Colonial Flavours in Amsterdam

The language of international commerce and diplomacy is English today, but that was not always a given. If things had turned out differently, all of us might have been speaking Dutch instead. That’s because the Dutch had a great colonial empire that spread from North America to Oceania, Africa to Asia.

All this is made all the more impressive considering just how small the Netherlands was and still is. It’s population numbered 17 million in 2017 but was only 5.1 million in 1900 and 1.7 million in 1700. Colonialism may be seen in a less than wonderful light today, but what cannot be denied is that a country of 1.7 million people (the Dutch Republic) controlled to become a major empire controlling at its peak one of the richest empires in the world. Instead of feeling repulsed and angry, I sometimes feel that the former colonised might be better off putting emotions to one side and unemotionally analysis the reasons for the rise and demise of these empires.

In fact, one of the best documentaries I have seen about the Dutch Empire was from CCTV in China (which made a documentary in 2006 studying the Rise of Great Powers, go figure why), a documentary series that did just that – it studied the experience of these colonial nations that it once labelled as colonial oppressors.

The Dutch can claim many places in the world as founded by themselves. This small Republic gave a charter to a city called New Amsterdam, that the British took over and replaced with the name York instead. It was broadly buried and unknown to many Americans and is only today being uncovered. One etymological story behind the term Yankee was that it came from the amalgam of two very common dutch names: Jan (John) and Kees (Cornelius).

And to think this entrepreneurial drive was precipitated not by a thirst for exploration but the practical desire to find sources of raw materials as war broke out with the catholic Spanish and Portuguese. The Dutch cities in the lowlands were beneficiaries of trade with the rest of the world due to their control by Spain, after their independence from Spain they needed two things 1) sources of trade, 2) a way to direct the Spanish away from quelling their nascent independence movement.

So they decided to invade the colonial possessions that belonged to the Spanish crown. But how? They received a lot of help from one group of people who were chased out of Portugal and Spain, Iberian/Sephardic Jews who smuggled maps to Amsterdam. But they still needed a way to fund these missions and the Republic had no king. And so the Dutch launched the world’s first stock exchange and set up the first every listed company, the Dutch East India Company.

The first major area the Dutch wanted a share of the resources in was Southeast Asia. Modern day Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia were lands blessed with all sorts of spices from mace to nutmeg, cloves to pepper and silk was a must have from China. This trade made the traders huge amounts of money, and made modern day Indonesia the crown of the Dutch Empire. The Dutch also tried to take the sugar and slave trade from the Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas, but whereas they were successful int the East, their victories were not forthcoming in the West, explaining why South and Central Americans speak mostly Spanish and Portuguese except in tiny Suriname, where the official language is Dutch.

Dutch Verwantschapslanden (Kindred Spirits), countries that were once colonised by the Netherlands. Unlike the British commonwealth there is no similar organisation of former Dutch Empire (Source)

To ensure the safety of their products from the East, the Dutch then set up a colony called the Cape Colony of Good Hope, now known as South Africa (and the reason why there are White Dutch people who speak a language called Afrikaans, that sounds at turns like Dutch).

The VOC and the Dutch trade in Indonesia was so successful, that this tiny country was the leading power of the world for 50 years. But a tiny nation can never be the world’s leading power, not at a time when Might is Right. Just at the Dutch supplanted the Portuguese and Spanish, a new upstart – The British – came calling. This was followed up with the Napoleonic Wars. The aftermath of which was the progressive dismantling of the Dutch empire. By 1942, the Dutch only had two significant colonies left – Indonesia and Suriname.

The Dutch would lose Indonesia in a political arm-wrangling despite winning armed struggle in 1949, during the wave of decolonisation. It gave independence to Suriname in 1975, calling the curtains on the last significant remnants of the Dutch Empire.

But the Dutch gained something over those two to three centuries of colonisation, its society was enriched by people from Suriname and Indonesia over its time. Dutch Indo individuals such as the singer duo of borthers Ruud and Riem de Wolff, singer Anneke Gronloh, footballer Robin van Persie, as well as writers Louis Couperus and Maria Dermout.

