Diverse and indigenous cuisine brought by the many ethnic people to St. Maarten from all over the world piques our interest. To this end, we are on a quest to find where it comes from, if it is used for celebrations, if it is exotic to some but everyday food to others. Anything to do with keeping the body and soul nourished with that which is produced from good old terra firma, is what makes the world go around.
It’s often said that the Netherlands is not known for its cuisine; however, it is from Holland that we get some truly delish repast. The three that we love are excellent cheeses, herrings and Rijsttafel.
We are really lucky to have a choice of cheeses from Holland (as well as French and English cheeses too). Dutch cheese is unique; it is one of the country’s most important exports; gouda and edam are possibly the best-known ones. Our favourite is the Old Amsterdam; this cheese is a sure substitute for any dish that calls for cheddar cheese. The “secret” family recipe produces a complex flavour profile of “butterscotch/caramel” and “bouillon.”
Old Amsterdam is a premium aged gouda cheese made from cow’s milk. The texture is firm and has a smooth, rich, robust flavour. Old Amsterdam is ripened on wooden shelves where it forms its typical semi-hard structure, with a deep caramel colour. There are three stages in the ripening process of Old Amsterdam – on average this takes about eight months.
Maatjesharing/maatjes in Dutch is a mild salted herring. It is made from young, immature herrings that are “ripened” for a couple of days in a salty solution/brine in oak barrels. Soused herrings can be eaten as is; salted herring needs to be soaked before eating. Raw herrings, pickled in vinegar, are called rollmops. There is a version we get in jars with a delicious, creamy sauce – oh my!
The mix of the culinary cultures of Indonesian and Dutch may be the world’s first “fusion” cuisine; it is in fact a meal that began with the colonial Dutch showing off when they were entertaining in Indonesia.
Rijsttafel offers true “Umami” – a harmonious dining experience where sweet, sour, bitter and salty tastes are balanced with temperatures and textures.
Literally meaning “rice table”, Rijsttafel is an elaborate meal the Dutch (West Indies) colonial cooks cooked up using the fabulous spices from Indonesia. Up to as many as/or more than 40 side dishes, accompanied by rice prepared in several different ways, are placed on the table. Diners then have a little from the dishes they like. These could include egg rolls, sambals, satay, fish, fruit, vegetables, pickles and nuts.
The Rijsttafel is full of colour, flavour, degree of spiciness and textures that could include crispy, chewy, slippery, soft, hard, velvety, gelatinous and runny. Some dishes are served hot, some cold and some at room temperature; and with all of this goes a variety of sambals – condiments.
Growing up in a city in South Africa that had much of the Dutch colonial past influencing the cuisine (mainly the Cape Malay’s cuisine), we would go out on an evening to have Rijsttafel. The interesting thing was the way it was served. At most places, we would have small dishes placed on the table before us; but at one place, it would be a buffet style meal, no-matter, most dishes used would be small or large cast-iron pots, some of which would be the “drie-potjie” (three-legged African pot) in which the stew-like foods would be served – a real melding of African, Indonesian and Dutch.
I did not appreciate the complexities of the Rijsttafel until I had an introduction to the meal in Amsterdam. I was there alone as a very young adult, feeling so grown up in a strange city; I took myself out to lunch at a place recommended by the concierge. The upstairs dining room was rather bleak, to say the least. A few large, round tables set in a smallish room, one large window overlooking a tree-lined square, the spring leaves barely allowing light into the room, unadorned walls and just me!
I asked in my broken Afrikaans (it is similar to the Dutch language) for Rijsttafel and they asked me if I wanted 12, 20, 30 or 40 – well, I think that is what they asked?
What were they saying, really? I could get as many dishes as I wanted (back home, we were served a set number of dishes, no choice). Now, I did not honestly understand all the numbers they said, so I picked on the number I thought I understood; and there I found myself gamely eating my way through a table on my own, groaning, with a multitude of small dishes. I barely knew where to start. I certainly cannot recall where I ended. There was a rather overkill of various rice dishes. I remember just trying a couple and then tasting from each and every other dish, some of which set my mouth on fire! I rolled out of the restaurant fully appreciating that this entire event was very different to the ones we would enjoy back home.
