The kitchen of Maureen Tan in Amsterdam-West, author of The Bible of Indonesian Cuisine: tidy countertops, two built-in ovens, the stacked mortars suggest that the recipes have been prepared and tried here, 230 are included in the cookbook. Saté kambing (goat satay), gado gado, soto ayam (chicken soup), rendang (stewed beef), spekkoek, all the classics are included. Dishes with hours of stewing and waiting time, but also dishes that can be stir-fried quickly. Lots of meat, lots of fish, but also vegetarian and even a single vegan variant.
Don’t cheer too soon, because Maureen Tan isn’t going to cook, she’s going to heat up. And we don’t eat Indonesian, but French. The day before our appointment, she suggested we order two takeaway menus from Bouchon du Centre, a living room restaurant in Amsterdam where cook and owner Hanneke Schouten cooks according to the ‘cuisine Lyonnaise’. Earlier in the day she gave me a cardboard bag in the doorway containing a starter, main course and dessert, a bottle of water and a bottle of wine. I hand that bag to Maureen Tan and she knows what to do.
With a knife and a knife she makes rolls of the anchovies and places them on top of the eggs with mayonnaise. The appetizer. Meanwhile, she sets the table on the balcony. She has, she says, tried every cuisine and cooking trend. Jamie Oliver, Ottolenghi, she loves Spanish tapas. After high school she immediately started working, in her last real job she was facility manager of a sports center. “I never really felt like I had found my place. Until I started cooking.” And especially cooking from the kitchen from her youth. The dishes of her Indian mother and Chinese father.
Crazy, she says, that she, the third and youngest child, the only one born in the Netherlands, has plunged into those flavors and smells of the land of their past. Her mother was 29 when she moved from Surabaya to Amsterdam with her husband and two daughters. “It was 1964, she was one of the last crop of returnees.” The Netherlands had not been her mother’s homeland for generations. “We do not know which ancestor ever traveled to the Dutch East Indies. My mother’s parents were certainly born there, and so were her grandparents.” Maureen Tan’s mother ended up in an orphanage after the Second World War, her parents were interned and died. “The rest of my mother’s family had already left for the Netherlands in your fifties.” But she was married to a Chinese man, Maureen’s father. “Chinese from the Dutch East Indies were seen as communists, they had difficulty entering the Netherlands.”
Javanese dance class
From the day of arrival in the Netherlands, Dutch has been spoken at Maureen Tan’s home. Also by her father. “Bahasa only used them as a secret language, if we were not allowed to listen in.” Javanese dance class, which Maureen wanted to take around the age of twelve? No way. “My mother said: what are we to do with that country, why would you dance like the people who chased us away.” But they continued to eat like there. “In Indonesia, my father and mother had a gardener, a babu for the household and a cook to cook. My father was willing to leave his family behind to go to the Netherlands with her, but he refused to eat potatoes and sandwiches. He told my mother to learn to cook for herself.”
She doesn’t know how her mother learned it, but she was very good at it. They always ate Indian food, except at Christmas. “Then we ate rabbit. With potatoes and red cabbage.” Even on holiday – to Spain, three girls in the back, towels on the windows against the heat – the boot of the Opel was packed with rice, packets of noodle soup and noodles. Her mother’s gingerbread, ‘legendary’ it was. “In December she made bacon cakes to order.” For family, friends and employees of the Bank of Indonesia. It is quite a laborious cake, made up of thin layers of spicy dough baked one at a time. “She made a hundred. She told me to grease the springform pans with butter. ‘Good and thick, don’t miss any spots’.”
paralyzed left side
In 1979, her mother suffered a brain haemorrhage. “I can see it happening.” On the couch, at home. Maureen Tan was 9. “Her mouth started to twitch, her arm stopped working, suddenly everything went wrong.” Months in hospital, then months of convalescence and then she came home, paralyzed on the left side. “We lived on the second floor, she couldn’t go up and down the stairs on her own.” Maureen’s father helped her up the stairs, and when he went to bed early at night—he was a bus driver—Maureen would take her to bed. The adapted home to which they were entitled only became available after twelve years. “Two weeks before her death.” She died of breast cancer in 1992.
