One of my favorite childhood meals used to come when the family crossed the Dutch border to the town of Bergen op Zoom for Indonesian Rijsstaffel. An ancient (at least to my 12-year-old eyes) Dutch ex-colonial couple had taken over a manor house and turned it into a restaurant. Bowls of aromatic rice (Nasi Goreng and Nasi Kuning) complimented by up to 30 dishes for a table of six—satays, curries, spring rolls, fritters, meat and fish balls, bites of duck and pork belly, sauces by the dozen, and deviled eggs so explosive that you dared not touch the mixture with your fingers.
Rijsstaffel, or Rice Table, came from the traditional Nasi Padang of West Sumatra. It was a way for colonials to introduce visitors to a cross-section of Indonesian tastes. With an archipelago of 13,466 islands and 742 languages and dialects spoken by 237.6 million citizens, Indonesia has always punched far below its cultural weight on the world stage. But for the initiated, there are few richer and more varied cuisines to be had anywhere.
So… Naturally, 25 years ago when we moved to Los Angeles, a hotbed of Asian culture and cuisine, I expected to find some of the best Rijsstaffel on the planet—but nada. None. Today, the only restaurants that serve it manage a monthly or bi-weekly special. And it isn’t the difficulty of presentation that stops them, but political correctness. As a colonial concoction, Rijsstaffel has become a political embarrassment.
This baffles me. Admittedly, the Dutch East Indies was one of the more horrific colonial administrations, and admittedly the occupation started with the procurement of foodstuffs—spices, sugar, and coffee—and only later oil. But still… One of my favorite meals in Bruxelles is the classic Yassa and Cassava stew offered by l’Horlogerie in the Congolese section of Ixelles. I wear cotton without cringing at the horrific history of the crop in the ante-bellum US South. Soul food is another favorite, even though it originated with the scraps of food left for slaves.
I claim no particular allergy to political correctness—another favorite meal in Palos Verdes, California, being the oysters and martinis served at the Trump National Golf Course clubhouse. After the last year, I can no longer make myself go there. But to cut out an entire class of food—much less one that serves as so spectacular an advertisement for a country’s cuisine—makes no sense. That I can see anyway. Maybe I’m just getting old?