Rijsttafel Ramblings

Mini-rijsttafel for Minneapolitans: Rasa Sayang
Kathy Easthagen
Singapore! Restaurant
5554 34th Ave. S., Minneapolis

Rasa Sayang
2480 Winnetka Ave. N., Golden Valley

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.

But did they have any roti prata? No. Why? Because you ate it all. You did. And by the time I got there, they were all out. So I got to order a beer (thanks to their new beer and wine license) and brood over this dire situation. I ask you: Is this fair? I tell you about the hidden gems, and you go there and gobble up all the treats while I'm just stuck at home, walking in circles, looking for my car keys? It's enough to drive a girl insane. Or, at least to Golden Valley.

Which is exactly where you'll find the Twin Cities' other Malaysian restaurant, Rasa Sayang. Now, this unassuming spot up in the northernmost reaches of Golden Valley should be of particular interest to anyone living in north Minneapolis, Plymouth, Crystal, Robbinsdale, or New Hope. Until recently the little spot was a Chinese restaurant, but a new Malaysian cook has brought in a new level of cooking. The roti here, "roti canai" ($3.50), is a small, rich, translucent-fried pancake served with a potent, sweet, and turmeric-laced curry sauce for dipping--with the intense, fried roti and thin, concentrated curry, it's almost like a roti fritter with dipping sauce, less like French fries and gravy than tempura and dunking broth. The Nasi Lemak ($8.95) is the best thing I've had at this sleepy restaurant, which serves beer and wine. Order it and you get what could be called a mini-rijsttafel--a rectangular platter with six mounds of snacks: delicious potato-chicken curry, a little salad of spicy pickles and ground peanuts, a tomato-onion-anchovy relish, sliced cucumbers, sections of hard-cooked egg, and finally a delicious sweet-coconut-milk-infused rice. The gado-gado I tried was lovely too, a deep-fried tofu and shrimp cake on a bed of shredded cucumber and jicama, with a glossy peanut sauce cloaking everything. So there! Now you're up to seven courses, and if that isn't enough of a rijsttafel for you, you'll have to spring for a trip to Madison, or Amsterdam.

Finally, I had hoped to end this column with a little rallying cry for Harry Singh's. Why on earth would I do that? Because Singh hails from Trinidad, and Trinidadian cuisine has many parallels with the big-picture influences found in the cuisine we've been discussing. Like what? Like it's a tropical island where natives, Chinese, and Indians have evolved a totally new cuisine based on elements of their homeland as expressed through local ingredients--though, in this case, with significant African contributions.

And personally, I think a one-to-one comparison between the roti prata at Singapore, and roti canai at Rasa Sayang, and one of the curry rotis from Harry Singh's is about as brainy--and delicious--an intellectual exercise as is possible in this town, since all three dishes evolved from the simple peasant bread "roti" as made in homes throughout India, but the ones at Singapore! and Rasa Sayang are translucent pancakes that are as unlike bread as corn fritters are unlike corn, and the big, fluffy, pillowy discs at Harry Singh's are unique in another way, wrapped around a silky filling of that staple African protein, pigeon peas.

But alas, alack, you can't go to Harry Singh's to try them out, because by the time this hits the streets, Harry's latest restaurant in Uptown will have closed, yet again. Yet again. Is this how farmers feel about a hailstorm? Every few years, whether you want it or not?

The good news is, he's not closing for good, but simply relocating into the sweet heat of Eat Street--I can't say where yet, but suffice it to say that somewhere between Quang and 24th Street, sometime this fall, we are going to see another showcase for Harry's beloved Trini cuisine. Until then, please know that the former Uptown spot is going to be home to the second Burrito Loco, a locally grown burrito spot brought to you by young brothers Greg and John Pillsbury, who are no relation to those Pillsburys, and that is why they have to hustle their butts off, and so they promise to be open till three o'clock in the morning, every morning! And they say they will deliver to you, till three. So all you Burgundy-swilling, hydroponic-profligate Lake Calhoun gold-coasters can stop driving your Range Rovers into your Explorers during late-night Lunds runs, because finally, finally someone besides Pizza Lucé is volunteering to bring your snacks to you. Snacks like both the regular sorts of burritos and the new sorts of bar-fusion hybrids, like buffalo-chicken burritos.  

And now I ask you: If we have these old European Empire-created melting woks here, today, in 2003, scattered around the Twin Cities, a northern mill town about as far from the Sun Not Setting on the British Empire as you can get in both time and space, well, I ask you this: Have you written your will yet?

Because I would really appreciate it if you could write in some kind of stipulation whereby your great-great-great-grandchildren contact me by Ouija board, because I have this sneaking suspicion that what we will have is Burrito Loco's buffalo-chicken, as a roti-sushi-cube on Base Station 9 over the Krylon Sea. I mean, when you look at everything you know about people and everything you know about these various curry rotis in the Twin Cities, don't you just know that the future holds nothing but melting woks in space?

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Rasa Sayang

2480 Winnetka Ave. N.
Golden Valley, MN 55427



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