Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Amsterdam Adventures and a New Cuisine

The blog has been quiet this past week, because, as I said in the last post, my parents came to town!

 They actually just left this morning from Brussels, where we spent the last day of their stay (more on that later). We had a lot of fun, and I dutifully took notes and pictures the whole time (not really, I’m still getting used to this whole “document your thoughts and experiences” thing and I never really liked taking photographs on vacation. So bear with me if I missed some things.). Join me won’t you, for a look back at the week.

My parents flew in on a red-eye flight from JFK to Brussels, taking the train from there to Maastricht and arriving, tired but raring to go, around midday.  To help them get over their jetlag Todd and I took them for a little walk to show them the neighborhood (with an obligatory coffee and waffle break included). Our night was pretty low-key, and then the next morning we got up bright and early and headed to Amsterdam by train.

Amsterdam is one of my favorite cities; I’ve been there twice before on bus tours, once during each of my two sojourns in London. The architecture is just beautiful, the rings of canals provide a plethora of scenic vistas everywhere you go:

See the leaning houses? Click the pics to get a better view.

It is a bit difficult to get used to navigating the streets, however, especially after the calm of a small city like Maastricht. Like most large cities, Amsterdam has a lot of people in it; unlike many cities, Amsterdam also has a lot of bikers, bikers who go very fast with seemingly little regard for pedestrians who aren’t used to looking for them and so who tend to step out into a bike lane thinking it’s a sidewalk and almost get creamed.

Somehow we managed to navigate our way to our hotel (after a quick lunch break because someone (ahem) was hungry and getting cranky), which was right on the Prinsengracht canal. The hotel was spread over two different buildings, and we had two rooms at the very top of one of them, so we could look out over the rooftops of the city. We dropped our bags and right away headed out to see the sites.

Unfortunately, it was cold, windy and starting to rain. Fortunately, the national museum, the Rijksmuseum, was just a short walk away:

I'll confess I’m not a huge museum person, and when I’m in a new city, or one I don’t visit very often, I usually prefer to wander about and just soak in the atmosphere. When the weather’s not that great, however, a museum can be just the thing. I don’t know how big the collection of paintings in the Rijksmusuem normally is; the building itself is huge (and very pretty, as you can see), but it’s apparently undergoing some major renovations, so the actual part we could visit was pretty small. Which, as I said, I was fine with. We were mostly there to see the Rembrandt paintings anyway. In case you were wondering what Rembrandt looked like, here he is:

Did you know, by the way, the Rembrandt was actually his first name? I had now idea. In full he is Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. How's that for a mouthful?

After getting acquainted with Rembrandt and Vermeer and some other old Dutch painters (who are probably also very famous but I can’t remember any of them), we emerged from the museum to much brighter, though still chilly, weather. Next we walked to the Bloemenmarkt, the floating flower market which I knew my mom would get a kick out of:
The stalls line one side of a canal and rest half on the pavement, have on barges on the water. There are hundreds of types of plants, bulbs and seeds for sale:

And some other, um, products:

This is Amsterdam, after all! But the Netherlands is not only famous for its cannabis and brothels (we saw some of those too, but you can't take pictures of the girls in the windows or burly men will appear and take your camera away, apparently). When we passed a couple of cheese shops, I couldn’t resist peeking inside (and the other members of our party had no complaint, as you can see):

We bought some smoked gouda with herbs and tried many others, including bright red and green pesto varieties, which I was tempted by, but I looove both smoked gouda and cheese with herbs in it, so that flavor won.

To feel we really experienced the full range of Dutch culinary culture, we chased our cheese with frites.

There was a really big line out front of this little place tucked away in a side alley, so we knew it would be good (I love the dubious grammar and the elision of English and Dutch on the sign, don't you?). And we were right!These were some quality Belgian fries, with over a dozen different sauces available (most of them obviously mayonnaise-based, my distate for which has been documented). Mom and Dad shared a cone with Belgian mayonnaise, which is like mayo on steroids, and Todd and I experimented with the Samurai sauce, which was salmon-colored and just tasted like spicy mayo to me. The fries were amazing, though.

After wandering about for a while, watching them set up for the next day’s Liberation Day* festivities in Dam Square (May 4 is Remembrance Day, a solemn day with a moment of silence in the evening, while the next day is one of celebration with outdoor concerts and – what else? – lots of beer), we headed back to the hotel to prepare for dinner.

*That’s liberation from Nazi control during World War II, for those of you not up on your European history (don’t feel bad if you aren’t, the only reason I knew it was Liberation Day was because the university where Todd is working during his sabbatical is on holiday that day.)

Dinner, let me just say now, was fantastic. We went to this place:

an Indonesian restaurant in Rembrandtsplein called Indrapura, which had been recommended to Todd by someone he knows who is actually from Indonesia, so you know to trust him. I don’t often get a chance to eat at an ethnic restaurant that is totally unfamiliar to me, but I’d never had Indonesian before. It was different from anything I’ve ever eaten, but if I had to compare it to another cuisine I’d probably say a cross between Thai and Chinese, which I guess makes sense considering where Indonesia is located. This is a very common ethnic food in the Netherlands due the two nations' former colonial relations. I was intrigued from the moment we walked inside, especially considering their choice of front-of-house decoration:
A dish of various seeds and spices

And another of fruits and vegetables that were clearly just picked up from the supermarket. The beans and asparagus are still in their packaging, and you can see a sticker on that mango and an apple. A lot of people might have been put off by this, but for some reason I was delighted.

