The truth about Dutch food

The truth about Dutch food

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One of the biggest expat complaints is that Dutch food leaves a lot to be desired, says Paola Duque-Westbeek, who gives us the real picture.

One of the biggest complaints I hear from fellow expats is that food in the Netherlands leaves a lot to be desired. First, they say the Dutch have 'no food culture'. The Dutch diet is often classified as 'monotonous' – two colds meal a day consisting of cheese sandwiches and a glass of milk, and one warm meal, which doesn't get much more creative than meat, potatoes and vegetables. Then there are complaints about the quality of Dutch food with 'watery' produce being at the top of the list. Last but not least, Dutch food is frequently labelled as 'bland': Vegetables and potatoes are usually boiled while meat is fried in margarine with nothing more than a little salt and pepper.

But whenever I hear these comments, I can't help but wonder how much people actually know about the top Dutch foods, the Dutch food culture, culinary history, product availability and about Dutch food in general.

First of all, let's begin by defining what a food culture really is: A food culture should be seen as the traditions, practices and attitudes towards food in any given country. It has nothing to do with how varied the traditional kitchen of a country is or how well-known its products are worldwide. So in effect, even the tiniest of nations with the most limited kitchen can say they have a food culture.

Back to basics: The downfall of Dutch cuisine

It is true that today's typical Dutch kitchen is rather basic, but this wasn't always the case. In the beginning of the 20th century, Dutch girls were sent en masse to housekeeping school where they were taught to cook as economically and fuss-free as possible. Because of this, quite a number of traditional foods were lost.

The proof is evident if we look through 'old' Dutch cookbooks such as De Verstandige Kok. Books such as this one show us a culinary world very different to the one we know now. Not only does the book mention how the Dutch relished taking time out for a meal, but it also presents us with an array of interesting and exciting dishes as well as a clever and varied use of exotic spices which were introduced to the Netherlands through the Dutch trade with Asia. The Dutch were also known to enjoy growing their own fruits and vegetables and wealthier families often had summer homes out in the country complete with self-sufficient gardens.

Dutch diet ranked first in the world

Although the Dutch kitchen lost some of its variety and appeal after 1900, the Dutch can boast a food culture which includes wonderful open air markets and yes, an excellent choice of products. Research supports this: In a recent Oxfam report, the Netherlands ranked as the healthiest country in the world for diet, just above France and Switzerland, with respect to having the most plentiful, nutritious, healthy and affordable food among 125 countries.

As far as complaints about 'watery' produce and 'tasteless' meat are concerned, personally, I think this has more to do with consumer awareness and food knowledge than with a lack of availability of good products. It doesn't make much sense to complain about watery strawberries or tomatoes in the winter because these things shouldn't be eaten at that time of year.

Keep it seasonal

Our judgement of Dutch produce shouldn't be based on imported, out of season products, but rather on locally grown, seasonal products. As much as I support buying organic, when it comes to produce, even a supermarket pear will taste better in September than it will in June. The same goes for meat. Should you really expect a lot if you are paying three euros for a whole chicken? Isn't it better to buy less meat and indulge in organic, tasty meat instead?

Eating well basically boils down to making good food choices and knowing what's available in the Netherlands, and anywhere else for that matter.

Blandness or simplicity?

As far as the 'blandness' of the Dutch diet is concerned, if you start with a good piece of meat and add some seasonal vegetables, I don't think you can go wrong.

I love to make exotic dishes which call for a thousand and one interesting spices, yet there's definitely something uncomplicatedly delicious about an honest piece of Dutch sausage served with creamy mashed potatoes and first sprouts, fresh from the market in late October. 

Fortunately, today's younger generations are developing more of an interest in cooking and at the same time wholeheartedly embracing culinary differences from other countries. This has lead to new and exciting twists to Dutch classics, such as hutspot, a boiled dish of potatoes and vegetables which often takes the heat for being 'tasteless' and 'unimaginative'; a fantastic variation is roasted hutspot with white bean and garlic mash, which includes sweet roasted carrots, lightly caramelised onions and not potatoes, but the original ingredient parsnips.

What Dutch foods are on offer?

Before you make up your mind about Dutch food, I encourage you to really become acquainted with what the Netherlands has to offer and about food and fresh produce in general. Learn what's in season, look through Dutch recipes and try making them with the best products you can get your hands on. Take advantage of the many food markets and specialty stores and try to really taste things the way they should be, which basically means fresh, seasonal and not from a pack.

To get you started with exploring the top Dutch foods, I'll leave you with some inspiration: two Dutch cold weather classics 'draadjesvlees' and 'rode kool met appeltjes'.

This aromatic Dutch stew and tangy side dish are gutsy and flavoursome enough to tickle your taste buds and leave you itching to really begin exploring the Dutch kitchen. Give them a try: I guarantee you won't be disappointed.