She jumps up, to the kitchen for the main course. She returns with guinea fowl braised in savoy cabbage and baby potatoes. Delicious, she says. “Nice peasant.” The smells, the colours, the meticulously cut vegetables of Indonesian dishes, it is inextricably linked to her mother. Because when she couldn’t do it anymore, her daughters had to cook. First her sisters Murly and Grace, aged 14 and 9 years older, with her as an assistant (cleaning bean sprouts), later she learned it herself. “Walking endlessly up and down from the kitchen to the living room to let her look and taste. Rarely was it right the first time.” Too little salt, too much. Not wafer thin, but cut too coarsely, not flavored or just not as it should be.
Reason enough to never cook again, you might think. But that’s not how it went. Maureen Tan began cooking for the neighborhood in the “hours” she had left over from work. Casseroles, stews, freshly prepared meals. For a small group, two or three families, that’s how it started. “In the beginning I came to bring it. Ring the bell, chat at the door.” But it became so popular so quickly that from then on she put the food in front of the door without ringing the bell or chatting. In the plinth of the apartment building where she lives – twelve stories high – was a restaurant that failed. She was able to take over the last months of the lease. And from day one that she cooked Indonesian there – on two burners and without staff – it became insanely busy, according to her. She had to stop taking it after nine months. With a new contract, the rent would more than double, and besides, the pain in her fingers and feet didn’t seem to go away on its own. She now knows that she has rheumatism.
Make a rice table in four hours, it’s possible
Until two months ago she gave courses and workshops in Indonesian cooking under the name Anak Bungsu, which means third or last child. Indonesian cooking, she says, is rarely taught by a ‘real’ Indian or Indonesian. “In Dordrecht, The Hague, Delden, but nobody did it in Amsterdam.” She teaches her students that a small rice table with about four or five dishes can best be made in four hours. And that is, for that kitchen, very fast. The publisher of the French, Italian and Japanese cooking bibles chose her to compile the Indonesian one.
Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world in terms of population, it is difficult to capture their flavors in one book. She has opted for a division into ten islands, and the traditional recipes there. The differences can often be explained by the geographical location of the islands, the different flora and fauna and sometimes cultural differences. Rice does not thrive in the Moluccas, so cassava and sago (made from palms and cycads) are the staple foods. In Papua, where the population is largely Catholic instead of Muslim, pork is eaten in abundance.
Dessert?, she asks and walks back to the kitchen to get the blueberry and red port jelly. In the back of her book, I say when she returns, there are two handwritten recipes. One from her father, and one from her mother, she says. “Later, my mother worked out her recipes, with her right index finger, on an old typewriter. “For you,” she said to us. “Then you will think of me later.” What did she think of her Bible, she often wonders. Proud perhaps, but, she thinks, she must also have wondered why her recipes had been tampered with. Mother Tan’s dishes were a mixture of Chinese-Indonesian, Western and original Indonesian cuisine, adapted to which ingredients were available in the Netherlands at the time. “For this book I follow the authentic Indonesian cuisine, not its Indian.”
When everything’s gone, including coffee with mini-madeleines, I inquire about what she’s going to be doing for the rest of the day. Cooking, she says. The old uncle of a friend of hers so desperately wants to eat beef lung again, prepared as he knows from back in the day. She had to order the meat from the butcher, normally it is offal. The recipe is not in her bible. No, she says. “Organ meat, who still eats that?” So she does. Brains, sweetbreads, sauce made from pig’s blood.
She chuckles. “My mother used to roast a complete pig’s head on the barbecue while on holiday in Spain. People thought that was weird at the time.” She will stew the beef lungs in a spicy sauce of shallots, peppers, salam leaf and tamarind. “If you slice it, it looks like steak. If you put it in your mouth, it is as light as down pillows. You keep eating it.”