WND – Ad Majorem Gloria Orangae

October 8, 2009


This past Saturday was the 435th anniversary of the Siege of Leiden which is otherwise known in my house as the long historical story with no good food at the end (as opposed to the Escalade which is a long historical story which ends in chocolate and marzipan).

For those of you who may be a little fuzzy on your 16th C Dutch history, the Siege of Leiden was part of the 80 Years War during which the Dutch successfully overthrew their Spanish feudal lords and set themselves up as an independent nation.  The impetus for the war was mostly about taxation, with side excursions into the growing popularity of Anabaptism in the low countries which the Spanish (justifiably) saw as a threat to the Catholic faith.

In the year of our Lord 1574 the Duke of Alba laid siege to the town of Leiden which was a hot bed of radicalism and revolution.  The townsfolk held out and held out and held out against the siege.  They ate their stores.  They ate their livestock.  They ate the rats.  They ate any number of other mostly inedible things, and still they held out.  Then there came the moment when there was nothing more they could eat and they thought they would have to surrender, but the mayor stood up and said he would allow the townsfolk to eat him rather than surrender to the Spanish (wikipedia says it was just his arm, but still).  Fortunately before this particular generous offer could be tested the Dutch fleets (for generous definitions of both Dutch and fleet at this particular point in time) led by William of Orange released the dikes and flooded the landscape, forcing the Spanish to flee before the encroaching waters.

As they fled they left behind their stew pots filled with a potato, carrot and onion stew known as hutspot, which the grateful townsfolk fell upon like the starving hordes they were.  According to a variety of internet sources the Dutch fleet also brought with them herring and white bread to feed the townsfolk, but that’s not part of the story that got told in my house every year.

William of Orange was so impressed with the fortitude of the citizens of Leiden that he offered them a choice of rewards.  They could be tax exempt in perpetuity, or he would found a new university there.  In a move that continues to be somewhat bewildering the town opted for the university.  And now every year on the 3rd of October the people of Leiden celebrate Leiden’s Ontzet by eating hutspot, herrings and white bread.

My father for reasons best known to himself since he neither grew up in Leiden nor went to university there celebrates Leiden’s Ontzet every year.  Most people in Holland do not celebrate it unless they have some connection to Leiden – kind of like how nobody outside of Boston has ever heard of Patriot’s Day.  My mother duly made hutspot every year despite the fact that none of us liked it up until I was in high school when she gave up and stopped inflicting it on all of us.  I can only be grateful that my father’s fervor didn’t extend to herrings.

I did not make hutspot for Dinner this week on the general theory that I’m not going to spend time making something I don’t enjoy eating.  However, I felt like I should do something a little Dutch, so I took a slightly different leaf out of the book of Dutch cuisine and made Indonesian food.  When the Dutch go out for a nice meal they don’t go out for hutspot or stampot, they go out for rijstafel (okay they also go out for pannakoeken, but I’m not making pancakes for seven people).  If you’ve ever had either hutspot or rijstafel you’ll understand why.

Rijstafel is to the Dutch something like curry is to the British.  Which is to say, it’s food brought back from the colonies and adopted as a national dish.  There are all kinds of interesting anthropological arguments to be made about the reverse colonialism of adopting food from the colonies as a national dish in preference to local cuisine and what that means about exactly who won that battle in the culture wars, but I’m not in school anymore so I’ll spare you.

Literally translated rijstafel means rice table, and its origin is in feasts presented by Indonesians chiefs (potentates?) to Dutch traders in the East Indies.  When it’s served in a restaurant you’re brought bowls of rice and then lots and lots of small plates of food – kebabs with peanut sauce, and beef cooked in spice and coconut milk, stewed fish, spicy vegetables . . . . depending on how elaborate a rijstafel you get there can be upwards of 40 different dishes presented.

When I was in the Netherlands a few weeks ago for my parents’ wedding anniversary my only request was that we go out for rijstafel one night.  My father emailed me back and without quite saying it still managed to convey the impression of, ‘What kind of philistine do you take me for?  Of course we’re going out to rijstafel’.  And we did, and it was excellent and I was inspired.

Lacking either minions or a week or so to prepare I did not do a full rijstafel, I did however come across a recipe for Beef Rendang, which is a Malaysian/Indonesian (depending on which internet source you’re reading) dish which sounded familiar, feasible and tasty.  I served it with rice, curried cauliflower, chard and my usual assortment of curry condiments – raisins, peanuts, toasted coconut, bananas, etc.

Beef Rendang
Curried Cauliflower

Beef Rendang
(serves 4(ish) – I doubled it generously and fed eight)

5 shallots
1 inch galangal
1 inch ginger
3 lemongrass (white part only)
5 cloves garlic
10 dried chilies (seeded and soaked in warm water)
2 tablespoons oil
1 cinnamon stick
3 cloves
3 star anise
3 cardamom pods
1.5 pound beef (cut into bite sized cubes)
1 lemongrass (white part only, pounded)
1 cup thick coconut milk
1 cup water
1 teaspoon tamarind concentrate
6 kaffir lime leaves (sliced)
6 tablespoons unsweetened coconut flakes (toasted)
1 tablespoon palm sugar (or sugar)
salt to taste

In a heavy bottomed pan toast the coconut until it turns golden brown – and watch it carefully to make sure you don’t burn it.  Reserve for later use.


Seed your chilies and then soak them in warm water while you prepare the rest of the ingredients for the paste.

Pulse the shallots, galangal, ginger, lemongrass, garlic and chilies in a blender until they form a thick paste.  This is a paste that would originally have been made by pounding the ingredients together (be grateful for your blender) so you need to take it past finely chopped all the way to puree.

spice paste composite
Heat the oil in a heavy pan and fry the paste, cinnamon, cloves, star anise and cardamom until fragrant (1-2 minutes).