Quite ironically, a certain extremists right wing politician is also of Dutch-Indo descent. His name is Geert Wilders. I wonder if the irony is lost on him? I’m just saying, there was an Austrian man who kind of hated a part of himself too, back in the 20th century. That didn’t turn out too well.

Dutch Surinamese people also migrated over and people of Dutch-Surinamese descent include footballers Nigel de Jong and Giovanni van Bronckhorst. Dutch Surinamese people are a multiracial group, it includes people who have ethnic Javanese, Indian, African and Chinese blood, brought over to work by the Dutch.

They came also with something else – their food culture.

Indonesian food is perhaps the most influential colonial cuisine in the Netherlands (just as South Asian curries are practically a national dish in the United Kingdom), so popular that it part of the cuisine as flavours (especially the satay flavour) in fried croquettes or gravy on patat fries. Satay sauce is a sweet and only slightly savoury peanut sauce that is served as the main condiment of a satay – barbecued meat on a stick.

Patat Oorlong from Vlemnickxs, the Oorlog gravy is made of a satay sauce base

The bottom dish was a chicken satay croquette from the fast food outlet FEBO

Whereas satays are common in Southeast Asia, and very cheap, satays are expensive in restaurants in Amsterdam. I don’t quite know the reaso why, but that to be honest is a bummer since I absolutely adore satay (see here and here too). The most recommended Indonesian food item in the Netherlands is called the Rijstaffel or rice table. Where rice is served with a load of small dishes on a plate. This presentation form is called hidang and comes from people of Padang. The meal itself is a Nasi Padang (Padang Rice), in Indonesia – rice on a plate with many food items. A variation of Nasi Padang is found in Malaysia and Singapore (known as Nasi Khandar and Nasi Padang).

The serving is very similar to Indonesian hidang, where many smal dishes of food are put on the table, the difference being that in Padang, you get served everything and only charged for what you eat, while in the Netherlands the you order the whole set.

I won’t even attempt to explain an archipelago’s worth of cuisine, that would be the height of hubris , so I’ll add a trio of good food videos on Indonesian cuisine.

What I did do was to into one of the most popular Indonesian restuarants in town, located in a student district (from how I understand it) called Sari Citra (Indonesian Cuisine). Walking in felt like stepping into somewhere in Indonesia. On the individual counters were Indonesian style batik designs laid over the table, facing the stall were wayang kulit dolls The woody furniture reminded me also of a traditional wooden houses.

At the heart of the restuarant was the piece de resistance, a counter with a glass panel displays all sorts of delicious looking food items, seafood, meat, vegetables, tofu a whole array of Indonesian food stuffs was there ready to be devoured.

My mouth salivated but I didn’t order anything because I did not have cash on me, so I decided to try something else instead – Surinamese food. The most popular restaurant for Surinamese food was, wait what? Kam Yin (Surinamese Cuisine). In my ignorance, I had expected Surinamese food to taste similar to central and south American food, Churrasco, tortilla the like. Surinamese cuisine it turns out was anything but.

There were locals who were in Suriname before the Dutch arrived, but there were also people from all over the world who were brought to Suriname, people from Java and China, Africa and the inner reaches of America. After being granted its independence more than half of Surinamese left to the Netherlands because they did not think that independent Suriname could do better than when it was under Dutch control. And so fascinating dishes like Surinamese Nasi met Kip (Surinamese fried rice with chicken) arrived on the shores of Amsterdam.

It wasn’t amazing, it was basically Chinese dark fried rice, and fried chicken.,but at least I tried something Surinamese. Let’s not quibble about how its practically Chinese Surinamese though 😉

The Netherlands may have losts its empire, but the reverse influence on the empire is now a permanent part of Dutch culture.

ON THE MAP (Sari Citra)

ON THE MAP (Kam Yin Surinamese)


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