Rijsttafel Ramblings

Dear Dara answers questions, both asked and unasked, about the foods you seek

Singapore! Restaurant
5554 34th Ave. S., Minneapolis
612.722.0888
www.singaporemenu.com

Rasa Sayang
2480 Winnetka Ave. N., Golden Valley
763.525.9876

Dear Dara,

Six years ago I took a trip to Amsterdam and had an amazing meal at an Indonesian restaurant. I had what is called a rijsttafel, which consisted of 20 tapas-sized dishes that had various Chinese, Indian, and Southeast Asian-influenced foods in them. All in all, this meal was a dream come true for any fan of Eastern cuisine. By eating Indonesian you are essentially eating from the melting wok of the East. I was in heaven!

Since that wonderful trip I haven't forgotten about my food adventure and have been in search of an Indonesian restaurant in the Twin Cities. Though I have found plenty of amazing Indian restaurants, Chinese restaurants, and Vietnamese restaurants, I have yet to find an Indonesian place where I can go and have it all. So I ask you, does the Twin Cities have any Indonesian restaurants that you know of? And if no, why not?

Lisa in St. Paul

 

Dear Lisa,

Six years is a long time for an itch you can't scratch--you have my deepest sympathies. But you know what? You are not alone in your longings. I get a looking-for-rijsttafel letter like yours about once a month. Sadly, we have no strictly Indonesian rijsttafel places in town--the closest self-described Indonesian restaurant is in Madison, Wisconsin, the Bandung Restaurant. I've never been, but I have read a lot of reviews of the place in Wisconsin papers, and it sounds pretty good. They seem to offer a rijsttafel about once a month, and appear to be an average $10-a-plate Indonesian restaurant otherwise. Check their website for details: www.bandungrestaurant.com.

More interesting, of course, is your question of why. Why no Minnesota rijsttafel? I get a fair amount of letters that run: Why don't we have this northern Chinese restaurant like they have in Seattle, why don't we have poorboys like they have in New Orleans--the implication being "If we were sophisticated enough, we would have these things." But actually, in all but the super-rarified air of high-level chef-driven restaurants, food really just tends to trail people, like the wake of a boat and, like the wake of a boat, it tends to take the colors of whatever ocean it's in. If you don't have the people--Indonesians, native Creoles, whoever--you simply don't get the food.

Further, did you know that rijsttafel isn't really Indonesian but is in fact an Indonesian-Dutch hybrid, one that sprung up after scads of Indonesians immigrated to the Netherlands in the 1970s, the Netherlands having been the dominant colonial power over most of the Indonesian archipelago for some 350 years? And so, the Dutch traditions of smorgasbord and big dinners met a lot of Indonesian restaurateurs trying to make them happy, and rijsttafel was born. (See the cream-cheese wonton for a Minnesota analog.) These days you can get rijsttafel in Indonesia, but it's basically a reverse-import, like California rolls in Japan. And so the short answer as to why we don't have rijsttafel is: We don't have scads of Indonesians around, trying to fit into our Dutch lifestyle.

But you know what we do have? A pair of Malaysian restaurants very eager to make you happy. And what do Malaysia and Indonesia have in common? Plenty! In fact, Malaysia and Indonesia are about as close as Minneapolis and St. Paul, which is to say, in parts they are touching on land, in parts they are separated by water, and in parts they are wrapped around a foreign sovereign nation with a distinct culture, which in their case is Singapore, and in ours--Uptown? Could be. Which is also to say that as it is with Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Uptown, it is somewhat with Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore: The differences between the three are, to insiders, obvious and legion, but to outsiders, the similarities seem more important. Similarities like a largely ethnic-Chinese population with significant Indian and native Malay minorities, similarities like plenty of influence from the old Nations of Empire, especially Great Britain, but also the Netherlands and Portugal. And thus concludes the geography and history part of today's column, so y'all can wake up. For our local eating-out purposes, the main thing to remember is that all over Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia you have that "melting wok" you referred to, where Indian curries, Chinese technique (and noodles!), and local tropical ingredients like fruit and crab have all come together.

So can you get a rough analog to that melting wok of rijsttafel you loved so much in Amsterdam here in the Twin Cities? Boy howdy, can you ever!

I've written about Singapore! before, but got a chance last week to drop in on the most brightly lighted, can-do restaurant in the south metro. As usual I had some marvelous dishes. This time I was particularly struck by how adept chef Kin Lee is with his curries. I had a brisk and bright vegetarian one ($8.95) and the "rendang daging berempah" ($12.95), a beef curry built on coconut milk, with a dusky, sweet-jungle undercurrent. The thing about these curries is, they are so utterly complex, and so beautifully different--the vegetable one fiercely sunny and herbal, like a bleachy summer day in July, the beef coconut one full of smoky and hard-to-pin-down bottom notes like an aged whiskey. Every time I eat at Singapore! I feel I have heard songs that can only be made on one single instrument, and I think that instrument is chef Kin Lee's cooking. Of course, I do have a complaint: I went there to get the "roti prata" ($6.95), an appetizer-to-share that I count as one of the most memorable dishes in town, in which a dinner-plate-sized fried disc of glassy bread is cut into wedges to dip into a thick, rich vegetable curry, which cloaks the bread with a thick, gravylike sauce that tastes like jungles sound, full of life and thrilling.

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