This recipe for bubur ketan hitam, Indonesian black rice pudding, comes from the award winning Dutch cookbook Indorock by rockstar food stylist Vanja van der Leeden. She created an amazing book, re-introducing the Netherlands to Indonesian food. To explain why that was necessary, I’m afraid a little history lesson is in order. Or just scroll down for the recipe.
The Dutch-East Indies
The Netherlands was a huge colonial power during what locally is still referred to as The Golden Age. One of ‘our’ territories was Indonesia, a vast archipelago of different people and cultures that were pulled together through colonial rule by the Portuguese, British and Dutch, mostly to gain dominance over the global spice trade. This dominance lasted for around 300 years.
Once the war ended Indonesia claimed independence and the Dutch were booted out. With that a lot of people of European-Indonesian descent were kicked out as well.
The Dutch had managed the colony in part by giving certain Indo-Europeans a special status, above native Indonesians. They used us (yes I am one of them) as a sort of mid level management. With all the perks of whatever being mid management entails. But also with the clear distinction that we were never going to be white, with all that that entails.
As a result of our position and attempts of some Indo-Europeans to become the new senior level managers in Indonesia after Dutch rule, Indonesians were weary off those of us who had collaborated with the Dutch and kicked us out.
Indo-Europeans were initially born out of sex slavery and later through covert forms of sex slavery, where a housekeeper would also have to ‘keep’ her employer in other ways.
Depending on the politics of the day, children born from these arrangements (interracial marriages did occur, but were illegal or otherwise punished at various times in colonial history) would be allotted this special status (or not) and even be taken away from their Indonesian mothers once a European man finally found a wife ‘proper’ (i.e. a white one). You can get a glimpse of these practices by reading about the life of my grandfather.
Because laws and practices about Indo-Europeans changed over time, our family histories are all very different. We are often spoken of as a coherent group, but we’re really not. A lot of (unacknowledged) Indo-Europeans stayed behind, some by force, some by choice. There are even some Indo-Europeans that were never accepted by the Netherlands nor by Indonesia and are still living as stateless people in Indonesia, surviving on donations.
Sooo, what does this have to do with food?
People often think Indonesian food is popular in the Netherlands. But what is really popular here is colonial Dutch-Indonesian food (also known as ‘Indisch eten’). A mishmash of Indonesian food and Dutch ideas and adjustments of it, that were brought here after a lot of us were booted out of the country and ‘repatriated’ (though most of us had never been here before) to the Netherlands.
Often, because of the status these refugees had in the colonies, they didn’t know how to cook. Most of them had a kokkie (a cook) in Indonesia. So once they got here and wanted a taste of home, they had to make stuff up. On top of that a lot of the ingredients used in the Dutch East Indies weren’t available here, so they had to improvise even further.
I got lucky because my grandmother started cooking at a very young age. She survived the war by selling small snacks on the streets. Her parents were afraid to go outside because her father was considered a collaborator for the Dutch. But was considered too Indonesian to be interned by the Japanese (not that that would have been any better, see my grandfather’s story linked above).
After Indonesian independence, my grandparents fled to New Guinea. There my grandmother ran a catering company. Until finally, after 5 years of pleading and begging (we weren’t considered European enough to repatriate), they were allowed to flee to Holland in 1962 where both my grandparents worked in factories while my grandmother sold snacks on the side.
So: my grandmother a) knew the original recipes and b) knew how to replace ingredients she couldn’t find. Though I imagine there’s a lot of stuff she didn’t even try because ingredients weren’t available. I remember we didn’t get pandan cake until the mid 90s and it was just a ready mix for chiffon cake.
To bring it back to Vanja’s amazing Indorock. The Dutch interpretation of Indonesian food had been at a standstill for decades. Fed by nostalgia for our former home, or our grandparents’ homes (as in my case), what we were eating was a maybe 30’s to 40’s Dutch colonial interpretation of Indonesian food. With the kind of tweaks a diaspora makes when ingredients are missing.
Vanja traveled through Indonesia as it is now and brings its current flavors to us. Adding in some of her own ideas and preferences. In Indorock she highlights the many chefs, restaurants and people she met during her travels. She finishes off with small but crucial touches like explaining the difference between ‘Indisch’ and Indonesian. And using current Indonesian spelling for foods, rather than Dutch colonial spelling that is more commonly used here.
Bubur ketan hitam is just one of over a 130 exciting and inspiring recipes, that are all super fresh and light compared to the stodgy cooking of 40’s colonial Indonesia. At the moment Indorock is only available in Dutch and German, but hopefully it gets picked up internationally soon as well.
Want to know more about Indonesia?
As you may have noticed I’m not just into food but also very interested in Dutch Indonesian (post)colonial history. I think being a child of refugees. Growing up in what is essentially lost (colonial) culture for the first 20 years of my life have really informed the rest of my well… life.
