First, sushi conquered America, and then tapas invaded our shores. In successive waves, these light little bites with a variety of taste and texture have gratified our desire to "graze" and avoid the heavy commitment required by a big piece of meat and a mound or two of vegetables.

Meanwhile, we have also been subjugated by the spicy intrigue of the more expansive (and filling) szechuan, hunan and native cajun cuisines. Obviously, there is a conflict -- to munch, or to satisfy the need we may feel for a meal of substance.

Enter the rijsttafel. This Indonesian smorgasbord not only combines the variety of sushi and tapas with the sizzle of heavily spiced cuisines; it is also a statement of the individual cook's personality. And, now we can obtain the ingredients at local Asian markets, which was nearly impossible a decade ago.

The rijsttafel is more than a meal. It is the culinary expression of more than 1,000 years of cultural, migratory, political and economic history in the vast and exotic melting pot of the Indonesian archipelago.

Composed of more than 3,000 islands and dozens of singular native cultures, the rich Spice Islands have absorbed the foods and cooking methods of migratory and colonizing Europeans and Asians for centuries. From early recorded history, traders from as far away as the Mediterranean and the Middle East came to carry away a wealth of spices, leaving behind marks of their own culinary traditions.

Later, after the discovery of the Americas, spice traders coming from the new world introduced the tomato, potato, certain squash and melons and beans and the all-important chili pepper, which has had a lasting and dramatic effect on the Indonesian cuisine.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, European traders, particularly the Dutch who colonized and governed Indonesia for many years, exploited rich harvests of spices, rubber and tea, and Indonesia as a whole. A vast servant class emerged providing rich European merchants with enormous household and kitchen staffs.

It was during this period of colonial opulence that the rijsttafel, which means "rice table" in Dutch, evolved into quite a production. Cooks and kitchen helpers, sometimes several dozen to a household, labored intensively to turn out literally dozens of exotic dishes. Soups and sate's, curries and fritters, salads and sauces and sambals, incorporating seafood and poultry, lamb and beef and a veritable cornucopia of fresh fruits and vegetables.

As guests were seated around long tables laid with fine imported linens, china, crystal and silver, a platoon of liveried servants paraded by, offering a seemingly inexhaustible selection of dishes to sample. While very few American households boast a platoon of domestics, it is possible to serve a modified rijstaffel that utilizes advance preparation and buffet-style serving so the hostess/cook can be an effective platoon of one.

Most of the recipes presented here can be partially or wholly prepared in advance. And all of the ingredients that are not commonly available at a supermarket are available in local Asian markets. If all of these recipes are prepared, this rijsttafel will generously serve 25 to 30 guests. To serve fewer people, either halve some of the recipes or eliminate one of the sate's, one of the curries, one of the vegetable dishes and reduce the amount of rice.

Though many Indonesian dishes are intensely hot, the flavors are also very complex. None of these recipes is truly incendiary to start with, though some are very spicy. To serve a group of guests whose palates you are uncertain of, simply reduce the amount of sambal olek or Indonesian sweet chili sauce in the recipes and serve small dishes of the hot sauces for those who enjoy their food really hot. The bright, interesting flavors will still be present, but with a little less heat. NASI GURIH (Fragrant rice) (Makes 8 cups)

This yellow, turmeric-stained rice is very festive and is often used to form the cone for the rijsttafel. It can be made up to 3 hours ahead if kept in a closely covered pan.

4 cups long grain rice

8 cups coconut milk

Zest of 2 lemons

1/2 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon nutmeg

4 teaspoons salt

4 teaspoons palm sugar or substitute brown sugar

8 makrut leaves (no substitute in this recipe)

1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric

Wash the rice under cold running water until the water runs clear. Drain. Combine all the ingredients in a heavy dutch oven with a tight-fitting cover and bring to a boil. Stir quickly to combine, cover, turn the heat to low and cook undisturbed for 20 minutes. Remove from heat without removing the cover and allow to rest 15 minutes or until you are ready to arrange the rice cone. NASI PUTIH (White Rice) (Makes 8 cups)

In most Asian languages, "rice" and "meal" are the same word. Rice is an essential in a rijsttafel. Making good rice is simple if a few rules are observed. First, wash the rice thoroughly to remove the excess starch that makes it sticky. Second, use a heavy bottomed pan with a very tight-fitting cover. Third, never lift the lid and peek or stir the rice while it's cooking.