I still feel a little weird taking pictures in restaurants, so I only have a few photos, but I managed to capture all of our dishes pretty well. You can order a la carte, but the most popular way to go at an Indonesian restaurant, at least when you’re dining with others, is to order a rijstaffel or “rice table”: basically a lot (and I mean A LOT) of little dishes that you all share, placed on a few burners in the middle of the table. It was a little complicated shuffling around all those tiny dishes (there was barely room on the table), but we developed a strategy that worked pretty well: anything that came with four individual servings, like the sesame balls, we divided up between us right away and stacked the empty dishes in a corner of the table, freeing up some space for the dishes like rice and stir-fries that had to be ladled out as the meal progressed.

First, though, the starter: spring rolls, or lumpia, a popular street food in the Netherlands:

These were pretty standard vegetable spring rolls (our meal was entirely vegetarian, due to the preferences of Todd and my mom), but very well prepared, with a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce and some pickled vegetables.

Next came the rijstaffel. We'll do this in two shots. First, one side of the table (as always, click to enlarge any picture):

Ok, we'll do this systematically, starting from the left. First up is a fried tofu dish, next to that on the bottom a baked tofu dish, both not on the menu (as far as I could tell), both dressed in the sweet soy sauce I was first introduced to in Maastricht and which I have posted about before. Above the baked tofu you see what I believe is the tumis harian, the seasonal vegetable stir-fry, which here meant snap peas (this wasn't my favorite dish. It wasn't bad, just not very exciting.). Immediately next to the snap peas is kentang balado, or spicy fried potatoes (these were also not my favorite, being mushy instead of crispy as I think fried potatoes should be, and not very spicy or flavorful). Below those you have gado-gado, vegetables in a thick peanut sauce, almost the consistency of pure peanut butter, with crunchy wafers on top called emping, or melinjo-nut chips (I have no idea what a melinjo is, but I think that is what these were. They were actually listed as a separate dish on the menu, but I didn't see anything that could have been them except for on these vegetables.). My mom didn't really like this dish, but I, being a peanut butter fiend, loved it. Next to that on the other burner is pepesan jamur, or mushrooms in banana leaf, kind of like an Indonesian tamale. Not great, I thought, but an interesting preparation. Below that are two things also not on the menu, a sesame ball like the kind you'd get at a Chinese buffet (except really good) and some sort of fried thing that was clearly meant to resemble a meatball in taste and texture, though what it was exactly I have no idea. Delicious though. Finally, above the tamales you can see some little brown balls, which are the pergedel jagung, or corn fritters, and pisang goreng, fried bananas (both very yummy, as you'd expect from anything fried so expertly) as well as a dish that you can actually see better in the next photo, so we'll move on. (Oh, and on the other side of my plate from the sesame balls you can just barely see a dish of pickled cucumbers [acar ketimun], which were on the sweet side, and, unseen in the pics, another dish of the same yellow, more savory pickled vegetables [acar campur] that came with the spring rolls and which you can see garnishing some of the other plates)

Here you can see, next to the tamales, rujak manis, or fruit salad in cane syrup (not sure what kind of fruit, maybe mango and melon?). The dish my mom is holding is asinan, I think, which would be vegetables in a sweet and spicy peanut sauce (seemed like mostly lettuce, so kind of like a slaw). On the other side of her plate there is sambal goreng tempe, or fried soy beans, and you can't see them but there were also two other dishes of little fried garnishes: sambal goreng kentang, potato sticks, and serundeng, minced coconut with peanuts that you sprinkled on other dishes to add some crunch. On the burner you have the final dishes: sayur ladeh, vegetables in coconut broth (my dad didn't like this one much), and next to that two egg dishes. At the top is halved hard-boiled eggs in a thick almost grainy sauce (sambal goreng telor), on the bottom you have a dish of tofu and scrambled egg in sweet soy sauce (tahu telor). Last but not least, there's sate tahu, fried skewered tofu with a sweet peanut sauce.*

*Sate, like lumpia, has become an integrated part of Dutch food culture as a popular street snack, and is also sold in restaurants. Saturday night we ate at a little place in Maastricht that specialized in them. They can be made of various types of meat (or tofu) and either grilled or fried, but they are almost always served with "satesaus," or sweet peanut-based sauce.

So that's it: our Indonesian feast. All the dishes were tiny, but there were so many other them we were stuffed to the gills and couldn't even think about dessert. Worn out after all that walking and delicious food, we caught the second half of the Champions' League game at a nearby pub and then stumbled back to our hotel and bed. Stay tuned for Day Two of our Amsterdam adventure!

Note: Indrapura has a website (www.indrapura.nl) with an English-language option, but the menus on the site (or at least the vegetarian rijstaffel menu) do not seem to correspond with what is actually served in the restaurant (you get a lot more than the site says you do). Actually, as noted above, the written menu we were handed did not entirely correspond to our meal. The above description was compiled partly from the online menu, partly from a (very difficult to read and so not posted) picture of the menu I took in the restaurant's window, and partly from online research (thank you yet again Wikipedia, you almost never fail me!).

No comments:

Post a Comment