Top Dutch food stew

Draadjesvlees: a hearty Dutch stew

Draadjesvlees, which literally translates into 'stringy meat', is a classic Dutch stew made with thick cuts of braising beef, some simple spices and in my version, absolutely no water. Instead, I prefer to use a nice amount of red wine. The acidity in the wine not only imparts flavour, but it also serves as the ultimate tenderiser, giving your meat a delectable melt-in-the-mouth texture.

Serves four:

  • 750–850g braising beef (sucadelappen, runderlappen), organic and nicely marbled with fat
  • One large onion, finely chopped
  • Two tomatoes, deseeded and finely chopped
  • 70g margarine
  • Dried laurel leaves
  • One sprig of rosemary
  • Two sprigs of thyme
  • ±300ml red wine
  • Pinch of ground cloves
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • One tablespoon of balsamic vinegar


Tip: First of all, make sure your beef is not cold from the fridge. Let it come to temperature for about half an hour before proceeding with the recipe. This prevents the meat from shrivelling up and losing its juices when it hits the pan. Chop your onion and tomato.

In a heavy bottomed pan (I used my Le Creuset casserole pan), melt the margarine. Once the foam has disappeared, add your meat and brown it approximately two to three minutes per side on a medium-high heat.  Add salt and pepper to taste. Add your onions, tomatoes and herbs along with the wine.

Turn the heat down to a simmer and let the meat slowly stew for a good three to four hours. Check every hour and add a little more wine if necessary. There should always be enough 'juices' in the pan. Half an hour before serving, add your balsamic vinegar. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.

Rode kool met appeltjes

This is a side dish of red cabbage (rode kool) with apples (appeltjes).

Serves four:

  • One kilo red cabbage
  • 50g butter
  • One onion, halved and chopped in rings
  • One teaspoon salt
  • Two cloves
  • One cinnamon stick
  • Two dried laurel leaves
  • 100ml red wine
  • 120ml white wine vinegar
  • Two apples


Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage, quarter it and remove the white core. Slice each quarter into thin strips.

Melt butter in a heavy bottomed pan and gently sauté the onion for about five minutes. Add the sugar, salt, cloves, cinnamon and laurel leaves along with the cabbage. Stir thoroughly and add the wine and vinegar. Grind in some pepper if desired.

Peel, core and quarter your apples. Place the quarters on top of the cabbage, cover the dish with a lid and gently cook for about an hour and a half.

Foodie tips

  • Eating seasonal is eating the way nature intended. It makes perfect sense to have fruits with high water content such as peaches, strawberries and watermelons in the summer. They keep us cool and hydrated.  It also makes sense that citrus fruits which are high in vitamin C are at their best during the colder months. You can find a complete seasonal produce calendar (in Dutch).
  • If you can afford it, please treat yourself to a good, organic cut of meat sometime. While it is true that prices are higher, keep in mind that you are paying for high-quality, hormone and antibiotic-free products. The taste is also so much better. Perhaps once you experience the difference for yourself, you'll never look back, even if that means eating less meat so you can afford top-quality meat. Find organic butchers in the Netherlands.
  • You can find every type of meat imaginable at organic butchers but most supermarkets also carry things like ground meat, stewing beef, chops, sausages, chicken and even cold cuts for a little less money than at a butcher.
  • Become a well informed consumer. When entering a butcher's shop, pay attention to how the store looks, take notice of the way the meat is laid out and don't be afraid to ask questions about the products. Closely inspect the meat. It shouldn't be wet and bright red, but rather matt with a deep burgundy colour and creamy white bits of fat. Chicken should be creamy yellow in colour and should not be bruised or blemished.
  • Shop at open air markets, preferably organic ones. If you make an effort to visit farmers' markets, where the food basically comes straight from the land, you'll never complain about a tasteless strawberry or tomato again. These markets only sell seasonal products, so even just walking through them will make you a better informed consumer – something which is considerably hard if we're only shopping at supermarkets. Read more about organic farmers' markets.

 

Reprinted with permission of Paola Duque-Westbeek / Expatica

Blogger Paola Duque-Westbeek has a passion for good food and the Dutch culture of the Golden Age, obtaining a BA in Dutch Studies at the University of Leiden with an emphasis on Dutch 17th-century painting. In the future she hopes to publish a book about pure food and eating well. Read more about Paola and her culinary delights on her blog La Douce Vie.

Rode Kool met Appeltjes recipe source: Lekker Hollands by Yolanda van der Jagt. Originally published 2007, updated by Expatica 2016. Photo credit: FotoosvanRobin via Wikimedia Commons (sudderlapjes).