4 cups long-grain rice


3 teaspoons salt (optional)

Wash the rice under cold running water until the water runs clear. Drain thoroughly and put the rice in a heavy pan with a tight-fitting cover and add the salt and water to reach 3/4 inch above the top of the rice. This is approximately 2 cups of water for every cup of raw rice. Over high heat, bring the rice to a boil. Allow to boil, uncovered, until most of the water is absorbed and little craters form in the surface of the rice. Cover tightly, turn heat to the lowest setting and cook 10 minutes, without lifting the cover. Remove the pan from the heat and allow to rest 10 more minutes or until ready to serve.

The rice can be prepared several hours ahead of time. When ready to serve, wrap it in a clean towel and reheat in a Chinese steamer. GULAI AYAM (Chicken with Coconut Milk and Spices) (4 servings as main course, or as part of rijsttafel)

This simple-to-prepare but complex flavored chicken curry benefits from being prepared enough ahead of time to allow the flavors to intensify.


2 garlic cloves, minced

2 teaspoons ginger root, minced

2 teaspoons coriander seed, ground

1/2 teaspoon fennel seed, ground

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon sambal olek


2 whole chicken breasts, skinned, boned and cubed

1/4 cup peanut oil

2 large onions, thinly sliced

1 1/2 cups coconut milk

5 makrut leaves (substitute the zest of 1 lime in this recipe)

Zest of 1 lemon

1 stalk lemon grass (substitute the zest of 2 additional lemons)

1/2 piece cinnamon stick

2 tablespoons tamarind liquid, substitute lemon juice

Salt to taste

Extra coconut milk as needed

Combine curry paste ingredients with chicken and allow to marinate several hours or overnight.

Heat oil in a heavy dutch oven and saute' onions over moderate heat until very limp, about 20 minutes. Drain chicken pieces, reserving the marinade.

Raise heat and add chicken and stir fry 5 minutes or so to seal in juices. Drain off excess fat and add the marinade, and remaining ingredients except extra coconut milk. Cover and simmer over very low heat 1/2 hour, adding coconut milk if needed. The sauce should be about as thick as a medium cream sauce. If preparing ahead of time, cool and refrigerate up to 5 days. To serve, reheat, covered, in a slow oven and correct seasonings. May be served hot or at room temperature. GULAI KAMBING PEDANG (Java Lamb Curry) (8 to 10 main course servings, or as part of rijsttafel)

The spice mixture used in this curry, bambu gulai, is in constant use in the Indonesian kitchen. Recipes for it vary as much as for curry powders.


1/4 cup shallots, thinly sliced

4 cloves garlic, minced

3 teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon sambal olek

2 teaspoons tamarind liquid (substitute lemon juice)


1/8 teaspoon turmeric

1/8 teaspoon ground clove

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon cardamom

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon coriander

1/4 cup oil

3 pounds boneless lamb, cubed

1 cup chicken or beef stock

8 makrut leaves (substitute the zest of 2 limes)

8 kafir lime skins (substitute 4 strips each of lemon and lime rind in this recipe)

1 tablespoon ginger root, minced

2 stalks lemon grass, bruised with the back of a cleaver and tied in a knot

2 to 3 teaspoons sugar

2 cups coconut milk

In a heavy dutch oven, fry the curry paste ingredients and the bambu gulai spices in the oil over moderate heat 15 minutes. Add the lamb and brown, stirring frequently. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer, covered, over low heat about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Correct seasoning. If preparing ahead of time, cool and refrigerate up to 5 days. To serve, reheat very slowly over low heat and correct seasonings. May be served hot or at room temperature. SAMBAL KETIMUM (Lime and Cucumber Sambal) (8 to 10 as a side dish, or as part of rijsttafel)

Refreshing sambals like this one are almost always served with curries to cool the palate and renew the appetite.

3 hydroponic cucumbers, peeled, seeded and coarsely grated

2 teaspoons salt

Juice of 1 lime

Zest of 1 lime

1 tablespoon cilantro leaves, chopped

1 small green chili, seeded and chopped

1 tablespoon coconut cream

Cilantro leaves, for garnish

Combine the shredded cucumber and salt and allow to macerate for 10 minutes. Squeeze dry.

