Dutch Food and Managed Expectations
Results of a survey of foreign students show that Dutch food takes some time getting used to. Richard T. Griffiths explains why and lists some Dutch treats.
By Richard T. Griffiths, September 2011
I was at a ‘feedback session’ the other day when the results of a survey of foreign students were presented and I was horrified to learn that we scored badly on ‘food’. But not just Leiden… every university in the Netherlands scored badly. But no, exclaimed the presenter, it doesn’t mean that Dutch food is bad, it is just not what foreign students are used to… it's a mismatch between expectations and reality. We don't need to improve the food, just change the expectations. So, I thought to myself (born and bred in England), that is a challenge difficult to resist.
Let's start with the basics
The Dutch eat three meals a day (and, like everyone else, sneak in a snack every now and then). They start with breakfast which almost invariably consists of bread with cheese or cold meats. A cup of coffee or tea (without milk!) completes this early repas. As a foreign student you can replace this with whatever you like – from a light broth and rice to a full plate of fried eggs, bacon, sausage, baked beans etc (do the English really need their full calorie intake in one session). So it can’t be the breakfast that causes this shudder of disappointment. So it has to be the lunch. You might be forgiven for thinking that the Dutch like breakfast because they tend to eat the same thing for lunch, namely bread with cheese or cold meats. There is a little variation – milk or a cold drink instead of tea or coffee, a little salad or fruit, and real excitement, a hot soup or a warm ‘hapje’ (rough translation, small bite) most often in the form of a croquet. You can almost hear the squelch of trampled upon expectations as the dreams of fried rice with a wide selection of mouth-watering Chinese dishes or the four course Italian meal washed down with a little wine fade before the reality of the university canteen.
Even when we have foreign conferences and someone asks if it is possible to have a beer, they are told, ‘we don't do that here’. No wonder that we score badly. Then it comes to dinner which is eaten as close to six o’clock as possible. Here at last Dutch cuisine comes into its own… a meat or fish, vegetables and some form of potatoes (boiled or chipped) are the more traditional offerings, although many students at home make do with a pizza or a take-away. Actually, for foreign students, six o’clock may be a blessing, especially since you will have missed what your stomach thought it needed at lunch, but I personally find it rather early.
So Dutch food comes not at a time that you wanted or, if it does, it is not what your stomach (and brain) is conditioned to want. Get over it. I was once told by a Chinese visiting professor that he had eaten Chinese throughout his month stay in the Netherlands. He looked shocked when I asked what his reaction would be if I had said the same about eating only European food during a month’s stay in China!
But don’t let your pattern of food blind you to some of the Dutch specialties. Here are some of my personal favourites (not that I like them all myself).
Bitterballen - Small fried meatballs, usually made of minced beef and covered in a breadcrumb coating. Served, with mustard as a snack during a ‘borrel’ (a social drink following an event of some kind);
Drop – Salty , sticky liquorice in various flavours. Most Dutch cannot understand if you don’t like it;
Erwtensoep - Thick pea soup made from split-peas and celery root. Most Dutch have a grandmother whose soup was so thick that the spoon could stand up in it. Served on a cold winters day;
Frieten – Chips (best to get Vlaamse or Flemish, otherwise you are eating reconstituted potato flour) usually eaten with mayonnaise (but also with tomato, curry or peanut sauce);
Haring - Young North Sea herring – cleaned, salted and filleted, lifted by the tail, dusted through chopped onions and lowered into the mouth (don’t forget to bite);
Hagelslag - Sprinkles of chocolate, used elsewhere to garnish cakes but in the Netherlands served on an open, buttered, slice of bread;
Hutspot – A dish of mashed potatoes, carrots and onions, usually served with beef shoulder. It commemorates the dish served at the relief of the siege of Leiden 1575 (minus the beef and the potatoes, the latter not having been discovered by then). Served on the 3 October celebrations in Leiden. Similar (stamppot) dishes are made with kale, endives or sauerkraut, accompanied with smoked sausage;
Kaas – For those whose image of pre-packed Gouda or Edam have led them to think that Dutch cheese is flavourless and boring, try some boerenkaas (farmers’ cheese) or oude kaas (ripened cheese) or some of the local varieties – Leidse kaas (Leiden cheese) for example, is flavoured with cumin;
Pannenkoek – Very large buckwheat pancakes traditionally served either sweet (sprinkled apple syrup and powdered sugar) or savoury (made with cheese or cheese and ham). If with a friend choose different varieties and share;
Poffertjes – Small puffy pancakes with a soft centre, served with butter and powdered sugar;
Rijsttafel – A Dutch interpretation of an Indonesian feast. Rice or noodles (bami) served with a range of small Indonesian meat and vegetable dishes. If with three people, a portion of two and an extra plate should be enough. If alone order a Nasi/ Bami Rames, a selection of tastes surrounding your rice or noodles.
We have added some pictures of the typical Dutch food mentioned above. Can you solve our quiz and match the food with the right picture?