While the Dutch are famous for beautiful architecture and art, their cuisine has suffered a very dark past. Potato porridge, pea soup and carb-heavy plates of lackluster flavor immediately come to mind, making me wonder how a country surrounded by Bocuse D’or winners can manage to remain so behind the culinary times. There has been a recent movement toward contemporary Dutch cuisine, with native chefs returning from overseas restaurant stints who incorporate local ingredients with newly learned techniques. However, I quickly discovered that fine dining in a city so cosmopolitan as Amsterdam, is still not so fine.
In keeping with their wonderful sense of artistry and craftsmanship, many restaurants in Amsterdam are true architectural beauties. Dining by candlelight in a reclaimed glass greenhouse in the middle of a park at De Kas, throwing back oysters on a modernized retired ferry at Pont 13 and lunching in the bustle of a former church-turned-bright Moroccan oasis at Bazar all offer exciting backdrops for a fun dining experience. Sadly the food always seemed to fall short of its surroundings, and expat residents generally concurred with my observation.
What can we expect from a country whose most popular fast food chain is a glitzed up version of a vending machine? The gaudy red and yellow signs of Febo are visible on every street corner of Amsterdam, dreadful institutions of grease and fat that sell krokets, hamburgers and kaassouflé through small coin operated windows. Bamihaps (deep fried mee goreng), kalfsvleeskrokets (veal croquettes) and frikadels (minced meat hot dogs) that have been sitting in a window for who knows how long simply cannot be good for you.
Tourists wandering into any one of the numerous Dutch pancake restaurants will be surprised to find dense heavy cakes smothered in bacon and swamps of melted cheese instead of the light fluffy ones that we are used to. And the Dutch version of Belgian fries are soggy sticks of recycled oil suffocated with awful sauces and toppings. How can one go wrong with fries, I thought, as I waited in a long line at the ever popular Vleminckx, but the signature patatje oorlong (‘war fries’) topped with mayonnaise, spicy peanut sauce and raw onions quickly made it to my list of most disgusting eats. Dutch dining, at least in restaurants and street corners, seemed to emphasize grease and density over flavor and quality.
Amsterdam is a melting pot of cultures, and Dutch cuisine gets its much needed boost of flavor and energy from the Surinamese, Turkish, Moroccans, Ethiopians and Indonesians. With an array of Indonesian restaurants to choose from, one can retreat for a rijsttafel rice table extravaganza when their palates tire of bland food. Flaky buttery Surinamese rotis with duck curry and crispy green beans will also please the weary traveler.
Chinese dim sum on a lazy Sunday morning at Oriental Palace in Chinatown is another palatable dining option. Pork siu mai, shrimp har gow, pan fried jiaozi, shrimp cheong fan, lotus leaf wrapped sticky rice, taro dumplings, turnip cakes and squid in black bean sauce are as good as any dim sum parlor in the US.
But I didn’t come all the way to Amsterdam just to eat Chinese dim sum and Surinamese rotis. What exactly is Dutch cuisine, and how can I eat well in the Netherlands? After some investigation and a lot of observation, I started to realize that the majority of locals stay at home and cook. Dining out isn’t a big part of their culture, and the best meals are prepared at home using ingredients from local food shops, markets and delicatessens. Take Kaashuis, a specialty cheese store filled wall to wall with artisanal goudas, Edam and Leyden. The Dutch are as famous for their cheeses as they are for their windmills and wooden clogs, and with over 200 domestic and imported cheeses to choose from along with a smorgasbord of marinated olives, roasted tomatoes, beautiful breads and cured meats, one will never have a bad meal anymore.
Immediately next to Kaashuis is a butcher shop offering everything from housemade sausages hanging from the ceiling, pickled beef tongue, venison pâté, rabbit rillettes and a glorious hock of Jamón Iberico to shave. Across the street from the butcher is a gorgeous sweets shop called Patisserie Kuyt bursting with the warm enticing scents of freshly baked pastries and biscuits. The glass window cases are filled with sheets of dainty little chocolate ganaches, bonbons and decadent cakes. Just a few stores down from Kuyt, like in any other neighborhood in the city, is a bakery selling baguettes, croissants, sourdough loaves, dense hearty rusks and various artisanal breads.
Perhaps the best part of shopping and eating in Amsterdam is the fresh seafood. Close to Kaashuis and Patisserie Kuyt is a quaint little store called Fishes, offering the most beautiful selection of fish, cephalopods, mollusks and bivalves for a reasonable price. Smoked eel, mackerel and salmon, all delightful Dutch specialties, are as good as it gets here in this clean and well organized shop.
And what about raw herrings, those shiny slippery fish that the Dutch so love and adore? Herring stands can be found at any outdoor market and along the canals, crowded with locals who stop in for a quick snack, but after numerous samplings of these succulent treats across the city, I found the best ones at Fishes. Here you won’t have to deal with rude herring-meisters who treat you like the tourist that you are, but will be welcomed by the generous staff who run this clean joint. Herrings are best enjoyed during the early summer months when its flesh is at its sweetest, but even when I was there in the winter, they were oily, plump, tender and sweet, hardly requiring the chopped onions and gherkins that come as accompaniments (in fact, purists scorn their presence). Hold the herring by its tail, tilt your head back and slide the whole fish down your throat as the Dutch do, or cut it up in bite sized pieces and eat it with a Dutch flag toothpick if you’re shy.
With easy access to the most wonderful specialty products in the neighborhood, coupled with fresh organic produce from the Noordermarkt farmers market, we were soon eating like royalty in our cozy apartment. It didn’t make sense to throw away our Euros for consistently disappointing and appalling dining experiences. Short of being invited to somebody’s house for a home cooked meal, this was the most economical, pleasant, delicious and sane way to enjoy ‘Dutch dining’. Like a duck confit salad on a bed of organic baby greens, steamed artichokes, roasted red beets and tomatoes with a mustard vinaigrette.
Or fresh sardines from Fishes, pan fried in olive oil and dressed simply with salt and chopped parsley on toasted rusk. Ingredients so fresh, so flavorful and incredible that they speak for themselves.
Whole smoked mackerel quickly became my favorite daily eats, with toasted rusk, fresh mâche salads, organic fruits, artisanal cheeses from Kaashuis and a bottle of wine. Melt-in-your-mouth smoked salmon from Fishes made it on the breakfast table every morning, while pickled beef tongue, smokey and slightly chewy in the best possible way, was another shining star in our daily routine.
When all else fails, there’s always chocolate space cakes, moist buttery snacks that taste innocently sweet. Of course, you’ll still have to prepare some food for those outrageous munchies that will follow.
Random trivia: Did you know that splitting a restaurant bill and ‘going Dutch’ comes from the concept of a Dutch door which is split horizontally in the middle so that the bottom half can stay shut to keep farm animals out, while the top half can remain open to let air in?