Combine the remaining ingredients and stir in the squeezed cucumber and garnish. This sambal can be made the night before and stored in the refrigerator. SATE BAMBU MANIS (Sweet and Spicy Pork Sate') (8 to 10 people as an appetizer, or as part of rijsttafel)

Beef, lamb or chicken can be substituted for the pork in this sate'. Sate's are rarely served without sambal kacang, peanut sauce (recipe follows).


1/4 cup tamarind liquid (substitute lemon juice)

1/4 cup ketjap manis

6 cloves garlic

2 large onions

1 teaspoon trassi

2 tablespoons nam prik payasook

1 teaspoon laos powder


1/4 cup peanut oil

1 cup thick coconut milk

2 tablespoons palm sugar or brown sugar

1 tablespoon lime zest

2 pounds lean pork cut in 1/4- by 3/4- by 1 1/2-inch strips

Sambal kacang, peanut sauce for sate' (recipe below)

Blend the marinade ingredients in a food processor. Heat oil in a wok and stir-fry the pure'ed marinade mixture over moderate heat until it browns and moves freely on a film of oil in the wok without sticking. Add the coconut milk, palm sugar and lime zest and cook, stirring, until quite thick, the consistency of applesauce. Remove from wok and cool.

When mixture has cooled, combine with pork and marinate several hours or overnight. At this time, submerge about 60 bamboo skewers in a jar of water to soak.

Up to 3 hours before serving, drain the skewers and the pork, reserving the marinade. String the pork on the skewers and brush with the marinade. Grill over hot coals or broil until barely done. Meat should be slightly pink in the middle when removed from the heat. It will continue to cook off the grill, and slightly undercooking will result in a moister sate'.

Serve hot off the grill or at room temperature with the Peanut Sauce. SAMBAL KACANG (Peanut Sauce for Sate') (Makes about 2 cups)

This ubiquituous sauce has many uses other than for dipping sate'. Be sure to station a bowl of it near the prawn chips on your rijsttafel table.

1 1/2 cups fresh roasted peanuts, or 1 1/4 cups extra crunchy peanut butter

1/3 cup chicken stock 1/4 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup oriental sesame oil

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon ginger root, minced

2 tablespoons red rice wine vinegar

2 to 3 teaspoons Indonesian sweet chili sauce

1/4 cup thick coconut milk

1 tablespoon lemon zest

2 to 3 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice

Pure'e half of the peanuts in food processor. Add remaining peanuts and process until the consistency of extra crunchy peanut butter. Add remaining ingredients and process until well blended. PACHADI BUAH NANAS (Sweet and Hot Pineapple Sambal) (8 to 10 servings as a side dish, or as part of rijsttafel)

Though Malay in origin, this spicy side dish provides a welcome sweet-hot counterpoint to the richness of grilled sate's with their pungent peanut sauce.

1 unripe pineapple

1 teaspoon turmeric

3 tablespoons peanut oil

2 medium red onions, thinly sliced

1 cinnamon stick

8 whole cloves

1 whole star anise

6 whole cardamom pods, bruised

1 tablespoon garlic, finely minced

4 teaspoons ginger root, finely minced

1 cup water

1 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

2 or 3 fresh red chilies, sliced in half lengthwise, or substitute 1 to 2 teaspoons Indonesian sweet chili sauce

Peel, core and cut the pineapple into bite-sized chunks. Put the pineapple, water to cover and the turmeric in a nonreactive pan, stirring to dissolve the turmeric. Bring to a boil and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes. Drain pineapple and discard the liquid.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in the same pan and fry the onions and whole spices 3 minutes; add the garlic and ginger and fry 2 more minutes. Add the water, salt and sugar and boil rapidly for 2 minutes. Add chilies and pineapple and simmer for 2 minutes. Correct the seasonings. The flavor should be hot and sour with a touch of sweetness. This dish benefits from advance preparation. It can be made a day or two ahead and stored in the refrigerator. Serve at room temperature. Adapted from "Singapore Food" by Wendy Hutton, published by Ure Smith, 1979. SATE UDANG (Spicy Prawn Sate') (6 to 8 servings as an appetizer, or as part of rijsttafel)

This is one sate' that is served with its own basting sauce rather than with peanut sauce. If you have a table top grill, this sate' is best grilled at the last minute so that it will be succulent and the aroma of it grilling will entice your guests to the rijsttafel.


