I enjoyed my forage into Dutch cuisine in the Netherlands but my taste buds were getting numbed by too much hotchpotch downed with Pilsner. While traversing the labyrinth of the Damrak in Amsterdam, I stumbled on an Indonesian restaurant in the Gravenstraat, just behind de Nieuwe Kerk or The New Church. Recalling that Indonesia was a Dutch colony and the popularity of its cuisine in Netherlands, I decided to bet my Euros on Sie Joe Indonesian Food. And I was very glad I did by the end of my meal.
Stepping into Sie Joe was like finding a hidden treasure the locals wanted to keep entirely to themselves. The customers were not over-friendly at my intrusion and none seemed willing to part with their seats for the tourist in this tiny eatery of only 15 covers.
The interior was simple and decorated with a few Indonesian art. Seating was limited to small wooden tables and chairs that did not encourage long leisurely meals. The absence of alcohol on the premises confirmed my impression of Sie Joe as more of a sit, eat and go type of place. Suddenly my favourite eateries back in Australia, like Mamak and Home Thai, seemed spacious.
Patience (which is not one of my virtues) finally paid off with a seat at the counter overlooking the small open kitchen. I felt I was returning to a home kitchen except in this case, mum, dad and sis were Indonesian Chinese.
The all-day menu revealed a selection of authentic Indonesia street food that I usually order in Jakarta. There was the familiar Bamie (Noodle), Nasi (Rice) and Satay dishes. Gado Gado (Indonesian vegetable salad) was featured on their daily specials menu.
The polite service disappeared, replaced by an infusion of warm Indonesian hospitality, smiles, laughter and chatter that accompanied me throughout my meal. The bar stool and tight space suddenly felt more comfortable.
I took up the recommendation of "Nasi Goreng Kambing" (EUR9.25) and "Lontong Special" (EUR9.25) and proceeded to watch him prepare my meal in his small wok.
Uncle and Auntie Gouw have lived much of their lives in Amsterdam, having followed their parents to the Netherlands in the days of Sukarno, the first President and leader of Indonesia's struggle for independence from the Netherlands.
They shared with me that "Gouw" was the Indonesian version of the Chinese family name "Ng" and their dialect was "Hokkien". Uncle Gouw's Hokkien vocabulary was limited but his family spoke fluent Bahasa, English and Dutch.
Together with their daughter Irene, the couple have been serving home-style Indonesian food to locals for more than 20 years. To achieve an acceptable level of authenticity in their cooking, many ingredients were imported directly from Indonesia including the "Teh botol" (EUR2), an all-time Indonesian favourite beverage produced by the company Sosro. Teh botol literally means bottled tea in Bahasa.
As I sipped on my packet of Teh botol, which is actually sweetened jasmine tea, my stomach was becoming aroused by the familiar aroma of Indonesian spices. Fortunately I didn't have to wait very long.
The sight of both dishes would bring tears to any grown Indonesian. The Nasi Goreng was the accepted Jakarta version of fried rice topped with deep-fried shallots and pieces of belinjau crackers accompanied by sambal oelek (a dipping sauce of red chillies, vinegar and salt). You could see the equal distribution of oil and sauces on each morsel of rice and not the mushy, sticky lumps you get from pseudo-Indonesian eateries that can't even fry rice properly. It also passed the taste test. The rice had the familiar flavours of shallots, garlic, sambal oelek and the Indonesian must-have, kecap manis (thick and sweet soy sauce). The belinjau crackers (made from the seeds of the belinjau fruit) had the right tinge of nutty bitterness, characteristic of this snack. The generous slices of "kambing" or lamb were equally tasty without the associated smell.
The Lontong was equally authentic in flavours and presentation except for the generous portion of chicken sate, but I'm not complaining. I was surprised to find properly prepared steam rice cakes required for Lontong. They are cylindrical shaped compressed rice cake wrapped inside a banana leaf, boiled and served in cut pieces. The coconut milk soup with pieces of vegetables, hard-boilled egg and sambal topped with a kerupuk (prawn cracker) was a close reflection of the "Lontong Sayur" back in Jakarta. Uncle Gouw shared that the kerupuk (Kroepoek in Dutch) was imported from Jakarta which accounted for its original flavour.
I can't say if Sie Joe is the best Indonesian eatery in Amsterdam but I can vouch for the authentic slices of Jakarta in this little homely place operated by a lovely family. Sometimes the treasures in life are hidden from sight and require a bit of searching and luck (at least on my part).
Forget about pancakes or cold sandwiches for lunches and dinners in Amsterdam. With its reasonable prices, good-sized portions and trading hours from early lunch till late in the evening, it's an excellent stop for a meal or takeaway like some of the locals do. I have added Sie Joe to my list of favourite places to "makan" (eat) and look forward to my next visit with the Gouws.