When you think about your upcoming trip to the Netherlands, do you think about all the beautiful sights that you’re going to visit? Or do you think about what local food you’re going to try? I usually think about all the sights and museums that I’m going to explore when I visit a new city, but in the end I find myself spending more time on eating than on sightseeing. At first, back when I just started intercontinental traveling in 2005, I felt guilty. But then I quickly realized that eating is just as important for my travel experience, if not more, as visiting sights and museums. To put bluntly and perhaps a bit short-sighted, Google can tell me the background information of the Royal Palace on Dam Square, but isn’t able to let me experience a Dutch stamppot or Hollandse Nieuwe.
I mean, when you think about it, we use practically all senses when we eat. Delicious smells and colorful food arrangements make us mouth watering. And whereas tasting new flavors increases the memories that we build in the country’s that we’re visiting, tasting faded flavors make us relive our memories. Moreover, food is an essential part of life and community, and important for the preservation of cultural identity and history. Ingredients that are used tell us something about the (socio-economic) environment, and recipes and cooking techniques are passed down -sometimes only by word of mouth- from generation to generation.
Although the Dutch cuisine is not very famous (I mean, have you ever seen a Dutch restaurant abroad?!), there are these delicious foods that you should definitely try when you visit the Netherlands.Brown Cafe: Bittertje & Bitterballen
Indulge yourself in local culture and find a traditional Dutch ‘brown cafe’. Inside you find that everything is brown, literally! The bar is made of wood, it’s usually a bit dark inside and there’s a stamtafel (shared table) with newspapers and sometimes magazines. Tables are often covered with carpets and the walls and ceilings with paintings, posters and pictures related to shipping.
These authentic bars emerged in the early 1800s, when people started to decorate their living rooms as small cafes. Women earned extra pocket money by welcoming guests and serving them drinks and snacks, often a bittertje like kruidenjenever (herbal Dutch gin) with bitterballen. The word bitter comes from the verb to bite, because something bitter like jenever has a cutting taste. With the jenever the balls were served, hence the name bitterballen. These breaded and fried balls are generously filled with meat from a stew that’s thickened with roux and beef stock seasoned with different seasonings and spices.
And to spice things up, order a kopstootje (literally: head punch; beer cocktail). Drink the young jenever in a single gulp and ‘chase’ it with sipping a beer.
Erwtensoep / Snert
Although the Netherlands is such a small country, regions have their own variations of erwtensoep (pea soup) and snert. But one thing is in common: practically everyone in the Netherlands enjoys this one-pan dish during the winter. Many brown cafes with an extensive food menu serve this dish in fall and winter.
The dish dates back to the early 1500s and traditionally uses ingredients that have a long shelf life, such as onions, carrots, celeriac, leek, green/yellow peas or split peas and sometimes potatoes. These are cooked in a long-cooked broth of salted meat. The soup tastes even better when it has stood for at least one night. Many people, including myself, prepare the soup only to eat it the following day(s). And that’s when we call it snert!
In the 1400s a major change in North Sea fishing took place. Dutch fishermen designed a special blade that they used to remove the gills and viscera of herrings. The pancreas was left behind in the fish, because certain enzymes would cause the herring to mature. This development was important because it allowed ships to stay at sea for a much longer time and it made the export of brine herring possible.
Nowadays the annual 6-week fishing season for herring begins in May, when the herring has reached a fat percentage of at least 16 per cent. Then, in the beginning of June, the first keg of herring is auctioned for charity and that’s when we start with the herring eating season. Although there are no real rules for eating herring, there are two ways to eat this fish properly. You can use your thumb and index finger to pick up the herring by its tail. Let it dangle in the air and tilt your head back a little. Bring the fish to your mouth and bite it off until you have the tail left. You’ll find that in Amsterdam the fish is served in cut pieces and with a fork. Amsterdam used to be the center of the herring trade, but many poor families couldn’t afford a whole fish so they would buy the herring in pieces. Either way of eating, the herring if usually served with onions and/or pickles. It is delicious with a glass of sherry or corn wine! You can try herring at one of the many fish trucks throughout the country. Just let them know how you’d like to eat the fish. We encourage you to eat the fish by its tail! But if you have a bigger appetite you can also eat the herring with a bun.
Part of a perfect evening out in the Netherlands is dinner at a family-owned Indonesian restaurant for a delicious rice table. Since recently the Indonesian rice table is part of the so-called Inventory of Dutch Intangible Heritage and it's not without reason if we look at the history of the rice table. That goes back to the time when the Dutch East India Company (VOC) set foot in the Indian archipelago to set up and later monopolize the spice trade. For the VOC, rice was not only a commodity, but the ship's crew also saw it as a welcome change from the one-sided ship's ration. The new Indian cuisine was born in the mixture of cultures. As far as is known, the concept rice table was first mentioned in a text about 200 years ago. The hostess and host would increase their appearance to the outside world by putting as many dishes on the table as possible. This custom was brought to the Netherlands and further adapted to the taste of the Dutch.
For already some 3,000 years the Dutch have been making cheese. In the 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age, we even took our cheese with us as a means of exchange. Not a surprise that we have come to be known as cheeseheads, besides the fact that we annually eat on average 44 lbs of cheese per person. So needless to say that you should surely eat cheese during your stay in the Netherlands. Even better, bring some back home with you as they make great presents. But then, there you are, in the store not knowing what cheese to buy. Even for a Dutch person it is confusing sometimes! Read more about different Dutch cheeses here.Hutspot
Until the 20th century stampotten (mashed one-pan dishes) were prepared during the harvest months when laborers worked long days on the land and needed a lot of energy to do the heavy lifting. It was a cheap one-pot dish that could easily be made in large quantities with not much work for the cook.
Hutspot is a stamppot of potatoes, kale, sauerkraut, endive or carrots and onions, served with (smoked) sausage or with steak meat and gravy. Although hutspot is known to be a typical Dutch dish, it were actually the Spanish who created it. Around 1574, during the Eighty Years' War, the Spanish left behind food that consisted of meat, onions, parsnip and carrots. About 300 years later the Dutch replaced the parsnip for Dutch potatoes, mashed the dish and called it hutspot. Typical Dutch restaurants and brown cafes with a food menu serve this typical Dutch dish in the winter.
There are so many more delicious Dutch foods that you should try! Let us know if you have some suggestions for Dutch food that should be tasted!