3/4 cup thick coconut milk

1 1/2 teaspoons sambal olek

5 tablespoons lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon trassi (optional)

1 1/2 teaspoons palm sugar, or brown sugar

Zest of 2 lemons

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon salt


1 1/2 pounds large prawns, peeled, tails left on

Peanut oil for basting

Combine the basting ingredients and add the prawns. Marinate for 3 hours or overnight. At this time soak about 40 bamboo skewers in a jar of water. Up to 1/2 hour before serving, thread the prawns on the skewers and brush them with a little oil. Grill them over hot charcoal, basting often with the remaining baste. They will only need 2 or 3 minutes per side. Do not overcook.

Heat remaining baste and serve with the prawns.

If preparing ahead of time, combine baste ingredients and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. SAYUR LODEH (Vegetables in Coconut Gravy) (6 to 8 side dish servings, or as part of rijsttafel)

A sayur is a rather soupy curry dish and is usually eaten with white rice to soak up the flavors of the sauce.

1 tablespoon peanut oil

1 teaspoon trassi

6 shallots, minced

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon coriander

1 teaspoon cardamom

Zest of 1 lemon

2 teaspoons sugar

2 teaspoons ginger root, minced

2 makrut leaves (substitute the zest of 1 lime in this recipe)

1 tablespoon tamarind liquid (substitute lemon juice)

2 cups hot chicken stock

2 pounds vegetables, trimmed and cut in bite-sized pieces. (Include a combination of cabbage, green beans, broccoli, zucchini, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, bok choy, carrots, potatoes, jicama, etc.)

2/3 cup block frozen coconut cream or top cream from coconut milk

Salt to taste

Heat oil in a wok and fry the trassi, shallots and garlic until lightly browned. Add the coriander, cardamom, lemon zest, sugar, ginger root, makrut, tamarind liquid and stock and cook uncovered, over moderate heat, for 5 minutes.

Several hours before serving, add the vegetables in the order of their cooking times so that they will all be tender-crisp at the same time.

Add the coconut cream when all the vegetables are just done. Correct seasonings and serve hot or at room temperature.

This dish benefits from an overnight rest in the refrigerator. Allow it to return slowly to room temperature and reheat in a slow oven until the vegetables are just warmed through. REMPAH REMPAH (Beef and Coconut Fritters) (20 to 24 fritters)

These tasty little fritters are also delicious when ground lamb or pork is substituted for the beef. For even better flavor, grill over charcoal rather than fry.

1 cup freshly grated coconut, or unsweetened dessicated coconut

1 pound lean ground beef

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon trassi

1 1/2 teaspoons coriander

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon cornstarch

2 eggs, beaten

Oil for frying

Fresh mint leaves for garnish

Combine all the ingredients except the oil and mint and mix thoroughly. Allow to rest at least 1 hour (may be left overnight) in the refrigerator. Form the mixture into oval patties 1/2- by 1- by 2-inches.

Up to 3 hours before serving, heat 1/2 inch of oil in a heavy skillet and gently fry the patties until they are browned nicely on both sides. Drain on paper towels and serve hot or at room temperature, garnished with chopped fresh mint leaves.

If preparing well in advance, arrange the uncooked fritters in a single layer on a waxed paper-lined tray and freeze. When frozen solid, layer the patties with waxed paper in an airtight container and store in the freezer up to 2 months. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight before cooking. ACAR (Sumatran Egg and Potato Salad) (8 to 10 side dish servings, or as part of rijsttafel)

Though in Sumatra the potatoes in this salad are most frequently fried, I find that a firm, boiled potato is less greasy and more suited to western tastes. Make this salad several hours before serving to allow the flavors to marry.

2 pounds small new potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled

6 hard-cooked eggs, peeled

1/2 cup fresh roasted peanuts

2 to 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

1/4 cup water, as needed

1 long hydroponic cucumber, sliced

Boil the potatoes until cooked through but still quite firm. Cut them into bite-sized pieces. Wash and cut the cucumber into bite-sized pieces similar to the potatoes.

Halve the eggs and remove the yolks. Slice the whites. Mash the yolks in a bowl until smooth.

Make a coarse peanut butter with the peanuts and add to the egg yolks along with the lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Stir to combine, adding water if needed to thin the sauce to the consistency of a creamy salad dressing.

Toss the potatoes, egg whites and cucumbers with the dressing and serve at room temperature.

