We look beyond the austere stereotype of Dutch food and reveal the rich culture and history behind the country’s misunderstood cuisine.
One of the most common expat complaints in the Netherlands is that Dutch food leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, many people feel that the country has no food culture – aside from its famous snacks. Others go so far as to classify the diet as ‘monotonous’ or ‘bland’. And while this may be true when compared to its European neighbors, is there more to Dutch food than meets the eye?
Do the Dutch have a ‘food culture’?
To ask if the Dutch have a food culture, it helps to first question what this phrase actually means. From a holistic point of view, food culture is not defined by how varied a country’s traditional kitchen is. Nor is it based on how well-known its products are worldwide. Instead, it centers on the traditions, practices, and attitudes towards food in any given country; and The Netherlands certainly has these.
Sure, the French enjoy their two-hour, wine and dine lunches; indulging in juice steak frites, escallope milanaise, or perhaps the special of the day. And yes, the Spanish are famous for their 2pm feast of vibrant-colored tapas (la comida); which they savor with a carafe of wine, of course.
But what about the Dutch? Well, for this practical-minded nation, lunch is a necessary part of the day; a time to refuel for the afternoon’s activities. After all, the Dutch didn’t build one of the world’s largest and most efficient economies by feasting or snoozing their way through midday. And while those days of hard labor have passed, the Dutch attitude towards lunch prevails.
The humble boterham
Take their beloved boterham, for instance. Literally translating to ‘sandwich’, this humble Dutch snack, which consists of butter and ham (or cheese) on bread, is anything but glamorous. It is simple, straightforward, and filling; much like the typical Dutch dinner, which is generally made up of boiled potatoes, vegetables, and meat.
But lunchtime isn’t just a time to refuel. It is also considered a vital part of the work culture, and essential for co-worker relations. Work groups usually eat together – including managers and direct subordinates – and colleagues often share ingredients such as bread, meat, and cheese. Meanwhile, the general conversation can vary between work and non-work related topics, but usually stays light.
Participation is considered important, too. For example, while going out for lunch or ordering in isn’t the norm, it is acceptable if everyone decides to do it. With this in mind, you could argue that even the Netherlands – one of the tiniest nations with the most limited kitchen – does have a food culture.
The downfall of Dutch cuisine
While it is true that today’s typical Dutch kitchen is somewhat basic, this wasn’t always the case. At the beginning of the 20th century, Dutch girls were sent en masse to housekeeping school. Here they were taught to cook as economically and fuss-free as possible. Because of this, a number of traditional foods were lost to the past.
This can be seen by looking at ‘old’ Dutch cookbooks such as De Verstandige Kok (The Sensible Cook), which show us a culinary world that is very different from the one we know now. Not only do they mention how the Dutch relished taking time out to enjoy a meal; they also present us with an array of interesting and exciting dishes.
Furthermore, these books reveal a clever and varied use of exotic spices that were introduced to the Netherlands through the Dutch trade with Asia. The Dutch were also known to enjoy growing their own fruits and vegetables. Many wealthier families even had summer homes 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 country can still be proud of its local food culture. It boasts wonderful open-air markets and an excellent choice of fresh produce. In fact, the Netherlands is the second largest agricultural exporter in the world, after the United States. It exported €90.3 billion worth of produce in 2018 alone.
An Oxfam report also ranked the Netherlands as the number one country in the world; for having the most plentiful, nutritious, healthy, and affordable diet. It even beat Switzerland and France, which ranked two and three, respectively.
Perhaps, therefore, Dutch food shouldn’t be judged based on imported, out of season products, but rather on locally grown, seasonal produce. However, this involves an element of consumer awareness and food knowledge. After all, you can’t really complain about watery strawberries or tomatoes in winter; when these things shouldn’t be eaten at that time of year. Even a supermarket pear will taste better in September than it will in June.
Similarly, some may argue that while whipping up exotic dishes with a thousand and one spices is certainly adventurous, there is something simply delicious about tucking into an honest Dutch sausage with creamy mashed potatoes and sprouts bought fresh from the market in October.
A new generation of flavor
Fortunately, today’s younger generations are developing a more adventurous palate as they embrace various culinary influences from around the world. In part, this derives from the colonial connection of the Netherlands with countries such as Indonesia in the late 16th century. As a result, you will find some surprisingly exotic dishes on the menu when exploring Dutch cuisine.
This broadening of culinary horizons has also lead to some exciting modern twists on Dutch classics. Take for example hutspot; a traditional dish made from boiled potatoes and vegetables, which often takes the heat for being ‘tasteless’ and ‘unimaginative’. A more adventurous variation is now the roasted hutspot; which consists of white bean and garlic mash, sweet roasted carrots, lightly caramelized onions, and parsnips instead of potatoes.
How to fall in love with Dutch food
As with anywhere in the world, eating well basically boils down to making good food choices and knowing what is available locally. So before you form an opinion about Dutch food, it might be worth getting acquainted with what the Netherlands has to offer and learning about its fresh produce. One way to do this is by finding out what is in season, scrolling through Dutch recipes, and making dishes using the best produce you can find.
Shopping at open-air markets and farmers’ markets is a great way to source flavorsome ingredients straight from the land; which taste the way they should – fresh, seasonal, and not from a pack. And if all else fails, there are always those legendary Dutch snacks to win you over.