I wonder when another entrepreneur will open a true Rijsttafel restaurant here, like the one we used to have on Front Street? There is, I understand, a particular traditional ceremony to eating rijsttafel. Knives are not used at the table, but a spoon is. Meat is cut small and is cooked until so tender it can be cut easily with the spoon. The spoon is placed at the right of the place setting. A fork may be used mainly to push the food onto the spoon. Food is never touched with the left hand. (It is also considered very rude to use the left hand to offer anything, but especially food to another person.)
A large plate, like a rimmed soup plate, is placed in the centre of the place setting. A napkin is placed on the plate. A small side-plate is placed above the fork – this is used for krupuk or for bones. Guests first place a serving of rice in the centre of the plate then the servings from some of the other dishes are placed around the rice. Now in your spoon, take a small portion of rice and a small portion of one of the stew-type dishes and add a little of one of the hot, hot sambals and enjoy!
It is good to know that some of the dishes for a rijsttafel can be prepared a week or so in advance. Here are a few recipes.
Satay Sauce – Spicy Peanut/Cashew Sauce
You can buy a number of different sauce packets to make this, but here is one you can make from scratch.
750g unsalted nuts (peanuts or cashews)
1 TBL salt
1 TBL fine dried shrimps
5 cloves garlic
3-5 long red chilies to taste, chopped roughly
1tsp tamarind paste mixed with 2 TBL hot water
50g palm sugar
1 cup hot water
1 cup coconut milk
1 TBL lemon juice (sub. lime juice)
Blend nuts (of your choice), salt, dried shrimp, garlic, chopped red chilies and palm sugar together.
Add 1 cup hot water, 1 cup coconut milk, and tamarind juice extract.
Pulse all ingredients.
Pulse for as long as you need for coarse or smooth sauce – consistency should be slightly thick.
Heat this up before serving or eat cold.
This sauce can be frozen – to serve, defrost, add a TBL spoon of hot water, stir and heat up.
Prawn Sambal – Sambal Udang.
You can use peeled or unpeeled shrimp; I prefer peeled and deveined.
3 TBL oil
1½ LBs prawn/shrimp, shelled and deveined
2 cups water
2 TBL tamarind pulp, mixed with ½ cup water, strained
3 kaffir lime leaves, sliced thinly
2 tsp salt/to taste
1 tsp palm sugar/to taste
10 dry red chilies, deseeded
10 shallots, peeled
1 oz Belacan (Terasi) – this is dried shrimp in a cake
Pound or grind the spice paste ingredients together, set aside
Heat up the oil in a wok
Add spice paste and stir-fry until aromatic
Add prawns, stir-fry 2-3 minutes
Add water, tamarind juice and bring it to a quick boil
Add kaffir lime leaves, salt, and sugar
Grated coconut, peanuts and herbs make this cold Indonesian sprinkle. This too can be bought, but homemade is best.
1 TBL oil
250g grated dry coconut
1 TBL palm sugar
1 TBL tamarind juice (or lemon juice)
1tsp ground coriander (ketoembar)
1tsp ground cumin (djintan)
Pinch galangal (not easy to find here so use ground ginger)
Peel and then finely chop onion.
Heat oil in a frying pan.
Fry onion until golden, stirring.
Add grated coconut.
Stir constantly until coconut begins to just turn a light brown.
Add peanuts and sugar, stir till slightly darker in colour.
Season with tamarind juice and a pinch of salt.
Remove from pan and spread out on a plate to cool.
Serve cold – this keeps a long time.
This is a minced fish dish that is skewered and grilled
2 TBL oil
5 shallots, chopped
5 cloves garlic, chopped
5 small red chilies, stem, seeded – to taste
2” fresh ginger, peeled, chopped
1 TBL coriander seeds
4-inch piece lemongrass, thinly sliced
I LB firm white fish fillets
4 oz. grated fresh coconut
½ cup coconut milk
Skewers or lemon grass sticks
Heat oil in pan.
Add shallots, garlic, red chilies, ginger, turmeric, coriander seeds and sliced lemongrass.
Sauté 3 minutes.
Blend in processor until pureed.
Add fish, coconut, and coconut milk.
Pulse to make a coarse paste.
Transfer paste to work surface, divide into four mounds.
Divide each mound into five portions.
Mould each portion into a sausage shape around one end of skewer.
Makes 20 skewers.
Grill until light brown.