Acar is best made the morning of the day it is to be served. To make a day ahead, toss the potatoes only with the dressing and refrigerate. Two or three hours before serving, remove from the refrigerator and toss in the egg whites and cucumbers. IKAN BUMBU BENDENG BALI (Spicy Balinese Baked Fish) (4 to 6 as main dish servings, or as part of rijsttafel)

This tasty dish is often made with whole small fish such as butterfish or black bass, but for serving with a rijsttafel, monkfish fillets are a better choice.

2 pounds monkfish fillets, trimmed and cut in 1 1/2-inch chunks

Juice and zest of 1 lemon

2 cloves garlic, minced 2 teaspoons ginger root, minced

1 teaspoon sambal olek

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1/8 teaspoon mace

2 tablespoons ketjap manis

3 whole scallions, chopped

1/3 cup peanut oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Wash and dry the fish. Combine all the remaining ingredients and rub gently into the fish. Leave, covered, at room temperature 1 hour or overnight in the refrigerator.

Up to 2 hours before serving, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Arrange the fish in a single layer in a shallow baking dish. Bake uncovered 5 minutes. Turn pieces to coat with marinade, cover and bake 5 more minutes. Remove from oven and serve hot or at room temperature. KRUPUK (Fried Prawn Chips) (12 servings)

These chips, available in their uncooked form in most Asian food stores, look as though they are made of pastel plastic. They are actually made from shrimp, fish, rice flour, tapioca flour and salt that is pure'ed, steamed, thinly sliced and sun dried. For the sake of flavor it is well worth the cost to buy the most expensive brands, which list shrimp as an ingredient rather than the cheaper ones called shrimp "flavored" chips.

1 pound krupuk (prawn chips)

Oil for deep frying

Heat 3 inches of oil in a flat-bottom wok or deep fryer to 375 degrees. Have ready a brown paper grocery bag, paper towels and a long handled Chinese mesh skimmer. Test the oil by dropping a chip carefully into it. If it puffs up in a second or two, remove it immediately; the oil is ready.

Have the bag, lined with a couple of layers of paper towels, close by, and drop a few chips into the fat. Stir them gently with the skimmer until they have all puffed completely and are only faintly browned. This will take only 2 or 3 seconds. Skim out immediately and put into the bag. Close the bag and swing, shake or invert gently to remove oil, taking care not to break the chips.

Repeat with remaining chips, regulating oil temperature, until all are fried. Krupuk can be made several days ahead if stored in an airtight container. Since they puff up considerably, a likely container is a plastic garbage bag. Garnishes

Numerous common garnishes are appropriate with a rijsttafel, including scored sliced cucumber, tomato wedges, lemon and lime wedges or slices, watercress, cilantro leaves, bright flowers and washed, dried leaf lettuce, spinach or kale leaves to line the rice cone platter. Authentic garnishes include colored eggs and a chili cap. COLORED EGGS (Makes 8 eggs)

Indonesians are very fond of bright colors. Hard-cooked, dyed eggs ornament or perhaps gild the rijsttafel with bright non-food colors such as hot pink and turquoise. This Indonesian answer to the Easter egg should not be dyed more than one day in advance or the marble effect will be spoiled as the colors run.

8 unpeeled, hard-cooked eggs

Red, yellow blue and green food coloring

Rice vinegar

Holding each egg in the palm of your hand, carefully tap it all over with the back of a spoon. Don't hit hard enough to remove any shell pieces, just to make a mosaic pattern all over the egg.

Put 2 eggs in each of 4 small bowls. Make a solution of 1 part rice vinegar to 5 parts water. Pour enough in each bowl to cover the eggs. Then put in enough food coloring to make one bowl bright red, one bright green, one bright yellow, and one bright blue. Cover the bowls and refrigerate overnight. An hour or so before serving, peel the eggs and pat dry and keep them on a plate where they don't touch one another. When garnishing the rice cone, quarter the eggs lengthwise and arrange them on and around the cone. Chili Cap

The top of the cone of rice around which rijsttafel is arranged is always crowned with a chili cap. To make a chili cap you will need a long, bright red, well formed chili, a pair of scissors and a pair of clean rubber gloves. Put on the gloves. Cut the stem end off the chili and shake or scoop out the seeds and membrane. With the scissors make a series of cuts toward the pointed end giving the chili several pointed legs like a starfish. Put the chili cap in a bowl of iced water and the legs will flare out in a half hour or so. This can all be done up to 2 days ahead and stored in a jar of water in the refrigerator.