Quick – tell me your favourite Indonesian restaurant in Toronto. Can’t do it? That’s because they don’t exist. Seriously, Google “Indonesian restaurant Toronto” and you get hits for a Thai restaurant, a Malaysian restaurant and a Vietnamese restaurant. And while those 3 cuisines are similar in many ways to Indonesian food, there’s a different interplay of spices and ingredients that make Indonesian food unique.
I first got hooked on Indonesian food back in the 80s, when the food court in the basement of Dragon City Mall had an Indonesian kiosk where my roommates and I could try various dishes to our heart’s content. I had no point of comparison at that time, so I don’t remember if it was particularly good Indonesian food, but since there are no other Indonesian places in Toronto (and no, nasi goreng at Movenpick Marche doesn’t count), I haven’t had much opportunity for comparison. Until last week.
Indonesia was colonized by the Dutch from 1800 to 1942 as part of the Dutch East India company’s search for spices. Because of this the Dutch have a great love of Indonesian food, and the Indonesian Rijsttafel (or rice table) is a meal that the Dutch adapted from the Indonesia feast called nasi padang.
The meal is made up of a variety of small dishes (10 to 25 is typical), all served alongside a large bowl of rice, either steamed or fried. The other dishes are appetizer-sized portions of meat, fish and vegetables, and flavours include coconut, lemongrass, peanut, chili, hot peppers and more. A tray of various condiments is also included so each person can customize their meal, and the result is a meal that includes sweet, salty, sour, spicy and everything in between with each mouthful being different.
Chef Michael Van Den Winkel of Quince Bistro (2110 Yonge Street) has been preparing the Indonesian Rijsttafel for private events for a number of years. Just recently he and partner Jennifer Gittens decided to offer the meal to the public, and they held the first dinner last week. At $50 per person, it was a fantastic deal and we were astounded at the sheer number of dishes that arrived at our table.
The plan is for Quince to host Rijsttafel dinners a few times a year. If you have the opportunity to go, do not hesitate – it was one of the most memorable and delicious meals I’ve had in a long time.
Above: condiments clockwise from top left: seroundeng – fried coconut and peanuts; atjar tiampour – sweet sour vegetables; sate sauce – peanut sauce; sambal goren ketang kering – spiced deep fried potato matchsticks; sambak badjak – fried spiced sambal oelek; roedjak manis – spiced sweet fruit chutney.
Along with the condiments, we had a basket of kroepoek oedang; shrimp chips, similar to the ones served in Thai restaurants, but thicker and spicier.
Sambal ikan tomat – braised fish in lemongrass tomato sauce. The first dishes also came with big bowls of plain steamed rice and nasi goreng; fried rice. The fish here was somewhat bland – the flavour really existing primarily in the heady lemongrass sauce.
Sate ajam – grilled chicken kebab with peanut sauce.
Sambal goreng telor – eggs in spiced tomato sauce. We first thought these were brown eggs, still in the shell, but the colour comes from the sauce being absorbed into the cooked egg white. Quite possibly the best egg I have ever eaten.
This sambal daging doesn’t look like much, but the braised pork with tamarind has a very distinctive sweet flavour.
Gado gado – Indonesian style vegetable salad with emping (nut chips) and peanut sauce.
Babi panang – roasted pork belly with sweet sour sauce.
Rempeh – spiced meatballs with coconut and ketjap coconut sauce. This was my favourite dish of the meal, and when a server accidentally brought us an extra order, we happily ate them.
Smoor djawa – dark spiced braised beef from Java, and sambal goreng boontjis – spiced fried green beans. The beef was heavily spiced with cloves, so much so that I joked that it made me crave a clove cigarette. It had mellowed by the time I ate the leftovers the next day.
Ajam pendis – roasted chicken with chili, garlic, lemongrass and tomato.
Speculaas – not Indonesian, but a lovely bit of spice and sweetness to end the meal, this is a Dutch spice cookie or cake, filled with almond.
There was also a shrimp dish in a sauce of spicy coconut and lime leaf that is not shown.
So… the rijsttafel. It’s pretty amazing. The dishes shown above were quantities for 2 people. Larger tables received bigger family-style bowls with an appropriate number of portions. Still, it was a lot of food, and I had a good size lunch the next day with beef and the roast chicken that we couldn’t finish.
I am utterly serious when I tell my Toronto-area readers to keep an eye out for the next Rijsttafel dinner (probably late September) and go check out this amazing food.