colonial cookbooks

Two important Indonesian cookbooks, written in Dutch, were originally meant to help the Dutch handschoenbruidjes, that is young women who married a man who was serving in the colonies, with their exotic culinary enterprises. Both books exist in relatively modern Dutch editions.

The content of the bigger one of these, Het nieuw Indonesisch Kookboek by J.M.J. Catenius-van der Meyden, has been modernized in the last edition from 1983. When I mentioned this work at the small Indonesian Toko (a traditional home-cooking takeaway place) in the Amsterdam Utrechtsestraat, the owners abandoned their tasks and came forward to discuss cookbooks with me. They were in fact using the original version of the book for their own cooking, and they were furious about the altered recipes of the last edition. According to them, many of the spice-relationships had been completely upset, and the replacement of the command “grind finely” (in a mortar) by “chop very finely” was a silly outrage.

In my experience, the latter judgment is correct. It is true, hand-pounding in a stone mortar yields the best results, but it is very tiring and time consuming and might not be everyone’s choice. Regarding taste and texture, any of the many onion, pepper, salt and spice mixes will turn out quite similar to a hand-pounded mix when ground to pulp in a modern blender. When chopped ever so finely, however, they become something altogether different: both their frying behavior and their boiling pattern is entirely unlike the properties of a pulp of the same ingredients.

In spite of these reservations, van der Mejden’s butchered 1983 edition is still useful, at least for someone, who (unlike my hosts at the Utrechtsestraat Toko) has no Indonesian grandmother recipe to compare with. I was advised to use another, smaller book with a selection of colonial recipes as a corrective. Throughout its long life, this book has been literally reprinted many times. I am talking about Keijner Kookboek, originally from 1927.

There are two kinds of laconic cookbooks. One is the typical modern throw-together product, where each recipe contains the same amounts of soy sauce, sodium glutamate, cooking sherry and pineapple chunks, and whose author abandoned proofreading halfway into the measurements and cross-references. Keijner Kookboek belongs to another class: These are recipes to steel the young colonial housewife in any possible way. Kitchen recommendations of a most varying kind are authoritatively and rather gruffly tossed out by someone who is not scared for anything. The message is clear: “it can’t get worse than bad – just go ahead, you’ll learn.”

A whole cleaned goose is first rubbed with salt, pepper and nutmeg, then boiled for 3-4 hours in much water, subsequently browned in six tablespoons of butter and finally presented with the gravy, fried potatoes and a salad of young beans. Brains are first sliced, then poached, double-breaded, fried and presented with mustard. The recipe of Béchamel sauce lacks the flour (which might be an oversight), but has snippets of onion. In fact, one gets the idea that Miss Keijner had no patience at all with the ridiculous idea of preparing Dutch meals in Indonesia, using Indonesian supplies. Her Indonesian recipes (about 2/3 of the book), on the other hand, may sometimes be bewildering, but they are fascinating to read.

This book can best be described as a beginner’s textbook from forgotten-times for far-eastern food market navigation, and it is far more inspiring to read than any tourist guide. We are simultaneously immersed in history and a fascinating world of terms and ingredients. Even the measurements are exciting. Did you know that a bottle of thick syrup weighs 1 kattie? What is a kattie? There are two simple ways to get to know this: one pikul equals ten gantangs equals hundred kattie equals 125 continental pounds. One kattie is also sixteen tail. One tail is fourty grams. This is amazingly consistent – one kattie equals one and a quarter pounds (or something between 625 and 640 grams, for the readers who have been googling katties).

Six double-column pages are devoted to Indonesian and Chinese food terms. Not enough with this: when reading the recipes, we constantly have to refer to this list. The first of the dishes that are served with lontong (sticky rice cakes prepared in banana leaves) calls not for beans, egg plant, bamboo, green chilies and garlic, but for katjang, terrong, rebung, lombok hidjau and bawang putih. One of the more complex creations contains the young leaves and flowers of kattes gandul, kankung, katjang, bajam, labu merah, katjang pandjang, rice, a bit sereh, daun kemangi, daun kunir, onions, djahé, lombok and salt. I haven’t tried it yet, my kattes gandul flowers were old. After a few weeks of this, the hobby Indonesian cook has the basics of kitchen Malay firmly in his stomach.

There is in fact no reason to make fun of Keijner’s Indonesian cuisine. Most of the fish recipes and many of the chicken and meat recipes are very good. A problem with many vegetables is that we would have to use western equivalents or accept the lack of freshness of the imported ones, but I am convinced that most of the vegetable recipes are good as well. A typical dish from this book is a beef stew made with 3 chilies, 4 red and 1 white onions, 2 kemirie nuts (similar to macadamia nuts), a piece of trassi (fermented shrimp paste), 1 1/2 tablespoons of a ground coriander-cumin mix, lime leaves, coconut milk, tamarind and salt. The spices (not the lime leaves) are ground up and fried, the meat added, then the coconut milk and the leaves, and the tamarind, and all is cooked until tender.

And if I don’t write here again, I probably have tried this stew, made of one kattie of beef, three ordinary chilies, ten small hot chilies, ten red onions, three white onions, three slices of galanga root, trassi and lemon juice.

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3 Responses to “colonial cookbooks”

  1. Bernadette Says:

    Thank you so much for your article. My Gramma recently passed away and out of all the grandchildren I am the one who for the most part knows the most about cooking Indonesian food, let alone reading dutch. So now, I am in possession of some of her cookbooks. I have a copy of the Keijner Kookboek (the 19th edition) and I have a copy of Oma Keasberry’s Indische Keukengeheimen in which she uses the kattie measurement. I can’t tell you how excited I was to read your definition of 1 kattie; I couldn’t really figure it out. Again, thank you.

  2. Marianne Henskens Says:

    Good Afternoon

    I was given the 12th edition of “Groot Nieuw Vollendig Indisch Kookboek” by Oma Henskens in 1973 – and I guard it with my life. However, I do struggle with the Dutch instructions – I’m tired before I even start and it had severly limited the number of dishes I’ve tried!!! Is there an English version (dream on, eh?) or is there an another cookbook (in English) equal to the one I have? If so, can anyone provide me with their names – I realize there are numerous books – but – I’d rather go on the word of an experienced Indonesian chief.
    Many thanks, and smakelijk eten!

  3. skowroneck Says:

    Uh-oh. No idea really. This would be a perfect question for ask.metafilter.com or some similar forum. Point is, I’m fluent in Dutch so I never wondered…

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