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17 Comments To This Article

  • Mrgalak posted:

    on 5th October 2016, 15:36:39 - Reply

    Indeed one can find reasonable products to prepare meals oneself. However, I have to agree with other commenters that the average quality of restaurants and other food outlets, and this means both (i) quality of ingredients; (ii) quality of preparation; (iii) service level; (iv) price-quality ratio; (v) tastefulness of restaurant interior decoration; is substandard and an embarassment for this country, which claims to rank at or near the top with regard to quality of life in the world (which I certainly don't believe). It goes so far that my family completely avoids eating out here, and reserves this experience for our holidays abroad ! The difference even with neighbouring countries like Germany and Belgium is stark. Must be the calvinist heritage (eating out is luxury = sin) ...
  • Nessie posted:

    on 5th October 2016, 16:50:04 - Reply

    Thank you so much for this article, which I am passing on to family and friends. I have been living in the Netherlands for more than 40 years, and what you say is exactly right - if it is fresh and, preferably, organic, the flavors are wonderful. It is one of the reasons I enjoy living here.
    But no matter where you live, food is always better if it is fresh! You'd be surprised how many restaurants serve food that has been frozen - and thus Not fresh! It does make a Big Difference!
    Some people just have no idea what good food is - imagine a Spam "burger" - yukkers! (as the Dutch say). Meat in any form of pre-fab packaging is disgusting!!!
    In Amsterdam, there are many artisan, organic food markets, but usually not in the tourist center.
    I have had a bed and breakfast for 12 years, and am known for my delicious, fresh breakfasts! I also recommend places to eat where I know the food is fresh! Guests praise my recommendations!
    Fresh Food is the way to go - and learn to cook potatoes properly - not drown them - very flavorful.
  • Nessie posted:

    on 5th October 2016, 16:52:31 - Reply

    P.S. The Dutch are NOT fond of canned meat! And SPAM is American - not Dutch!
  • Fabio posted:

    on 7th October 2016, 13:20:51 - Reply

    The point that people don't get when we complain about food here, is that we are not complaining about Dutch food. This we all already know is really bad, but our point is: Even foreign food is really bad. All cooked food in the Netherlands being other's cuisines, expensive or cheap is awful. Go to an italian, spanish, french and etc...and sometimes when they open up the place the food tastes good, a few days later they change it completely to local tastes and it becomes awful. In the UK for example you can find very decent italian restaurants, but not here, and even if you pay a lot of money. The reason the Dutch won't understand my point is because they don't know how to eat, how to taste food. That's just it. I lived in different countries, USA for example is by far, way better than here. This is definitely the worst place regarding food i have ever been in my life. Yes, there are a large sort of choices for vegetables at the markets, yes, but sometimes you just want to sit down in a restaurant, and you don't have this option here. Restaurants look beautiful, when your simple avocado sandwich comes it is a disaster! event the avocado sandwich can't be made properly. Well i can be here telling hundreds of experiences i had here, but i always say, the Netherlands is a great country, i love it, people are nice, open minded, but the weak point is the food in general. But, all countries have weak points.....this is only a detail here. Best restaurants in the Netherlands 1) My home and foreign friend's home 2) Ryanair.
  • Lien posted:

    on 21st September 2016, 10:21:48 - Reply

    The reason that dutch people use "ready pancake mix" is because it is much more healthier than all purpose flour. It contains whole grain flour and a blend of flour from different more healthy cereals. With this mix you also have to add milk and eggs, just like with all purpose flour.
  • Hildegaarde posted:

    on 17th September 2016, 00:23:26 - Reply

    The Dutch love canned lunch meat and SPAM singles are delicious and not just for camping or emergencies ! They taste better cooked and make an awesome spam-burger ! You can grill them on the B-B-Q, fry them in a drop of oil or butter in a pan or roast them in the oven. I challenge anyone to follow my recipe and not say it was truly one of the most delicious things they ever ate. SPAM is made from chopped and formed pork shoulder meat and ham, with spices and salt, and preservatives to make it shelf-stable....that's it ! Cook the slices or make a double and place a piece of American or cheddar cheese slice in the center and close. Score the top in a gridded "X" pattern and cook until the patties are really well charred and crisp around the edges. You can also spread a teaspoon of duck sauce or Saucy Susan on top when halfway cooked for extra flavor and a nice crust ! Now place on your favorite round & hard roll and build a "burger" with lettuce, tomato, sliced onions, pickles, etc. For condiments, I like a little mayonnaise and some yellow mustard. Once you taste it....you will be pleasantly surprised and truly love it ! The flavor cooked is totally different after cooked than raw from the pouch or can ! It has a savory and sweet pork taste. I recommend you throw a "Spam Burger Party" for friends for lunch instead of serving regular boring beef hamburgers ,hotdogs or simple cold sandwiches..... BIG fan here !
  • david posted:

