Exploring Southeast Asia through food: classic recipes of Indonesia

Southeast Asian food, known for its rich and complex flavours, originated from melting pots of cultures that are influenced by the region’s geography, climate, trade, migration, religion, and colonization. Its recipes, particularly from old cookbooks, can be valuable cultural artefacts as they reflect snapshots of society and culture of the time [1]. These can serve as an important source in understanding the intangibles of the past.

The ISEAS Library collection includes some interesting cookbooks and recipes from across Southeast Asia. In this post, we look at some of the Indonesian cookbooks and recipes available at the Library.

Indonesian cookbooks at the Library

Groot nieuw volledig Indisch kookboek: 1381 recepten voor de volledige Indische rijsttafel, met een belangrijk aanhangsel voor de bereiding dier tafel in Holland” [Large new complete Indonesian cookbook: 1381 recipes for the complete Indonesian rice table, with an important appendix for the preparation of this table in Holland] is a Dutch-language Indonesian rijsttafel cookbook that reflects Indonesia’s colonial past and cultural interactions that happened as a result of that past.

Originally published in 1902, this book is one of first documentations of Indonesian cuisine according to J.J. Rizal, a popular Indonesian historian. Its target audience was Dutch women, so its recipes include details of ingredients, appropriate substitutes, and lists of commonly used local terms and concepts they would encounter in the Dutch East Indies [2]. The Library’s copy is the 8th edition from 1968, and includes an appendix with suggestions on how to replicate the Rijsttafel meal when the reader returned to The Netherlands.

“Rijsttafel” or “rice table” is an elaborate array of Indonesian dishes, served in small portions with rice. Rijsttafel meals were feasts of several hours as it was not uncommon to have as many as 40 dishes [3].

Fadly Rahman, a food historian, writes that “Rijsttafel is a culinary concept that Europeanised the indigenous eating culture, which was born out of an acculturation process of the local people and the Dutch people and created a modern eating culture in the Indonesian culinary history” [4]. The small servings were adapted by the Dutch to suit their eating habits and ways of serving food. This is evident in the serving of acar and sambal (pickles and hot chilli condiments) as an individual dish, whereas the local people would normally eat it as a complement to the main meal [5]. “The heavy use of silverware and the variety and number of dishes served in Rijsttafel” were a symbol for the Dutch to show off the abundance of their colony [6].

The recipes in the cookbook are mainly Indonesian dishes, but Dutch and Chinese-influenced dishes are easily found in the list of recipes, such as macaroni schotel (baked creamy macaroni) and babi kecap (Indonesian braised pork with sweet soya sauce). These dishes were all common items in a Rijsttafel feast.

Recipes such as croquetten (now known as kroket or breaded croquettes), klapper taart (Kue Kelapa or coconut cookies), and frikadel (perkedel or potato fritters) are some of the Dutch-influenced dishes listed in the cookbook that are so common today that younger generations may not realise their origins. These dishes reflect how a country’s “cuisines often carry with them the traces of their colonized pasts” [7].

Images from Daily Cooking Quest (Perkedel and Kroket) and Taste of Nusa (Klappertaart)

Milk and other dairy products were introduced by the Dutch during the colonial period, initially for the colonist’s consumption, before gradually being made available to the wider population. The inclusion of pork dishes also suggests a clear barrier between the Dutch ruling class, who were primarily Christian, and the native population, the majority of whom were Muslim [8].

Cookbooks can be another way to look at a country’s history and changing societal norms. For example, in the later colonial years, the number of Javanese recipes in cookbooks increased, reflecting rising literacy and influence of indigenous (particularly Javanese) women [9].

The library also has a collection of recipes and cookbooks in microfiche format. One of these cookbooks on microfiche is 76 rupi masakan sareng amis-amis [76 food and sweets] by N. Marlina. It is the oldest and the only Indonesian recipe book in Sundanese in the Library. As the title suggests, it has 76 recipes, including dishes that are not commonly known today.

Collection of old Indonesian recipes on Microfiche, published in the 1950s to 1970s.

The item “golodog” is one such case. A google search of golodog yielded only one recipe. Those familiar with Indonesian snacks might recognize the image in the recipe as bola ubi or friend sweet potato balls. On further reading, the golodog recipe is similar to another snack known as deblo, which is made of tapioca instead of sweet potatoes. Both deblo and bola ubi are not widely available on the market anymore.

From p. 28 of 76 rupi…, the Golodog recipe is written in Sundanese and in a narrative style, which was common practice at the time.

Also among the microfiche collection of recipes is a publication on how to make tempe and oncom. “Tempe dan ontjom benguk dage” by S.E. Muljokusumo was published in 1962 and contains comprehensive information related to the production of tempe, including its commercial production.

Tempe, made of boiled soya beans fermented with a special mold, is regarded as a Javanese invention, and has become a popular alternative protein. Oncom is a variation of tempe that is made of a mixture of fermented peanut, soybean or coconut by-products. Oncom is generally sold after the mold has become a spore, and it has a more distinctive taste and pungent aroma than tempe, and the texture is coarser and grainier [12]. While internationally less popular than tempe, oncom remains a popular dish in West Java, stir-fried with vegetables or on its own, deep-fried with batter, or pepesan (cooked in banana leaf).

Page 8 of the book “Tempe dan ontjom benguk dage” covers the equipment used in the production of tempe.

This post highlights mainly Indonesian recipes, and barely scratches the surface of the rich and diverse food heritage of Indonesia and Southeast Asia. For more books on Indonesian recipes and Indonesian food in the Library, click here.

Further reading:


[1] Christina Nope-Williams, “Food and identity construction: The impact of colonization in Indonesian society” in Routledge Handbook of Food in Asia, ed. Cecilia Leong-Salobir (Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge, 2019), 58-72. ISEAS Library call no: GT2853 A8R86
[2] News Desk (The Jakarta Post), “Sukarno’s Mustika Rasa recipe book re-printed,” The Jakarta Post, August 15, 2016, https://www.thejakartapost.com/life/2016/08/15/sukarnos-mustika-rasa-recipe-book-re-printed.html
[3] Laura Siciliano-Rosen, “rijsttafel” in Encyclopedia Britannica, last modified June 10, 2014, https://www.britannica.com/topic/rijsttafel
[4] Fadly Rahman, “Rijsttafel: The History of Indonesian Foodways,” kompasiana, December 16, 2010, https://web.archive.org/web/20130921053540/http://wisata.kompasiana.com/kuliner/2010/12/17/rijsttafel-the-history-of-indonesian-foodways-326575.html
[5] Rahman, “Rijstaffel.”
[6] Fadly Rahman, Rijsttafel: Budaya Kuliner di Indonesia Masa Kolonial 1870-1942 (Jakarta: PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama, 2016), 68. ISEAS Library call no: GT2853 I5R14
[7] Penny Van Esterik, Food Culture in Southeast Asia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008), 12. ISEAS Library call no: TX724.5 S68V21
[8] Nope-Williams, “Food and identity”, 60.
[9] Nope-Williams, “Food and identity”, 67.
[10] Zulfah Hayatun Nufus, “Golodog,” cookpad, March 15, 2020.
[11] Irma Rahmawati, “Deblo,” cookpad, October 10, 2021.
[12] Lea Lyliana, “Apa Bedanya Oncom dan Tempe?“, Kompas, February 28, 2022.

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