When I started to plan a week of meals I asked my Dutch colleague for advice on typical Dutch food. His response was something akin to “Oh goodness I don’t know, chips and mayonnaise?”. With that daunting proclamation ringing in my ears, I turned to trusty old Google to find options that may be a bit more interesting and nutritious. One admirable thing about the Dutch attitude towards food is its ready acceptance of international flavours. For instance, the history of Dutch colonisation of Indonesia has meant that Indonesian flavours are heavily ingrained in the modern cuisine. Nothing exemplifies this fusion more than one of the most common bar foods: chips with satay sauce. However, other Indonesian staples such as nasi goreng and rijsttafel are also commonly considered “national dishes” in The Netherlands nowadays, and this enthusiastic integration of International cuisine reminds me fondly of Australia. A lot of traditional Dutch food seems to be specially designed to be consumed during or after a night of heavy drinking. Purportedly the beer in The Netherlands is good and prolific, so perhaps it’s a reflection of that. I therefore found the cuisine a little heavy for regular meals, but certainly welcome on a cold night with a couple of crisp beers.
Pannekoeken are large and thin dutch pancakes that generally have toppings cooked into one side of the batter. They can be made with either sweet or savoury ingredients, but I obviously opted for savoury given my strict dessert policy. I made the batter with the addition of some buckwheat flour, which has a great savoury flavour, combined with salt, eggs and milk. One legend that has always bugged me is that the first pancake is always a dud. This fact has reached such a status that it is frequently trotted out as a parable for life experience, e.g. when your friend fails their first driving test, you might say “oh well, you always have to throw out the first pancake”. However, I must confess, I’ve always found that my first pancake is very representative of all that will follow. Maybe it’s because I use nonstick pans, or that my usage of butter could conservatively be described as “generous”? Regardless, I thought I would mention it in case any other pancake cooks out there felt isolated and maligned by this persistent rumour. I topped my pannekoeken with various combinations of ingredients, including black trumpet mushrooms, field mushrooms, pancetta, bacon, apple, smoked gouda, chives and parsley. As far as I can tell, all of these ingredients are fairly traditional to The Netherlands, and I particularly appreciate the inclusion of apple with savoury ingredients, as I have always thought that it goes well with pork and cheese. I served the pannekoeken with appelstroop, which, apart from having a delightful Dr. Zeuss-esque name, is a sweet thick apple syrup that is often served with both sweet and savoury pannekoeken, and contrasts well with the savoury flavours.
Snert and/or erwtensoep
I have put two dish names in this title, because try as I might, I still don’t really understand whether there is a difference between them. From what I have been able to gather, they describe a similar heavy pea soup dish that is particularly popular during the winter, but snert is more rustic and made by the poor and rural populations, while erwtensoep is a more refined version made by the wealthy. Perhaps they are exactly the same and distinctions exist simply to add a cognitive separation between different echelons of society? Whichever it may be, what I made was a split green pea and ham soup with bacon, carrots, onions, potatoes and celery, choosing to ultimately rise above pigeon-holing of class and wealth to label it both snert and erwtensoep. In the Dutch navy snert is served during the icy winters with chunks of lard floating in the soup, colloquially known as “pea soup with floating ice”, which is a combination that sounds disgusting on its face, although I’m sure I would find it ultimately delicious. The recipe was very similar to the pea and ham soup that my Mum frequently made when I was growing up, and which I have made many times in adulthood in vain attempts to recreate the snuggly warm comfort it delivers. This recipe wasn’t any match for the one made by Mum with love (although are any recipes ever really as good?) but it was still delicious in ways that only the combination of pea and ham can be. I always find the best ham to use is a ham hock, rinsed to get rid of excess salt, and then cooked in the soup for many hours until it’s falling apart. A necessary step in the process is therefore to take out the ham hock, and separate the meat from the fat, skin and bone. No matter how many times I make pea and ham soup, I never seem to learn to wait for the ham hock to cool before separating it with my bare hands, and I therefore associate the process with mild-to-moderate expletives and slightly burnt fingers. I topped the soup with traditional adornments of Dutch sausage and celery leaves, and served it with Dutch rye bread. I found the addition of a different type of pork product to a pork-based dish slightly unnecessary, but not entirely unwelcome…
Patatje oorlog, bitterballen, Hollandse nieuwe and Dutch salad.
