I found out what that thing is by chance in Amsterdam back in June 2008. Nope, it’s not my husband (who was still my boyfriend then). It’s not money, or handphone, or my MP3 collection either 😛
I arrived in Amsterdam in a rather foul mood on a late afternoon. I didn’t have a good time in Frankfurt the day before, my train was delayed that morning and I had to waste 3 hours waiting for the next available train, I skipped lunch as nothing on board the train looked appetizing enough. But the main reason behind my foul mood was the realization that in less than 2 weeks, my Eurotrip would come to an end. My itinerary was left with Netherlands, Belgium, Burgundy, and then back to London where it all started and where it would all end.
Knowing from experience that whenever my tummy was empty, my mood would worsen by at least 3 times, I ventured out to look for something to eat as soon as I dropped my luggage at the hostel. As I walked around the neighborhood, I was pleasantly surprised to see one Indonesian name after another. I suddenly recalled what I read in Frommers before, that Indonesian food was commonly found in Netherlands and it was in fact one of foods visitors should try when they come here. So I randomly chose a restaurant called ‘Tempo Doeloe’ and immediately felt at home when greeted by a Javanese lady who spoke Indonesian-accented English. Later on that night, I did a bit of research on Tempo Doeloe and found out that it was actually one of the highly recommended Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam.
The lady brought me to my table and handed me the menu. As I opened the menu, I nearly fell off my chair reading the content on the first page. LOL. Apparently people in this part of the world required an explanation note to understand their level of tolerance towards spicy food 😛
I immediately went berserk ordering one dish after another; sayur lodeh, sambal goreng tempe, telor balado, rendang, and a plate of rice to go along with them. For each dish, the waiter asked for my desired level of spiciness. Without hesitation, I pointed at the last one on the note, the one with 3 plus signs 🙂
While waiting for my food, I experienced a momentary sense of regret. What if the food did not come out to be authentic enough? Growing up in Indonesia, I am familiar with how each of those dishes are supposed to taste and I’ve had my fair share of having to eat inauthentic Indonesian food. But that evening, my tummy spoke louder than my head, so my concern was quickly brushed off.
Fortunately, Tempo Doeloe did not disappoint at all. All the dishes came out authentic. They had the right amount of spices, the right consistency of the coconut milk, and the vegetables were still crunchy enough. In fact, they were so good that I polished everything off in half an hour! I didn’t even stop to take any pictures.
But above all, the one thing that surprised me the most was the sambal ulek (or sambal oelek in Western countries) that came with the dishes. It was very spicy and yet tasty, it was fresh and definitely homemade (as opposed to the store-bought bottled one). When you eat a very spicy sambal, there is a tendency for the chili to be so overpowering that the only thing you can taste in your mouth is spicy. I have such a high tolerance towards spicy food that it is really rare to find a sambal that I can call ‘very spicy’ and yet still tasty at the same time. I ended up asking for a second, third, and fourth helping of sambal ulek to accompany the dishes till the last grain of rice had disappeared.
In the next 3 days that I spent in Amsterdam, I tried a different Indonesian restaurant every night. Each dish I ordered came out truly authentic and accompanied with the same quality of sambal ulek, all fresh and homemade. It was unbelievable! Was I really in Europe? I couldn’t even find any Indonesian restaurant in Singapore that could match what I had in Amsterdam.
All in all, I considered my dinner at Tempo Doeloe the most satisfying meal I’d ever had throughout my entire Eurotrip. Though I had 3 nights of unbelievably delicious meals in Amsterdam, I thought the first experience was always the best. Moreover, I hadn’t eaten any spicy food in nearly 2 months then. I didn’t realize what I’d been craving for until I took a spoonful of rice with sambal ulek that night.
But most importantly, I realized that after all the pasta and the pastry and the fish n chips that I consumed in the 1.5 months of travel, I ended up going back to my root. I grew up in a house full of spicy food. When I moved to Singapore, I would always have a bottle of chili sauce with me anywhere I lived. When I finally started cooking my own meals, the one thing that can always be found in my fridge is a bag of chili padi. It is the one thing that is constant in my life; a plate of rice with a heaping scoop of sambal beats a plate of pasta on any day 🙂