There is a reason why Van Gogh named one of his most famous paintings ‘The Potato Eaters’ – other than to illustrate the poverty of Dutch villagers back then and his love and appreciation for rural Holland. It is the same reason it took me a while to figure out what “Dutch cuisine” is all about; mostly potatoes. I’m only joking. A little. To be fair, it also includes some sausages and other meats, herring (a type of fish eaten raw with onions and pickles – a more daring version of sashimi), a limited number of mashable vegetables, ham and cheese (never without a slice of bread) and a wide range of beers.
A few months after I settled in Amsterdam, a friend of mine visiting me from France asked me if she could bring me some French cheese. “You need some proper food,” she said. “I know the food is not that great in Holland.” (Incidentally, hereby confirming all the angry stereotypes the Dutch hold about the French). I felt she was worried about me until I explained to her that I could get anything here; it’s still the EU, markets are open and trade is flowing, etc… Besides, I loved the one hundred something types of yellow cheeses I could find in almost every shop. She brought French cheese anyway.
The city offers an amazing range of cuisine, from Asian to African to Mediterranean to American, but very few restaurants serve any authentic Dutch dishes. The first ones I’ve tried were homemade. If I had to rank them in order of preference, it would be like this:
- Hachee: a traditional beef and onion stew that requires long and slow cooking (thanks brother-in-law Bart!). The super tender meat and rich sauce have wonderful depth of flavor. It is served aside with some cooked beetroot and mashed potatoes. Perfect for cold winter months.
- Erwtensoep: this soup is not a starter but a substantial meal. It can be so thick that you can stand a spoon upright in it. Made of split peas and plenty of vegetables with pork sausage – ideally rookworst (very fatty and delicious) on the side. I love it!
- Hutspot: a mixture of carrots, onions, parsnips, all mashed, again with rookworst (still fatty and delicious! – but you see the lack of variation) which when served with the gravy, looks like a colorful mashed potato dish. The sugars in the carrot add a hint of sweetness that makes it so yummy. I tried hutspot for the first time on Sinterklaas.
Among Dutch favorites are also Indonesian and Surinamese food – their presence here being holdovers from the Dutch colonial past, into which I will bravely not venture in my culinary post. I tried the Indonesian rice table for the first time in a restaurant in town. An elaborate meal consisting of many – up to several dozen – small dishes. Kinda like the Lebanese mezze: filling an entire table. It is a melange of sweet, spicy and savory flavors that I find pretty heavy compared to the mediterranean diet. Surinamese roti is just as delicious: ideally in a thick hot bread roll filled with chicken or beef and vegetables or both, a tasty thick dressing and a boiled egg. Just what you need to cure a hangover or a rumbling stomach.
With all this food, in addition to fries with peanut sauce and mayonnaise (called Friet Oorlog), Bitterballen and Frikandel (all deep fried), and the so many kebab, shoarma and falafel snack bars on virtually any street corner, it didn’t take me too long to realize that I needed to watch out for what I was eating here.
It’s not the late 18th century anymore, when potatoes, meat and bread were essential sources of carbohydrates and protein for laborers and farmers. Nowadays, as most of us have sedentary jobs, it is quite a challenge to get rid of all these calories. Avoiding an additional layer of belly fat or wider hips will require a few laps around De Vondelpark. Cycling is not enough, especially for those like me, who, unlike most Dutch people, are not that tall.
So in no time at all, I went back to my hummus, salads and home cooked meals with olive oil instead of butter. And my own potato eater likes it too.