Her sons and daughters having ranged the four corners of the earth for several centuries, the Netherlands have long offered visitors a vast variety of cooking, everything from a tongue-tingling Indonesian rijsttafel rice banquet to an elegant turbot on a bed of beetroot and nettle leaves. But if you're looking for real Dutch cooking, be prepared for sterner stuff—simple, solid
nourishment with true belly-packing power.
A prime example is the erwtensoep, a thick pea soup fortified with a variety of meats. Let the good local burghers save this magnificent brew for ice-skating time; true aficionados of Dutch cooking like this about 364 days of the year. It can be loaded with spicy sausages and pork fat; it's as thick as diesel oil, as rich as super-condensed cream, as inert as infantry pancakes, and sometimes as indigestible as green sawdust—but is it good!
And one top reason why is because of the astounding quality of fresh ingredients available to Dutch chefs. Holland's national green thumb produces the continent's greatest variety of vegetables and fruits, its Gelderland lush forests yield the finest game, and because Dutch sea dikes are covered with rare herbs that nourishes lambs and calves, this results in exceptionally tasty, tender meats year-round. Of course, the waters of the Netherlands offer up a briny feast of fish and shellfish.
No wonder Amsterdam's top chefs have a no-nonsense obsession in bringing out the best in the ingredients and not drowning them in fusion-for-fashion's-sake finery. For them, "New Dutch Cuisine" has to embrace the traditional grass-roots values of organic farming. As with the Slow Food revolution throughout Europe, it is all about artisanal producers of farmhouse cheeses, great farmer's markets, and locally sourced provisioners. And we are talking local: the city's most forward-thinking chefs are now growing their vegetables and herbs in a plot actually attached to their restaurants. For them, New Dutch Cuisine is defined by farm-fresh, perfectly cooked veggies, and often-organic meat (or fish sourced from nearby areas): garden-to-table cooking, if you will.
But let's not forget unlocal. International urban eating trends make it highly probable, on a walk through Amsterdam, to encounter a sushi shack, a soup shop, a Thai take-out joint, an organic baker of hearty Mediterranean breads, and an olive oil specialist. Most famed are the foods of the former Dutch colonies of Indonesia: the beloved rijsttafel (rice table), offering small plates of often-spicy fish, meats, and vegetables served with rice—a culinary experience not be missed.
As for lunch, just follow the locals into one of Amsterdam's iconic cafés or bars (also often called an eetcafe, eating cafés) to have a broodje (sandwich), uitsmijter (fried eggs with cheese and/or ham served on sliced bread), or salad. Ask about the dagschotel (daily dish of meat, vegetable, and salad based on what was cheapest and freshest at the market that morning). If you are out only for a cheap, grease-enhanced snack, check out the infinite snack bars where you can buy—sometimes via a heated wall automaat—deep-fried meat blobs or french fries that you can order with an amazing range of toppings. Or try the many cheap Suri/Indo/Chin snack bars that serve a combination of Suriname, Indonesian, and Chinese dishes.
The top taste? Head to the many fish stalls—or haringhandels—found on the city's bridges. The prime treat is raw haring (herring that has been saltwater-cured in vats). This working person's "sushi" variation is at its most succulent—hence, the usual onion and pickle garnish is not required—at the start of the fishing season (late May to early June). If this sounds too radical, there's always a selection of battered and fried fishes, Noordzee garnalen (North Sea shrimp, which are tinier, browner, and tastier than most of their brethren) and gerookte heilbot (thinly sliced smoked halibut). However, if you decide to indulge, gerookte paling (smoked freshwater eel), rich in both price and calories, is the way to go.
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