How Chinese is Chinese food

Chinese-Indies restaurants in the Netherlands have become such a significant part of Dutch culture that they are officially part of Dutch immaterial heritage. They have become so commonplace, we almost forget that the dishes and interiors of these restaurants themselves have a story to tell. Do you have any idea what the actual purpose is of those gold cats waving at the door?

Eating out for the first time

In the 1950s going to a Chinese restaurant was for many people in the Netherlands their first experience of ‘eating out’, not least because it was reasonably priced. These restaurants offered a mix of Chinese and Indies dishes.

Although the dishes were heavily adapted to suit Dutch taste, for many it was their first introduction to Chinese and Indies food.

From dock worker to restaurant holder

The first Chinese eating place ‘Cheung Kwok Low’ was opened in 1920 in Katendrecht in Rotterdam. At the time it was mainly frequented by dock workers who came to work in the Netherlands because the Stoomvaart Maatschappij Nederland (Netherlands Steamship Company) was looking for cheap labour. As dock worker or stoker on the big ships, they often did heavy work in the harbours of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and elsewhere.

Owing to the economic crisis there was less work in shipping in the 1920s and some Chinese workers were forced to change direction. They began selling homemade peanut snacks or opened Chinese restaurants. In Amsterdam and Rotterdam in particular, where the big harbours were, the number of Chinese restaurants increased.

In Amsterdam many restaurants were on the Zeedijk and in the Nieuwmarkt neighbourhood, in Rotterdam in the Katendrecht district.

Photo: Nationaal Archief – Jopie Sing Hing Chinese restaurant, 1930s, Binnen Bantamstraat, Amsterdam. Photograher unknown.

Chinese-Indies food culture

After World War II Chinese restaurants changed in character. Most Europeans from the colonial society settled in the Netherlands after the war and Indonesian independence, bringing with them different eating habits. The military who had served in Indonesia between 1945 and 1949 also wanted to eat Indies food now and again.

The demand for Indies dishes resulted in Chinese restaurants putting them on the menu. Chefs with experience of Indies food were taken on to prepare the ‘new’ dishes, such as Saté, Gado and Nasi Rames, and to teach the Chinese chefs.

In this way the Chinese and Indies cuisines were mingled and the Chinese-Indies food culture in the Netherlands became a fact. The menu was partly adapted to the taste of Europeans from the former colonial society, but mainly to the Dutch guests.

Portions were increased and the food made less spicy. These new eating habits were gradually generally accepted. The number of Chinese-Indies restaurants in the Netherlands reached a peak in the 1980s, with more than 2300 restaurants.

Now commonplace

Entrepreneurs saw the popularity of the restaurants increasing and opened more and more Chinese-Indies restaurants. Firstly mainly in the large cities but very quickly nearly every town or village had such a restaurant. Migrants from the provinces of ZhejiangGuangzhou and Fujian in South China increasingly came to the Netherlands to work in the hospitality branch. They brought all kinds of things with them that they used in the kitchen, as decorations and much more.

Come on in!

Besides the characteristic dishes, the interior of a Chinese-Indies restaurant also has a story to tell. A number of things undoubtedly strike you when you go into a restaurant. The recognizably Chinese-Indies decoration, such as the paintings, wood carvings and red lanterns, which for many Dutch people typify the ambience of Chinese-Indies restaurants.

You’ll also recognize the figure of the cat.

The so-called 'zhao cai mao' 财猫, or maneki neko in Japanese. These cats actually come from Japan but are also found in China. Many people think these little cats are waving to you but actually the cat is beckoning you to come into the restaurant.

Enticing wealth in!

zhaocaimao 招财猫, of maneki neko in het Japans.
Zhao cai mao 招财猫, or maneki neko in Japanese.

National Babi Pangang Day

It is of course the dishes that are mainly characteristic of these restaurants. The recipes and ingredients were successfully adapted to local tastes. The popular dish Babi Pangang (actually Panggang) has for example an Indonesian name, which means roast pork. This meat dish was probably introduced into Indonesia by migrants from China and centuries later brought to the Netherlands. Here it became one of the most characteristic (and eaten!) dishes of Chinese-Indies cuisine. 

Kunstenaar Benjamin Lee met Babi Pangang vlag
Photo: Stichting Meer dan Babi Pangang (More than Babi Pangang Foundation). Artist Benjamin Lee with Babi Pangang flag.

Although the number of Chinese-Indies restaurants has decreased over the years they are still greatly appreciated. Owing to the efforts of Meer dan Babi Pangang, since 2021 the Chinese-Indies Restaurant culture has been officially recognized as Dutch Immaterial Heritage and the foundation is working on setting up a National Babi Pangang Day. 

The bigger the better

Another especially popular dish from Chinese-Indies cuisine is the spring roll, loempia in Dutch. In Indonesia this word was taken over from migrants from South China who called them Lun Pia. So these popular rolls also came to the Netherlands via Indonesia. In China they are not only a delicious snack; the golden yellow, deep-fried rolls are associated with gold bars and symbolize the acquisition of wealth. They are eaten, for example, at Chinese New Year (Spring Festival), hence ‘spring rolls’ in English. In the Netherlands these much smaller rolls have grown and grown to about twenty centimetres. You’re unlikely to come across such big spring rolls in China! 

Want to know more?

On the  ThingsThatTalk website objects from Chinese-Indies restaurants and the collection of the Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen (National Museum of World Cultures Foundation) are examined and described in more detail.