The first time I ate at Matahari, I ordered Lunch Special No. 3, which ought to be called the beef lover's special. There were three steaks on a stick (sate sapi) dipped in peanut sauce, and a spicy Indonesian coconut-milk-and-red-curry pot roast (rendang). The special also included chicken soup and fried rice. It was quite a meal. But as I sat there after my beefy lunch, I found myself daydreaming about the famous Dutch rijsttafel.
For 320 years, the Dutch controlled Indonesia, which was once the richest agricultural region on earth. The Moluccas, which are part of the Indonesian archipelago, were the original Spice Islands. Plantations there produced the world's entire supply of black pepper, nutmeg, mace and cloves. Controlled by Arab sultans from the 14th to the late 15th century, they were eventually taken over by the Dutch, whose monopoly on spices lasted until the French and English smuggled nutmeg and clove seedlings out of Indonesia in the 20th century. It wasn't until after World War II that Indonesia finally became independent.
The 13,000 islands of Indonesia spread from Malaysia to Australia, and as a result, Indonesian cooking is all over the map. Malaysian, Indian and Chinese invasions have given the fertile volcanic islands layer upon layer of history and culture. Some of the dishes we think of as Thai, like the grilled meat on a skewer called sate (or satay) or peanut sauces and dressings, are also claimed by the Indonesians. Many Indian dishes also can be found in Indonesia, notably in the padang cuisine of Sumatra, which features lots of lamb curries and hot chilies. Javanese cooking features delicate grilled and steamed seafood, and the Balinese Hindus are famous for pork dishes.
The rijsttafel (Dutch for "rice table") was the Dutch response to all this variety; it was a forerunner of the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. A large plate of rice was served to each diner, and then a profusion of curries, sates, condiments and other Indonesian specialties were arrayed across the table. The rijsttafels of old colonial Dutch Indonesia sometimes featured 100 dishes at a time. Modern rijsttafels aren't quite so expansive, but they are still a great way to sample a lot of Indonesian dishes in one meal. The rijsttafel on Matahari's menu includes soup, rice and seven dishes for $19.25. Suddenly an inspiration struck me. If I were to come to Matahari with a friend and split the rijsttafel for lunch, both of us could take the grand tour of Indonesian cooking for $9.62 apiece.
On my way out the door, I noticed an old black-and-white photo of a beautiful woman posing in a skimpy costume. There was also a little bit of text about the restaurant's namesake, the beautiful and brilliant Mata Hari, who was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, on August 7, 1876. She married a Dutch naval officer who was 20 years her senior and sailed with him to the Dutch colony of Indonesia. There she learned the languages of the region and became a student of the culture. After divorcing her husband, she returned to Europe. But rather than leading the life of a Dutch divorcée, she assumed the identity of an Indonesian princess and passed herself off as Mata Hari ("eye of the dawn" in Indonesian). Concocting an imitation of ritualized Indonesian dance, the exotic beauty mesmerized audiences at the Folies-Bergère and other burlesque houses.
By 1905 Mata Hari was the toast of the continent. At the onset of World War I, both sides tried to recruit her as a spy. There is no evidence she worked for either side, but nevertheless, a French and English military tribunal, in a closed court, convicted her of spying. In 1917 she was executed. She refused a blindfold, blowing a kiss to the 12-man firing squad just before she died.
The story of Mata Hari inspired me to set up my rijsttafel lunch as a blind date. A mysterious woman seemed like the perfect companion at a place like Matahari. Zelda arrives in an expensive sports car; she is attractive, with short blond hair and green eyes. She is wearing a long printed skirt and a black top. We sit in a booth with very high backs that seems designed for conspiracy. We order the rijsttafel and drink iced tea while we wait for the meal to arrive. She is originally from Milwaukee, she tells me. I talk about my checkered career. After the pleasantries, there is a pause.
"Are you a spy?" I ask Zelda.
"Isn't everybody?" she says. "Don't you look in the medicine cabinet when you go to the bathroom at somebody's house?"
"No," I confess. But I am admiring her quick conversational cornering. She is taking this spy theme and running with it.
"Maybe that's just women."
"Are women better spies?"
"Women are better spies when information needs to be extracted from people. Men are better at sneaking around with little cameras."
"How would you extract information?" I ask her.
"Bamboo under the fingernails is a fantasy of mine," she says. I wait for the ha-ha, but it doesn't come.
Zelda and I rank the rijsttafel dishes in this order: No. 1, sate sapi (the steak on a stick with peanut sauce is just as good as last time); No. 2, rendang (she loves the big chunk of falling-apart beef; it looks like the Lunch Special No. 3 is still a good bet); No. 3, sayur lodeh (the eggplant, chayote squash, green beans and carrots cooked in coconut milk sauce is a nice mellow yellow curry); No. 4, gado-gado (it's an interesting salad with lettuce, cabbage, bean sprouts, potatoes, green beans, cucumbers and a sliced hard-boiled egg topped with peanut dressing and little shrimp cracker crumbs); No. 5, sambel goreng tempe (the combination of spicy peanuts and soy crackers is just a topping for the other dishes, but it would make a great bar mix); No. 6, opor ayam (it's a stewed chicken dish, but the meat is dry); No. 7, bahmie goreng (basically, it's boring noodles with tiny shrimp); and No. 8, kerupuk udang (prawn crackers that taste like crunchy air).
I finally have had a rijsttafel, and now I'm experiencing the twin feelings of satisfaction and disappointment that always accompany the first time for anything. It is an excellent way to sample Indonesian cuisine; there is a lot of food. But on the other hand, the two beef dishes from the Lunch Special No. 3 are still the best things on the menu. With the rijsttafel, there is a homogeneity to the flavors and not enough fresh crunchy vegetables. I am not sure what I would order if I came back.
But the restaurant does seem like a nice, quiet place for spies. Only two tables were occupied last time I ate lunch here. This time, there are four. There is a feeling you get in empty restaurants, one that's strange, but not unpleasant. I ask Zelda if she knows what I mean.
It feels like not being connected, she says. Houston is a great city for unconnectedness, for feeling anonymous. You can slip in and slip out, and nobody pays any attention. Maybe all big cities are like that, she says, but Houston is especially anonymous.
"But I don't think alienation is a bad thing. I like the alien feeling. I bet Jeffrey Dahmer said that, too," she says. "He was from Milwaukee, too, you know. But hey, don't worry, it's been months since I tortured anybody."
At this point, if I were directing a movie, I would have the camera slowly zoom in on the grotesque Indonesian mask whose face seems contorted in a scream. And then fade to black.