The Herring and other Humble Holland Snackage
By Trish Sebastian
Although I don’t speak Dutch, I feel l could be at home in Holland. After all, laughter and great food is a universal common denominator regardless of the language you speak, whichever nook of the world you hail from. Its capital, Amsterdam, with its numerous and beautiful canals (that celebrate their 400th birthday this year) and gabled brick architecture in every line of periphery, is a busy, vibrating city with an unbelievable charm. The rare combination of things that the Dutch have right – a rich history, superb visual art (Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Mondrian, anyone?), a government that works, brilliant Dutch engineering, the right tint of liberalism, abundance of agriculture, proximity to the sea, and a feverish bicycle culture – makes this small country throb with a distinctly happy beat I’ve yet to see elsewhere in Europe. That’s why I hold Holland special, so much so that I keep coming back.
Holland is dwarfed in size relative to its European counterparts and while its food is humble, it is fresh and abundant. The weather is The Netherlands is temperamental at best, almost suggestive of drizzly Seattle. But when sunshine makes an appearance, it’s glorious. And it is glory you can taste in the fresh, locally-grown vegetables and stone fruits picked at the local farm, or the gouda cheese proudly made in Holland.
Here is a sampling of some of the unique treats one encounters in a place no other than Holland. Local topography and its nuances dictate the availability of local ingredients, so although I had wanted to include a recipe or two, I failed in that attempt. Fresh herring where I live is impossible to find and while I found canned ones, herring is best and perhaps only eaten fresh and raw in the Netherlands or Scandinavia.
Herring isn’t exclusive to the Dutch, but is widely popular in other Scandinavian countries also. Herring is cleaned, deboned, sometimes salted, and eaten raw either with an optional side of chopped onions or in a sandwich. I’ve never had it before in my life and to talk myself into eating these plump chunks of raw fish, I reminded myself that I love sashimi. Before I lost my nerve, I quickly shoved the cold, tender raw hunk in my mouth, its saltiness sharply coating my tongue. It was a shock because it was nothing like sashimi. It was salty and fatter, but definitely a must-try. To eat it, you simply hold the herring with its tail and just drop it into your mouth. Or, the wussy way (i.e. me) is to have the fishmonger slice one up into four, the shiny silver skin still on it, and pop it in your mouth with a toothpick.
“Speculaas” (Spiced Shortbread Cookie)
Speculoos Cookie Butter is all the rage nowadays in Manila and in some parts of America. Did you know that the cookies that form the foundation of this cookie butter is actually a Dutch Christmas shortbread cookie? They’re called “speculaas” and is seasonally available before the huge (and fun) Dutch holiday of St. Nicholas Day (Sinterklaas) on the 5th of December. Unlike people in the rest of the world who crave cookies with milk, the Dutch eat speculaas cookies with bread. Yes. You read that right. They sandwich this spiced-ginger-shortbread in between two slices of bread for a snack. Look away if you’re on a paleo/low-glycemic diet.
Reflective of the local farming that is expansive in such a small country, cheese – good cheese – no, GREAT cheese, is king here. Not very far outside Amsterdam, you will see green pastures dotted with free-roaming dairy cows. Drive further to the countryside and this scenery multiplies exponentially. There must be a strong correlation between happy cows and great cheese. “Gouda” (pronounced “khaw-duh”) is actually a name of a city south of Holland, which through the years just loosely translated to Dutch yellow cheese. You can find them in different aged varieties. If buying cheese to fly home, you can certainly buy them at the cheese shop, but oftentimes, they are overpriced. For value, go to an Albert Heijn store and grab the vacuum sealed wedges. I like Belegen which is aged for about 16 weeks, is less salty than young cheese, and stays fresh for a few more weeks in the fridge.
“Stroopwafel” (Syrup Waffle)
“Stroopwafel” is another treat that is a Dutch institution. They are these thin wafers stuck together with a gooey caramel syrup. It is best served warm and I personally like it with tea. They are hard to miss in Holland because they are everywhere, but the best place to snag them is the stalls where they make them fresh in front of you. If you buy the packaged one, you can nuke it for 15 seconds and it will have just the right gooeyness.
“Pannekoek” (Dutch Pancake)
Throw out everything you know about fluffy buttermilk pancakes out door because the Dutch pannekoek is nothing like it. Pannakoek is flat, light, and is not necessarily sweet. In fact, the ones I always gravitate to are the ones savored up with ham, bacon, tomatoes, and cheese that was crisped in the griddle. It is Dutch comfort food and it seems like the locals I was around have a pannekoek huis that they’ve been going to since they were little. The pannakoek could also come sweet with apples, pineapples, cinnamon, ginger – the whole gamut. Instead of maple syrup, they are topped with powdered sugar and drizzled with sugar syrup called “stroop”.
“Poffertjes” (Mini Pancakes)
This is the mini-me of the Dutch pancake and is typical street food. Each “poffertjes” (pronounced “puff-ages”) is about two inches around and is pretty light and airy. There is nothing light about it calorie-wise though since it’s liberally coated with confectioner’s sugar.
Traveling somewhere foreign is always enthralling, especially when exploration extends beyond the obvious sights and the enculturation occurs at a restaurant, at a local’s dinner table, or at the market. I am fascinated by how food reveals so much about a culture, its geography, and its collective palate. The Dutch are a humble, unpretentious, yet extremely fun lot. They are casual and daringly sweet, and every bit of this can be observed in Dutch food. Dutch food is nothing like anything I’ve ever tried but that is precisely the point of traveling – to live new experiences and immerse yourself in something totally strange but intriguing.