The Rise and Fall of
Indonesia's Rice Table

by Bob Martin

One Indonesian meal, the Rijsttafel, or rice table, is probably more widely known outside that country than within it. And while the name — rice table — sounds simple, the meal is actually a lavish feast that may take hours to consume.

During its centuries of popularity in Indonesia, lines of servants or sarong-clad waitresses ceremoniously served the marathon meal on platters laden with steaming bowls of fragrant foods. The first to be served was a cone-shaped pile of rice on a large platter, which the server placed in the center of the table.

The servers then surrounded the rice platter with as many as 40 small bowls holding meat and vegetable dishes as well as condiments.

The dishes found on the rice table bore influences from a variety of cuisines -- Arab, Chinese, Dutch, Indian, Portuguese. However, the spices -- including cloves, coriander, cumin, ginger, nutmeg, pepper and saffron -- were typical Indonesian.

Yet, the rice table was not indigenous to Indonesia. During their 350-year occupation of Indonesia, the Dutch introduced the rice table not only so they could enjoy a wide array of dishes at a single setting but to also impress visitors with the exotic abundance of their colony.

When the country proclaimed its independence in 1945, Indonesian nationalism increased and people rejected Dutch culture and customs, including the flamboyant rice table. Today, the rice table has practically disappeared from Indonesia's restaurants.

One eating establishment still serving the Rijsttafel is Jakarta's Oasis Restaurant. The Oasis Rijsttafel, served by up to 15 waitresses, costs about $23 — too pricey for most Indonesians.

In Indonesian restaurants around the world, especially in the Netherlands and South Africa, the Rijsttafel is still popular. However, it is usually served as a ceremony-less buffet.

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