    on 21st July 2016, 14:47:47 - Reply

    I live in Ireland I also lived in the UK to be honest being a chef I know good food
    Unfortunately Holland veg must be the worst and as for potatoes many different from roosters to jersey potatoes some waxy some flour some watery
    As for dairy Dutch produce worse
    Cheese is like plastic and bland as for chicken well by the time the protein powders are injected by Dutch factories it absorbs up to 40%extra water
    We had also the horsemeat scandal and the halal meat scandal
  • david posted:

    on 21st July 2016, 14:30:18 - Reply

    I run an artisan food pub in west cork and to be honest the Dutch vegetables which we have no option but to use because our suppliers have nothing else is disgusting tasteless awful
    The tomatoes are full of water and I doubt have ever seen even a greenhouse
    To be honest Dutch food must be the worst in the world and an embarrassment
  • Marcus posted:

    on 21st April 2016, 12:28:21 - Reply

    The funny thing is that no matter who you talk to, people from France, Italy, Spain, Turkey , Greece or Germany, most people (expats) agree that Dutch food sucks, only the Dutch themselves seem to disagree. I also lived in France for a while before I moved to the Netherlands, and people there told me that Dutch people even bring their own bread 'bolletjes' and 'toast' when on holidays, which is horrible in my view compared to the local baguettes for instance.

    I am an expat and live in the Netherlands for almost 20 years now. So I can say I have some experience with the Dutch cuisine. First of all, I totally agree that if you cook your own food there are plenty of places where you can buy high quality ingredients for a very reasonable price. The markets here on Wednesdays and Saturdays are great!!

    However, the restaurants and snack bars are horrible for the most part. If you know your way around you certainly are able to find excellent restaurants here and there (Usually not Dutch though, but rather Chinese, Thai, Turkish, Moroccan or Indonesian restaurants), however, the chances are very high that you will be very disappointed. The prices are very high, the freshness, tastiness and the skill of the cookery are very low.

    There is basically one type of typical Dutch snack bar (which sells the croquettes, burgers and fries), but those are on almost every corner and all sell the exact same fried 'dodo'. I seems as if the Dutch love that stuff so much that even Italian, Chinese and other snack bar owners are forced to sell that.

    Dutch people seem to be very proud of their 'poffertjes' (like pancakes only different in shape), which is like a national delicatesse and they also have pancake houses in almost every city, which are even advertised in touristic brochures. I have been to a couple of them with my kids, however, all of them I went where using a ready pancake mix (sold in buckets), rather than making them fresh. I think that says it all, is there a easier dough to make than a pancake dough? Even most of my neighbors, which have kids are using that. It is terrible. In my view, there is really not much passion for cooking in this country. It might have been lost somehow, or it was never there, I do not know.

  • Adam posted:

    on 28th March 2016, 15:44:55 - Reply

    As a foodie and living in Amsterdam for 6 years I can say that "Dutch cuisine" is an oxymoron... the Dutch don't care about good food... anyone who tells you otherwise is completely clueless about good food

  • Beebs posted:

    on 6th January 2016, 13:59:34 - Reply

    The seasonal prduce calendar link doesnt work anymore and Id still love to have the info. Any help is very much appreciated and I am grateful :) Be Well
  • AldoLim

    on 30th January 2014, 18:21:41 - Reply

    Hey everyone! Let me try to change your mind about Dutch food through one example. Filipinos are mad about speculaas! Check out this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jDGrkrNj_Pw
  • koos kolijn posted:

    on 10th November 2013, 15:03:40 - Reply

    I live in England now for about 50 years and am always happy when I come back to Holland to get some proper Dutch food in my stomach again ,and talking about potatoes they cant be worse then most of them here if you like the white watery ones from England try some proper creamy looking ones in Holland you cant beat them tr
  • Maria Kendall posted:

    on 17th July 2012, 20:33:27 - Reply

    I was in Amsterdam in June and ate at some restaurants where the food was excellent. I had a spinach and goat cheese quiche with a nice salad at a cafe close to Utrecht Str, a hamburger sandwich and fish and chips at The Butcher on Albert Cuyptstr, and a yummy vegetarian couscous dish at another place. Holland pastries are delicious. I also went to the Floriade in Venlo and had the tastiest cucumbers, tomatoes, and mushrooms.
  • lindsey posted:

    on 19th January 2010, 15:27:53 - Reply

    I regularly search recipes and make a list, but the quality is terrible. Presentation is non-existent. I really have been exposed to enough Dutch food and am not impressed. The coffee is good though.! They are more worried about the coffee than the food.
  • C Hagan posted:

    on 27th October 2008, 16:36:21 - Reply

    The potatoes in the Netherlands are the worst I've ever come across!
  • Jill Woodward posted:

    on 21st January 2008, 19:02:45 - Reply

    The organic markets here are great, but they don't sell just local, seasonal produce. "Seasonal" has a lot to do with where a food is grown. At the Amsterdam Nieuwmarkt you can buy foods from all over the world. It's not just food straight from the Dutch farms.