Rijsttafel and memories of those days we dressed for dinner

This is the perfect season for healthy and versatile aioli, a sauce made from garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice

The unbearable heat of summer calls for changes in our diets to lighter dishes, such as salad and vegetable combinations, which are easy to digest. This is the perfect season for healthy and versatile aioli, a sauce made from garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice. Traditionally served with fish or vegetables, aioli is a popular sauce in the Mediterranean region, France, and Spain.

For others, summer is the time for curries, believe it or not. Curry lovers explain that the spice induces sweating, which cools the skin as the sweat dries. I tried to serve Indian beef curry at home, but my husband had tired of the scent of curry after years serving as UPI editor in New Delhi. He changed his mind after experiencing rijsttafel, the ritualistic curry-and-rice dish from Indonesia and the Netherlands.

Like other European naval powers, the Dutch embarked on a search for the source of spices, in the process colonizing Indonesia for 350 years and spreading Indonesian culture worldwide. In Manila, in the early 1970s, the Swiss Inn on Dewey Boulevard across the US embassy was where people went for rijsttafel.

We were led to a table near the bar to wait while our table was getting ready. Like the other diners, we were “dressed for dinner,” which meant leather shoes, nylons, makeup, a beauty parlor hairdo, and semiformal dress. Men were expected to don shirts with collars. No sandals, no jogging tees.

Pre-dinner drinks were ordered for everyone—cocktails with names like Manhattan and Cuba Libre. Minors were given Coke with a twist of lemon to make them feel grownup. Nobody drank beer in formal places.


Once seated at our table, the procession of servers began. First were individual rice mounds, followed by large bowls of beef in a curry sauce, sliced hard-boiled egg whites, yolks, chopped seeded tomatoes, minced onions, fried onions, grilled ground fish paste, diced apples, beef rendang, fresh coconut, thick cream, and pure coconut milk.

All the servers were dressed in colorful Indonesian costumes, making diners feel like royalty.

Over the years, rijsttafel became our go-to feast when we had company. We simply added more side dishes when more guests showed up than expected.