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.
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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.