned in mayonnaise and curry sauce, stroopwafels and hearty stews – and balmy Indonesia – satays, sambals and stinky, swampy fruit – don’t seem to have much in common. But the Dutch colonisation of Indonesia has left an indelible impression on the archipelago – and in the Netherlands, explorers who went home brought with them the taste of the tropics.
First: a quick history lesson. The Dutch arrived in Indonesia in the 16th century, in search of coveted spices like cloves, nutmeg and pepper. They weren’t the first to try to colonise the country – Portuguese traders had arrived a little earlier, but the Dutch secured their hold in 1602 with the formation of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Though the VOC went bankrupt in 1799, the Dutch then formally colonised Indonesia (afterwards known as the Dutch East Indies). The Dutch remained until the end of World War Two when Japanese occupation signalled an end to their colonial power.
Four and half centuries is a long time, and during those years, the Dutch certainly left their mark on Indonesian food. Already an established food culture in its own right, Indonesia borrowed European techniques and ingredients from the Dutch, creating a unique roster of Dutch-Indo foods. Before the arrival of the Dutch, for instance, it’s thought that bread wasn’t a big part of the Indonesian diet – which makes sense when you consider that wheat isn’t native to the country. But when the Dutch arrived, with their European bread-making techniques (not to mention access to wheat), roti became more popular. Roti buaya, for instance, is a sweetened crocodile-shaped bread served at weddings and other festivities.
Nowadays, it’s made with yeasted dough, but before colonisation – and the introduction of bread-making techniques – it was made with a cassava dough. Similarly, the Dutch-Indo meal of semur (from the Dutch smoor) is a stew featuring Indonesian flavours (like kecap manis), but the stewing technique is obviously European.
Get the recipe for this semur ajam - fried chicken stewed in sweet soy sauce.
The influence of Dutch cooking over Indonesian food is most keenly seen in desserts and sweets. Spekkoek, probably the most famous Dutch-Indo food, is a sweet cake made of many thin layers of batter. Spiced with cinnamon and cloves and often flavoured with chocolate, pandan or nuts, the cake is a holiday treat in both Indonesia (where it’s also known as Thousand-layer cake lapis legit) and the Netherlands. Similarly, klappertart is a Dutch-influenced coconut cake that has its roots in Manado, on the island of Sulawesi. While the coconut is undoubtedly part of the tropics, the cake technique itself is definitely European. There’s also poffertjes, the famed Dutch pancake, which is popular across Indonesia, too, and is said to have influenced kue cubit, small snack cakes made in a similar way to poffertjes, with a special pan, with around a dozen small shallow indents.
But possibly the most pedestrian example of the Indonesian influence on Dutch food is the topping of frites – that most famous of Dutch street food – with satay sauce – that most evocative aroma of Indonesia.
And while it might be obvious that the Dutch, who colonised Indonesia for more than four hundred years, would have made an impact on the country’s food and culture, what’s more surprising is that the Dutch then took elements of Indonesian cuisine back home with them. Rijstaffel, which translates literally to “rice table” is a feasting ritual adapted by the Dutch. At the feast, a long table is laden with small dishes with rice (such as beef rendang or pork satay skewers) and many side dishes (like satays, curries, sambals and pickles), and guests are invited to serve themselves. Initially a way for Dutch colonialists to show off the glorious tropical produce of their new stronghold, the feast is rarely practised in Indonesia anymore, but is still very popular in the Netherlands.