Add the beef and pounded lemongrass and stir to coat.

Add the coconut milk, water, and tamarind.  Stir to combine and then bring to a simmer.  Cook until the beef is nearly cooked through (15-20 minutes).

Add the kaffir lime leaves, toasted coconut and palm sugar.  Stir to combine and then allow to simmer for 2-3 hours until the beef is very tender and the sauce has reduced.

Remove the cinnamon, star anise, lemon grass and the cloves and cardamom pods if you can find them.

This can be made a few days in advance, and like most stews only gets better if it’s left to mellow in the fridge for a day or two.  Reheat like you would any other stew.

beef rendang - served

Notes on ingredients:
Galangal – To date I’ve never successfully found galangal.  I looked in Whole Foods, which apparently sometimes has it, but didn’t this week.  Friends looked in Chinatown this past weekend where it has been spotted in the past, but not this week.  It’s a relative of ginger so I just use extra ginger and some lime zest to compensate.

Dried chilies – I never really use dried chilies when I cook, and I’m not all that big a fan of really spicy food.  I ended up calling everyone in creation to ask an opinion about whether 10 chilies would blow the roof off of my mouth, and what kind of dried chilies I should use.  I finally ended up at Penzys and asked the very nice (and painfully young) sales guy who recommended Sanaam chilies which worked very nicely.

Kaffir Lime Leaves – Again, both Whole Foods and Chinatown failed me in the quest for fresh Kaffir lime leaves.  I found some preserved ones at Whole Foods which I used (well rinsed), but next time I think I’d just add some lime zest.

Coconut Milk – No, it’s not hard to find.  However, I would counsel using full fat coconut milk here and not the lite coconut milk because I don’t think the lite coconut milk will thicken sufficiently without the addition of flour or cornstarch, and that’s not a taste you want to add to this dish.

Unsweetened Coconut – Unsweetened coconut is not the easiest thing to find.  I ended up at Whole Foods where I was told by a particularly self-righteous employee that they only carried unsweetened coconut because, “sweetened coconut has preservatives in it.”  I rolled my eyes even as I bought the unsweetened coconut.

Notes on the recipe:
I got this recipe from Closet Cooking.  My beef stew came out tasty (and smelled amazing), but looked nothing like the picture on her  blog.  Her recipe says that the coconut milk will absorb into the beef and turn a dark brown as it cooks.  This didn’t happen for me.  I cooked the stew for about 2-3 hours on Monday night and the sauce thickened and reduced, but not that much and remained a pale creamy brown.  On Wednesday night I removed about half of the sauce, added about 2/3 cup of leftover coconut milk to reduce the spiciness a bit, and cooked it in a sauté pan for greater surface area to try and reduce the sauce some more.

Things I would do differently next time:
– I would use fewer dried chilies, maybe a third to a half of what the original recipe suggested.  I used ¾ of what was called for this time and it was just too spicy for me, although depending on how much you enjoy spicy food your mileage will obviously vary.  Other people at Dinner thought it was authentically South-East Asian spicy, which is good I suppose, but I still prefer my food a little milder.

– I would brown the meat first.  It’s a lot faster to just add the meat to the paste, but I think you lose out on the flavor that you get from browning the meat.

– I might try using chicken stock instead of water, because I think the recipe would benefit from a little more depth of flavor.

– I would cut the amount of liquid that I used – so a little less of everything in the spice paste and maybe 2/3 of the coconut milk and water.  I ended up taking out about half of the sauce when I reheated the stew because there was simply so much of it that the meat was getting lost.

Roasted Curried Cauliflower

Recipe previously given:  Curry Dinner

curried cauliflower


Recipe previously given:  Taking the Easy Way Out




  1. A most excellent story, well told, and lucky you to be so enriched by delightful culinary traditions.

    Allow me, however, to gainsay Wikipedia: the Dutch 80 years War of Independence was a struggle for the inalienable “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” before ThJ coined the phrase. Freedom of religion (Calvinism) was a large part of this; tax did not really much come in to it.

    Next year hutspot, the real thing.

  2. Yum, thanks for this recipe, P! I am looking forward to cooking it; thanks also for the history lesson which I am not planning to cook.

  3. Hi Petra, My compliments! If I were to list the reasons why the Dutch went to war, they would have to be 1/ an excessive taxation burden, 2/ the loss of feudal privileges, and perhaps 3/ religious freedom. We gained our independence after an 80-year struggle. During that period,the were moments of brilliant stategic insight, acts of bravery and also cowardice. The siege of Leiden, we are told was a momentous event. I still recall the picture in our Dutch history books showing the town’s maire offering his right arm for consumption to the starving townsmen rather than surrendering. They quite rightly preferred “hutspot”. And so do I. Hope you had a good time! Hugs and kisses; Oom Wim

  4. When you asked about the correct grammatical form of “townsfolk” the other day, I was hoping it had something to do with the Siege of Leiden. I had, in fact, (though belatedly) noticed that it had not been marked this year. I’m not sure if you explained the inspiration for the Wednesday’s meal to those who had actually arrived on time, but I am quite delighted to learn about it after the fact.

  5. […] end in food.  The Dutch (or at least highly select portions of the Dutch population) have the Relief of Leiden which ends in hutspot.  The Swiss have Swiss National Day which involves roasting sausages and […]

  6. […] end in food.  The Dutch (or at least highly select portions of the Dutch population) have the Relief of Leiden which ends in hutspot.  The Swiss have Swiss National Day which involves roasting sausages and […]

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