It always surprises me how little people speak and know about Indonesia globally because it is the 4th most populous country in the world. It’s also one of the largest countries in the world.*
- P.A. Toer‘s The Buru Quartet, this is a long read but it gives a fictionalized history of Indonesia from the butt end of the colonial period until a little after Indonesian independence and gives you a really great insight into Indonesian history. I cannot recommend it enough (and I recommend it always)
- The Interpreter from Java by Alfred Birney, a critical history (which is too often read as a personal history) of postcolonial life in The Netherlands
- Indonesia Etc. from Elizabeth Pisani, a sort of travelogue through Indonesia as it is now and a great explanation of how complex a nation Indonesia is (though I found some of it a bit Eurocentric)
- Sri Owen‘s Indonesian Food, Sri is the Grande Dame of Indonesian cooking and while I don’t have her book yet she is the Grande Dame for a reason
- For Coconut&Sambal by Lara Lee worked with Sri Owen among others, and her book is hopefully the first in a long line of new Indonesian cookbooks available in English
- De Njai by Reggie Baay explains the history of Indo-Europeans and the njai, our fore mothers, in great and painful detail. Unfortunately it’s only available in Dutch right now
- De Bijbel van de Indonesische Keuken by Maureen Tan is unfortunately only available in Dutch for now, but in this book Maureen organised a huge amount of Indonesian dishes by island and region, using local batiks for specific recipes, making this one of the most complete books on Indonesian cooking you will probably find
There are many more interesting books, so if you want even more I suggest you get to Googling.
* For the record: I have yet to visit Indonesia. As a teenager I hated the question if I’d ever been ‘back’. And later I hated the idea of going ‘back’ to a place that really doesn’t exist anymore. Indonesia is not the country my grandparents left behind and I do not feel a special connection to Indonesia as such. I am well aware I’d be a tourist. Now I would love to visit, but finding the time and funds (and now corona) means I’ll probably be a while.
Now, for that recipe…
Bubur ketan hitam - Indonesian black rice porridge from Indorock
- Large pot x 3
- Small saucepan
- Pan for shallow frying
- Slotted spoon
- Paper towels
For the rice
- 7 oz - 200 gr black glutinous rice
- 6 lime leaves
- 0.5" - 2 cm ginger peeled
- 2.5 oz - 75 gr gula djawa this is Javanese palm sugar, accept no substitute!
- 1/2 t - 2.5 gr salt
For the pandan coconut milk
- 13.5 oz - 400 ml coconut milk look for coconut milk with low water content, it's often marked by stores as coconut milk for desserts
- 1/4 t - pinch salt
- 2 large pandan leaves tied into a knot, OR
- 1/2 t - 2.5 gr pandan paste be sure to get paste, pandan essence is gross
For the sweet potato chips
- 6.5 oz - 200 ml water
- 6.5 oz - 200 gr plain sugar
- 1/2 sweet potato cut into thin slices
- sunflower oil for frying
- 1/2 lime
- 1 handful pistachios unsalted, roughly crushed
The night before (or 8 hrs ahead of time)
- Wash 7 oz - 200 gr of black glutenous rice and soak it in at least double the amount of water overnight.
To make the rice porridge
- Add 4 c - 1 liter of water to the glutenous rice and the water you used to soak it in overnight. Add 6 lime leaves, grate 05" - 2 cm of ginger into the pan and mix it into the rice.
- Bring to the boil, turn down the heat and leave to simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid burning.
- Stir in 2.5 oz - 75 gr of gula djawa and 1/2 t - 2.5 gr of salt and leave to simmer for an additional 15 minutes. Your rice should now have reached a porridgy consistency. Remove from the heat and set aside.
To make the pandan coconut milk - make this while the rice is cooking
- While the rice is cooking, slowly heat 13.5 oz - 400 ml coconut milk in a saucepan with 1/4 t - pinch salt and 2 large pandan leaves tied into knots or 1/2 t - 2.5 gr of pandan paste.
- Allow the flavors to slowly combine for around 10 minutes before removing the pan from the heat.
To make sweet potato chips - make this while the rice and coconut milk are cooking
- Bring 6.5 oz - 200 ml water to the boil with 6.5 oz - 200 ml of plain sugar.
- One the sugar water mixture has come to the boil, briefly cook the thin slices of sweet potato in the sugar water - 5 minutes or so. Remove and pat dry.
- Now heat some sunflower oil in a pan to 360° F - 180° C. You can test whether the oil is the right heat by throwing in one potato slice. If the oil comes to a ferocious bubble immediately, you're ready to fry.
- Fry the sweetened sweet potato slices to a crisp and leave them to cool on some paper towels.
- Squeeze some lime juice into the rice porridge to bring up the flavor, or serve lime wedges on the side so people can adjust according to their own taste.
- Depending on how many people you're serving and how hungry you are, divide the rice porridge across 2 - 4 plates, with some of the coconut milk, a handful of sweet potato chips and toss some roughly crushed unsalted pistachios on top.