Lekker is a great Dutch word that denotes something enjoyable, from nice weather and a good night’s sleep to food and drink. Someone who loves to eat is a lekkerbek, (‘bek’ is mouth). What’s in a word, a lekkerbek is also battered and deep-fried cod. Local food traditions and artisan foods are worth discovering, exploring and appreciating wherever you are. These are some of the country where I was born and raised: the Netherlands.
Asperges. Grown in high beds in farm fields, fresh white asperges are a seasonal specialty from the southern province of Limburg as well as several other Dutch regions. The best ones are fat as a little baby’s arm and soft as butter when cooked properly. In season May-June, traditionally asperges are peeled, steamed until tender and eaten with sliced country ham, soft boiled eggs, creamy new potatoes and butter. Not some runny melted butter: good quality clarified farmers’ butter! It’s all in the good stuff that makes good stuff even better. A culinary side note: In the southwest region where I grew up (not too far from the Eastern Scheldt (see also M), asparagus come in a culinary ‘trilogy’ along with two other A’s: anchovies and strawberries (Aardbeien). A seasonal AAA menu brings steamed white asparagus as appetizer, followed by fried fresh anchovies and finishes with fresh strawberries and whipped cream.
Brood (bread) is one of the most popular and oldest food traditions in the Netherlands. There are so many different varieties that bread is divided into categories: white, wheat, whole grain, multigrain, rye, specialty breads, seasonal breads, sourdough and sweet or raisin bread. Each category comes with its own range of options. While most supermarkets sell a large variety of breads, the best place to buy fresh bread remains the Echte Bakker, the ‘real or rather: artisan baker’. Bread goes hand-in-hand with another B: Beleg, the Dutch word for the most elaborate variety of cold cuts. Visit a local artisan butcher and you’ll know why we love our boterham (literally butter ham, it’s the Dutch word for sandwich).
Drop is that Dutch licorice you think you like until we slip you one of those pure black extra-salty salmiak ones. Salty licorice is not for everyone, and I’ve had many a non-Dutch friend stare at me in disgust while they struggled to not spit it out right away. The basic ingredient in drop is the root juice from the licorice plant. Twigs from the same plant are also sold as zoethout (licorice wood), that you chew to extract the flavor until nothing remains but the chewed up fibers. If you want to explore drop variety, find a candy store that sells it in bulk bins. Fill a bag with one or two of each different kind: hard, soft, salty, sweet, colored, black, mint-coated, sugar-coated etc.
Gouda is a Dutch city known for two typical Dutch foods: stroopwafels and cheese. Pronounce the G as if you’re trying to expel a fish bone from your esophagus, and ‘ou’ as out. GhOUdah. The cheese market in Gouda was traditionally the place where regional farmers came to trade their cheese wheels. Without a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) Gouda became a generic name for this type of cheese (hard rind, big wheel, creamy interior) sold anywhere in the world. Dairy farmers in the region continue to make the real deal: original farmstead Gouda cheese. Aged artisan Gouda (Boeren Goudse Oplegkaas) is in fact one of several Dutch cheeses listed in the Slow Food Ark of Taste. It is cheese made from raw milk in summer, when cows graze outside on open pasture in the original Gouda production area—roughly a triangle between Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht called the Dutch ‘green heart’. The cheese is aged for at least 24 months (the Dutch word opleg refers to putting it on the shelf to age). Gouda is, of course, not the only Dutch cheese: the Dutch cheesemaking tradition spreads throughout the country’s twelve provinces.
Hollandse Nieuwe is young herring that is eaten raw. Also called maatjesharing (said to be derived from ‘maiden’), you will see the Dutch hold them up by the tail, dip them in finely chopped raw onions and then dangle them towards their wide-open mouth. Early June a fleet of Dutch herring fishers decorated with colorful flags leaves Scheveningen harbor to mark the start of the herring season.
I + J = IJ as in IJsselmeerpaling, freshwater eel from an inland bay that was closed off from the North sea in 1932. The eel is hot-smoked whole and skin-on and is a prized delicacy. However, these eels are critically endangered. I list it here as a food we must appreciate by not eating it, aware that it is our responsibility to help the European eel to recover. Instead, smoked fish meat from mackerel, herring (kipper) and sprat can at least satisfy a taste for smoked local seafood.
Kroket is my favorite Dutch snack. It’s a common street food, and widely available —and in varying degrees of quality—from any snack shop. The best quality kroket, however, are house-made by a local butcher. A kroket is a cylindrically shaped snack of a savory béchamel-like filling held in a crispy breadcrumb coating. The traditional kroket is beef-based but they can come with veal, chicken, tiny shrimp, cheese, goulash, vegetables even. Bitterballen are similar to a meat-based kroket, just round!
Limburgse vlaai is a sweet pie of seasonal, regional fruits (apples, cherries, plums, apricots or gooseberries, for instance). Traditionally, the base is made with yeast dough leftover after the baker finished making bread. The pie is usually partially closed with dough lattice. My father-in-law always gets a vlaai (locally pronounced as ‘vlah’) from his favorite artisan baker when we visit.
