When it comes to eating Asian food in America, Indonesian cuisine is not what immediately comes to mind. Chinese takeout restaurants seem to exist in every town and Thai food is becoming increasingly popular as well. Last December, I tried  Indonesian food for the first time at a restaurant in Chicago and was blown away by the flavors and presentation. Feeling adventurous, we ordered the rijsttafel, which includes several different dishes that are eaten with rice. The concept of rice being served with side dishes isn't unique to Indonesia, but I set out to truly discover what exactly is rijsttafel is and why you need to try it ASAP.

What is rijsttafel?

Rijsttafel is a Dutch word that literally translates to "rice table". It includes several small side dishes (sometimes up to 40!) served with rice that is prepared in a variety of ways. Some popular dishes include satays, egg rolls, nuts, vegetables, and pickles. The one I tried included tapioca crackers, all natural chili sauce, pickled cucumber, vegetarian fritters, steamed rice, coconut flakes, grated coconut salad, spiced green beans, yellow curry pickles, and corn fritters. Yum!


Considered a Dutch colonial feast, the rijsttafel was designed as a way for Dutch colonists to impress visitors with the various exotic cuisines of their colony. The side dishes showcase flavors from many of the different regions of Indonesia, all of which have different core dishes. In the Dutch East Indies, lines of servants would ceremoniously deliver platters of the fragrant side dishes. The first part of the meal to be served was always a large cone-shaped pile of rice, which was then surrounded by the many side dishes and condiments. After Indonesia gained its independence in 1945, the rijsttafel was brought back to the Netherlands by former colonials and gained popularity there. Newly-independent Indonesians rejected Dutch colonial influence, and as a result, only a few fine-dining restaurants continue to serve rijsttafel in Indonesia today.


It would be impossible to name every dish that is included in a rijsttafel experience. Dishes feature a variety of flavors, colors, degrees of spiciness, and texture. Krupuk are deep fried crackers that are made from starch and another ingredient for flavoring. We ate these before the rice and hot dishes were served, almost like a mini-appetizer. Sambal is the chili condiment that is commonly served with the side dishes alongside coconut flakes, which truly tasted amazing with everything. The side dishes are often either fried or in a sweet or spicy sauce. Gado gado, a popular side dish, is a cooked vegetable salad with a rich peanut sauce. The banana fritters, which are called pisang goreng, are also a favorite. Indonesian mixed pickled vegetables are often served as well as a way to cool the palate amongst the variety of other flavors. A rijsttafel is hardly complete without some type of meat, often cooked in a sauce, served with vegetables, or skewered as a sate. 

Where To Get It

It's true that you are more likely to find rijsttafel in the Netherlands than in Indonesia itself, but the Southeast Asian culinary experience is pretty hard to encounter in the United States. In Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, Rickshaw Republic is serving up Indonesian street eats in a cozy environment decorated with traditional masks and umbrellas. If you're in New York, head to Java in Brooklyn to try out traditional Indonesian chicken, beef, lamb, seafood, and vegetarian dishes. Ramayani is a family-run eatery in Los Angeles serving up a wide range of Indonesian fare.

Although it can be hard to find, rijsttafel is 100% something you should put on your list of food experiences to try. Not only is rijsttafel super Instagrammable, but it, more importantly, allows you to taste a variety of flavors and dishes in just one sitting while gaining a greater appreciation for Indonesian cuisine. If you call yourself a foodie, make sure to get yourself to an Indonesian restaurant ASAP, and don't forget to add the coconut flakes to everything!