traveling rijsttafel and spice pounding

In his famous and entertaining short story The vessel of wrath, W. Somerst Maugham depicts the eating habits of a comfort-loving Dutch Contrôleur of the Alas Islands as follows:

“Like all good Dutchmen in the Far East he began his lunch with a small glass of Hollands gin. It has a musty acrid flavour, and the taste for it must be acquired, but Mr Gruyter preferred it to any cocktail. When he drank it he felt besides that he was upholding the traditions of his race. Then he had rijsttafel. He had it every day. He heaped a soup-plate high with rice, and then, his three boys waiting on him, helped himself to the curry that one handed him, to the fried egg that another brought, and to the condiment presented by the third. Then each one brought another dish, of bacon, or bananas, or pickled fish, and presently his plate was piled high in a huge pyramid. He stirred it all together and began to eat. He ate slowly and with relish. He drank a bottle of beer.”

In spite of the fact that this is one of my favorite passages in literature, it must be said that, for the person who has been devising eight or ten different combinations of spices and ways of preparation, scooped everything on to separate dishes and managed to keep them warm until the moment of serving, the feat of, after a glass of genever, being able to stir together a huge pyramid of rijsttafel without it spilling over the edges of the plate, is totally lost. In fewer words: Mr Gruyter’s rijsttafel-stirring is a horrible crime, no matter how much pleasure he had in eating that pile of food.

Rijsttafel is a feast enterprise, and it should be appreciated as such. Especially the person who engages in making all the dishes will learn that something extraordinary is happening – at the very last towards the second day in the kitchen. If you see it as a nice way to spend your time, the preparation of a lot of Indonesian dishes for one meal can be a lot of fun.

We once prepared Indonesian dishes for a birthday party that was going to be attended by between ten and fifteen guests. The cooking in Amsterdam took two whole days. The subsequent train transfer to Bremen was the calmest one ever, because nobody entered the garlic-saturated compartment during the entire four hours of the trip. Heating up all the dishes was a logistic nightmare, and while everyone kept eating, there were leftovers for two more days.

At the center of attention, during preparation, is the pounding of spices in a stone mortar. After obtaining one of these at my trusty Tempo Doeloe in the Utrechtsestraat, I followed the advice to work it in by stamping potato peels in it for a while. In spite of this, pestle and mortar kept producing an abundance of fine grit for months. Then, all of a sudden, the surfaces are worked smooth, and the pre-cut bits of onion and root, cumin and coriander seeds and heaps of chilies begin to glitch out of the mortar when pounded. At the beginning, one needs to hold one hand above the hollow to prevent bits of onion jumping out and all over the place. One also has to make the pounding movement with a slight twist, grinding the goods into the side of the mortar. The ultimate trick to speed up the breaking-down of fibres is to add a healthy pinch of coarse salt at the beginning.

The whole action is time consuming and asks for a strong hand, but the fragrant, spicy goo that eventually emerges is quite unlike anything else achieved in a kitchen: as it seems, the onion fibres are not broken up completely, and also the peel of the chilies breaks up in flakes rather than being chopped into a smooth pulp. Roots like ginger, galanga or turmeric are squished into the rest of the mass and develop a glowing smell that blender-mixing simply doesn’t achieve. Finally, the amount of work makes one appreciate the final product – I am much less inclined to leave leftover spicy pulp in my mortar than in the blender (this is, of course, also caused by the maddening design of the blender).

I admit that for the quick preparation of a dish, thought out at the last minute, I do not fetch my mortar out of the cabinet. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the difference between blender-pulp and mortar-goo is not so big as to justify abandoning a quick eastern touch to one’s dinner only because one is lazy or lacks the time to do it “properly”. If one, on the other hand, does have the time, it is to be preferred. And: Mr Gruyter’s cook did certainly not have a food processor.


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