Dining at Leiden’s Rice Table

Leiden, in the Netherlands, lies at the confluence of the rivers Oude and Nieuwe Rijn (the Old and New Rhine) and is within a 30-minute bus or train ride of Amsterdam and Haarlem (home of the extraordinary Keukenhof Gardens). This old city of about 120,000 inhabitants was home to a Roman fort as early as the fourth century. The Pilgrims (of Mayflower fame) lived in Leiden for some years before setting sail for Massachusetts. There is a joke that the Netherlands were too liberal for the Pilgrims, even at the beginning of the 17th Century.

Leiden has been a university town since 1575. While Leiden University is the best known of the city’s post secondary institutions, I visited Leiden at the invitation of Webster University.

Our hosts from Webster University treated us to an extraordinary dining experience at Surakarta, an Indonesian restaurant quite close to their campus. All thirty of us sat at one long table…

Why Indonesian, right? Indonesia was a Dutch colony until 60 years ago and Indonesian food continues to be a great favourite of the Dutch people. As it was explained to us, the Indonesian Rice Table (or Rijsttafel) actually originated with the Dutch colonists in Indonesia, and grew from their enjoyment of sampling selectively from Indonesian cuisine. The Rice Table was then introduced to the Netherlands, and has become an important part of Dutch cuisine.

The Rice Table is a fantastic opportunity to sample many Indonesian dishes at one sitting. Our Rice Table consisted of rice accompanied by at least fifteen side dishes ranging from mild to spicy. Each side dish was served in a small bowl and these dishes included a variety of meats and seafood, egg rolls, vegetable dishes, fruits in sweet sauces, fried coconut, and a number of sauces and spices. Imagine six heating dishes laid end-to-end, one placed in the centre of each of our six tables, crowded with side dishes. More side dishes filled all the available space between our plates and glasses and cutlery. This was a beautiful mountain of Dutch-Indonesian food.

It is best, I think, not to rush through this meal as the Rice Table is both an experience and a feast. The dishes were served at roughly the same time although, as you can imagine, it takes some serious coordination to get food for thirty on the table all at once. As the dishes continued to arrive, we were both overcome by giddiness and overwhelmed by our choices. My little section of our long table was fortunate in that one of our dinner companions was a Dutch man who knew his way around a Rijsttafel; he served as our tour guide for the meal.

For three hours we sampled and nibbled and then sighed with satisfaction before we made our way back, along moonlit canals, to our hotel. Thanks to Webster University for this lovely social and culinary experience!

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