FROM SOUNDLIFE SUNDAY
It takes two to rijsttaffel
In Amsterdam, a 17th century master feast carries all the culinary allure and none of the colonial baggage.
VANCOUVER, B.C. – I could have gone to Italy. Then all I'd have to do is drop into Cost Plus World Market, redecorate my living room and voila, I'm back under the Tuscan sun.
But I vacationed in Amsterdam this year. You know that urge you get to re-live your vacation once you get home? Mine sent me straight across the border for a fix.
Even though Vancouver is blossoming into West Hollywood with trees, this Canadian city's "Vansterdam" reputation isn't just smoke.
They got rijsttaffel here, too.
I drove so far west on 41st Avenue – left off Highway 99 North, and keep going – that I thought I was halfway to Indonesia when I arrived at Spice Islands. There was parking out front on Saturday night.
I waited for my acquaintance and studied the tight shotgun of a room: understatedly upscale, casually without pretence. White tablecloths were double-layered and crisp. Lights were soft. Green flowers floated in bowls upon every table.
"What's on the menu tonight?" I asked the host.
He smiled and demurred, "Only the chef knows."
This felt like Amsterdam rijsttaffel.
Our server, Trudi, was British. This was her first rijsttaffel.
This was my acquaintance's first rijsttaffel, too. Between eye-opening bites of pork floss and Indonesian stink bean, we talked about her stay with friends in Amsterdam, where she had worked on a movie.
She told stories about her Dutch friends, their Indonesian home-cooking, and the joys of cendol, a jellied iced dessert drink. But she wasn't forthcoming about her role in making "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo," something she'd prefer to file under "What happens in Amsterdam stays in Amsterdam."
Does the same go for rijsttaffel? What rijsttaffels in Amsterdam stays in Amsterdam?
Maybe after a few more trips to Amsterdam, I'll have consumed enough rijsttaffel and know more about Indonesian food. Maybe after a long stay in Indonesia I'll know enough to judge for sure.
But from the point of view of a rijsttaffel (and Indonesian food) rookie trying to re-live his travel diaries, Spice Islands' rijsttaffel evoked a little slice of Amsterdam: an exotic meal in a foreign country served in an intoxicating melange of flavors, textures and surprise.
Only this time, the exchange rate was in my favor.
Here's what we ate, served by Trudi, our intrepid server and tour guide:
Chewy ground pork satay in chili-spiked peanut sauce.
Cold, dry slices of roast pork.
Risoles -- fried rolls of pastry layered around spicy chicken and carrots in gravy-like sauce.
I liked the fine-grained outer texture of the risoles, but not much else on the plate (except for the thinly sliced starfruit).
Sambal, hot sauce that's as ubiquitous to Indonesians as ketchup is to Americans. This one was stripped down and complex –- a straight shot to the tongue that made me want more.
Strips of fermented soybean cake, deep fried in palm sugar and sauteed with shallots. I couldn't decide if they tasted like barbecued dates or dried baby bananas. But they were smoky, chewy and all gone before I had a chance to combine them with any of the main dish samples.
Pork floss. Shaved pork muscle, marinated and roasted until fluffy and golden brown. It was like jerky meets cotton candy, without the sugar.
This one stumped me: A thin wheel of English cucumber beneath a slice of egg topped with sambal. I couldn't wrap my mind, knife or fork around it. It seemed more like a canape than a condiment.
Pickled carrots and zucchini.
Served in tea-cup sized bowls, with a plate of tumeric-infused yellow rice and tortilla-sized shrimp crackers.
Sole steamed in banana leaf. Garlic, galanga, lemongrass and shallots created a pulpy layer of flavor around tender meat.
Shrimps in bright coconut broth –- too light to be curry, but just as flavorful. But the real surprise was the Indonesian stink bean, the petah. There was one in each of our bowls. Biting into one was a bitter, intense slap on the tongue, one that lingered somewhere between pleasure and wonder.
Rendang beef curry that had the soul of roasted red earth.
Stewed cabbage, eggplant, broccoli and carrots in coconut milk.