All of these preparations are united in their consumption as street/bar food in The Netherlands, and are particularly popular before/during/after a night of hearty beer drinking. Although fries are generally accepted to have originated in neighbouring Belgium, The Netherlands is more renowned for its creative and varied ways of topping them. Although the most famous sauce is mayonnaise (patat met), other popular toppings include patatje joppie (mayonnaise spiced with onions and curry), kapsalon (fries with shawarma, cheese and salad), patatje speciaal (fries with mayonnaise, spiced ketchup and onion) and the variety I have made: pate oorlog. Patatje oorlog translates to “war fries”, referring to the presentation of the meal that is said to look like a battle has occurred (or perhaps referring to the certain gastrointestinal war that will follow its consumption). It describes a topping of satay sauce (influenced by Indonesia), alone with raw onions and mayonnaise. As a life-long fan of both satay sauce and fries independently, I can’t believe I’ve never thought to combine them, and indeed their matrimony is a thing of indulgent and calorific beauty. Bitterballen are a typical Dutch bar snack, made of shredded beef roux rolled into balls, crumbed, then deep fried. So essential is this snack to Dutch cuisine that I broke my deep fry rule and simply had to make them. I slow cooked a cut of beef, then shredded it into a thick sauce made of butter, flour, beef stock, spiced with nutmeg, pepper and parsley. I then refrigerated the mixture so that it reached a gel-like consistency, then rolled it into balls, floured, bread-crumbed and deep fried them. The result is an extremely indulgent crispy golden exterior and gooey lava-hot interior that is very difficult not to respond positively to. It is traditional to serve them with mustard, which cuts through the oil nicely (although perhaps not quite enough…). Hollandse nieuwe describes the famous Dutch raw new herring, (also called soused herring in English), which is made by soaking the first freshly caught herring of the season in a mild preservative briny marinade, in a process called “gibbing” invented by Willem Beukelszoon. The herring fillets are served with gherkins and chopped raw onion, and must be eaten by grasping it by the tail, dousing it in the onions, then tipping your head back and lowering the fish in. I encourage you to google the countless pictures of people eating Hollandse nieuwe in this fashion – they’re hysterical! The love for herring in The Netherlands is said to have ancient precedent, with the high protein and fat content of the nutritious cured herring keeping Dutch sailors strong during the height of its colonial prowess, perhaps underlying its dominance over other world powers of the era. Although I’m certain that preparations similar to my “Dutch salad” are eaten in The Netherlands, it is not particularly traditional, and was really just a vain attempt ingest some fresh vegetables with this meal. Forgive me, after the bitterballen I needed an injection of vitamins to break up some of the hot gravy in my circulatory system…
Stamppot is a dish of mashed mixed vegetables, commonly served with a smoked Dutch sausage. I like the idea of stamppot, because the ingredients don’t seem to be too strict, and it’s exactly the sort of dish economic home-cooks frequently find themselves making when they need to use up what’s left in the fridge, some of which may be looking a little worse for wear… I put kale, parsnip, turnip, carrot, potato and cabbage in mine, and I think that the resultant mash has a much more interesting and deep flavour than simple mashed potatoes. The traditional sausage that stamppot is commonly served with is rookworst, which is made with seasoned pork and smoked. I think that this would be a hit with kids, and perhaps a good way to covertly sneak extra vegetables into their diets (or the diets of some grown ups?). Regardless, I urge the cooks of the world to make this easy dish when you have excess vegetables that are on the turn, and proudly declare it “stamppot!” to your friends and families. While cutting the root vegetables for my stamppot I was forcefully reminded of a scene in the beloved book of my childhood “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” by Tracy Chevalier, a historical fiction about the subject of a famous painting by Dutch artist Vermeer, the model for which was portrayed as a maid in his household. The scene in question depicts the maid, a quietly sad and thoughtful girl, chopping root vegetables for making soup and arranging them on a round dish in radial segments with a round carrot slice in the centre. Vermeer sees the aesthetic of her task, and asks her why she arranged them in that way, if there were any practical reasons? The young maid replies that she merely placed them so as not to let the colours fight, displaying her intuitive artistic nature, inciting his implicit admiration and approval, as well as ultimately the bitter jealously and drama from his wife and other maids that drives the story’s narrative. I think often of this scene, as it so simply encapsulates the simple pleasures that can be gained from the mindful and transient appreciation of culinary preparation and aesthetics – a mantra that is increasingly threatening to take over my life.