Chinese Indonesian cuisine in the Netherlands

Chinese Indonesian cuisine in the Netherlands

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Our columnists reveal the colourful past of today's popular Chinees-Indisch (Chinese Indonesian) restaurants in the Netherlands.

The Chinese culinary presence in the Netherlands is more than half a century old. Dating back to the 1930s, the first restaurants were opened by Chinese sailors stranded in Holland as a result of an economic world crisis.

Most of these early restaurants were located in the harbour districts of Rotterdam and Amsterdam and drew clientele from some the shadier segments of society. Apparently, back then it was mostly underworld types who enjoyed good Chinese.

It wasn't until the 1950s that the mainstream began to get acquainted with this exotic fare. The chief reason for this was the influx of about 300,000 refugees from the lost Netherlands Indies colony. Among these new immigrants were numerous Chinese who opened their own restaurants, and repatriated colonists who were already fans of the food.

From this, the "Chinees-Indisch" restaurant was born.

The Chinese Indonesian restaurants gave many Dutch their first taste of exotic food. This was a golden age for Chinese restaurants: as middle-class consumers had more money to spend, they would look for a tasty and cheap place to eat out.

By present-day standards, the typical 1950s menu was quite simple. It included bami goreng (noodles with a fried egg, a slice of ham and a pickle), nasi goreng (fried rice with a fried egg, a slice of ham and a pickle), tjap tjoy (chop suey, invented in 19th-century San Francisco), koe loe yoek (sweet and sour pork with pineapple) and saté with bland peanut sauce. You would wash down this fare with a beer or two.

In hindsight you might say that the 1950s Chinese restaurant did two things. On the one hand, together with the dreary 1950s snack bar, it helped prepare the Dutch middle-class palate for the culinary horrors of McDonald's; on the other, it led to a road of culinary enlightenment.

In the 1970s and 80s Chinese restaurants suffered a minor crisis. By then, the Dutch were exposed to cheaper, tempting alternatives. They loved to eat shoarma (in Egyptian-run joints), they went to Greek bistros (quite popular at the time), they ate Argentine-type steaks and they discovered pizza.

In an effort to boost their popularity, Chinese restaurants all over the country began to upgrade their menus, put in luxury carpeting and replace their cheap paper tablecloths and napkins with proper linen.

The restyled Chinese eateries overcame the crisis and opened the door to the Chinese restaurants we know today.

Where to find it

Chinatown is one of the most homogeneous ethnic neighbourhoods in Amsterdam. Situated around the Nieuwmarkt you can find a variety of Chinese restaurants, takeaways and supermarkets.

The best way to find out where to eat is by asking the Chinese inhabitants of Amsterdam. If you don't know any, we'll suggest two delicious options.

Hidden under N.A.P. (Nieuw Amsterdams Peil - a standard the Dutch invented to know if you live under or above the inundation line) you can find restaurant Moy Kong. It's at Zeedijk 87 (020 624 1906).

One of the biggest Chinese restaurants in town is Oriental City, at Oudezijds Voorburgwal 177 (020 626 8352).

Since it's located on one of Amsterdam's busiest tourist trails, you might be a tad suspicious about its authenticity. However, this enormous, three-storey eatery is one of the better Chinese restaurants, patronised by the local Chinese on Sunday afternoons. Oriental City is famous for its Dim Sum (little appetisers), but only at lunchtime can you really get the largest selection of starters.

Chinese food may no longer be deemed exotic, but that hasn't stopped hungry crowds from frequenting Chinatown's restaurants. With savoury restaurants like Moy Kong or Oriental City to choose from, it's no wonder.

Pascal van Duijnhoven owns import company Vini Nobili, which selects quality wines from Italy. He is also associated with 5 Sensi, an Italian cultural and culinary centre and a meeting place of the Slow Food association.

Hans Vogel teaches Latin American and world history at a Dutch University. He has published widely on Latin American and military history and is also associated with study buddy, "your site on history".

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