Mosselen (mussels) are typically steamed open in a stock of leeks, onion, bay leaf, celery, thyme, parsley, salt and white pepper. Served with at least three different mayonnaise based sauces and baguette, we’ll easily devour at least two pounds a person in a mussel meal. Dutch mussels come from the southwest province of Zeeland. It’s one of our seafood regions, and home to a variety of delectable bivalves, including oysters, periwinkles, cockles and razor clams. Zeeland was one of the worst hit regions in the 1953 national flood disaster. With the construction of the Delta Works, an engineering project designed to protect the country from the sea, some of the local seafood came under threat. In particular the Eastern Scheldt lobster became endangered after the construction of a storm surge dam that changed its natural habitat. The lobster adapted but remains fragile (which put it on the Ark of Taste list) and has a limited season April to mid July. Mussels, on the other hand, increased their season from “only in the months with an R” to more or less year-round after rope cultivation became more popular.
Osseworst (‘ox sausage’) is an Amsterdam original specialty meat. It is coarse minced, raw beef (back in the 17th century ox meat) seasoned well with spices like nutmeg, white pepper and mace, stuffed into casing and traditionally hung to age for about 10 days and cold-smoked. Artisan butchers in Amsterdam and surrounding region still make the ‘real deal’. Osseworst is a great beer snack (with sharp mustard) but is equally enjoyed on sliced bread (see B). As an authentic regional food, osseworst is listed in the Slow Food Ark of Taste.
Postelein (purslane), parsnip, sunchoke, salsify are all vegetables I grew up with. Much to my surprise, I see them sometimes listed as ‘forgotten vegetables’. Refreshing, slightly acidic summer purslane mixed raw into a creamy potato mash and topped with diced tomatoes and crispy lardons makes a lovely summertime meal!
Rinse appelstroop is a tart, fruity almost black apple butter that takes 7 pounds of apples (local harvest) for every pound of apple butter. Traditionally, it is made with apples that fell on the ground, were picked by birds or otherwise damaged. Rinse is an Old-Dutch word for sour/sweet. Good rinse appelstroop looks like tar and keeps for decades. It is perfect with aged cheese!
Stroopwafels are two wafer biscuits held together by a layer of thick caramel syrup. Although not as common as it used to be, stroopwafel stalls at a market or even street corner make them to order, and usually have a slightly wider iron as well to make the ultimate stroopwafel: big and hot crispy wafers oozing thick viscous caramel. Want to try a different Dutch specialty cookie? How about a bokkenpootje: two long almond meringue cookies held together with buttercream (or traditionally: apricot jam) and dipped on either end in chocolate. The name literally translates to: buck legs.
Vis (fish) from the North Sea is available from fishmongers and market fish vendors. Some of the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certified sustainable North Sea fish choices include mackerel, plaice, haddock, whiting, flounder and herring. North Sea cod made its way back in numbers and is now listed again as a sustainable choice. Monkfish, unfortunately, appears to be struggling. A ubiquitous fish preparation brings us back to lekkerbek: aside from someone who loves to eat, it is also battered and fried cod. Visje eten (let’s eat fish), simply pan-fried market fish with fresh lemon to squeeze, was one of my dad’s favorite lunch suggestions, preferably right in the fishing harbor, with seagulls crying overhead.
Waddenoesters (oysters) are foraged wild (licensed only) from the mudflats in the North Sea archipelago Waddeneilanden (wadden are mudflats). Other wild foods on the islands include samphire and cranberries. The latter, actually, are said to have made it to Terschelling (one of the islands) from America in 1845, when a shipwreck left barrels of cranberries that were emptied in the dune valleys. The berries liked the wet soil of the dune valleys and settled.
Zult is one of the words for Dutch head cheese. Zult is a traditional preparation of a pig’s head. Zure zult (sour head cheese) has a stronger acidity of vinegar and contains pickles pieces (gherkins etc). Dutch head cheese comes in many varieties, from smooth and spreadable to big chunks set in aspic. Other Dutch offal charcuterie (the word offal derived from the old Dutch word ‘afval’, or butchering waste) includes for instance various versions of liverwurst; bloedworst (blood sausage: the Dutch version is solid, sliceable and has chunks of back fat) and tongenworst (creatively called Glas in Lood, or stained glass), a sausage made of blood and tongue. A rare authentic offal product (and listed in the Slow Food Ark of Taste) is Balkenbrij. Similar to scrapple, balkenbrij is a porridge (brij) of scrap meat, blood (dark) or flour (white), grains (buckwheat or oatmeal), and an unusual spice mix that includes liquorice, anise, ginger and cloves cooked in a kettle suspended from a beam (balk).
The Slow Food Ark of Taste referred to here is a list of authentic foods (and food products) that belong to a region or country’s cultural identity but are at risk of disappearing, unless we (re)develop a taste for them!
What is your favorite Dutch food?