Boterham Dutch sandwich

Dutch lunch: Boter eat that boterham

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Don't like boterham? Kevin Lowe explains why Dutch sandwiches are key to fitting in with your Dutch co-workers and integrating into Dutch culture, no matter if you like a hot lunch.

I admit it. I hate the stuff — all of it. And I'm not alone. Thin slices of slimy baloney. Ham. Dry cheese. Leverkaas.

You know what I'm talking about.

France is famous for the two-hour, wine and dine lunch: steak frites, escallope milanaise, or perhaps the special of the day. The UK is quicker, but variety rules the roost with choices among a thousand ethnic delights.

Then there's the boterham. Butter. And ham. On bread. Maybe cheese and butter, on bread. Never both.

Dutch lunch: Dutch sandwiches 'Boterham met oude kaas', literally 'butter ham with old cheese'; 'boterham' is the Dutch word for sandwich.

To understand the boterham, and the Dutch approach to lunch in general, requires an acceptance of the Dutch way of doing a lot of things. Get it wrong and you won't just look odd, you could seriously damage your career.

For the Dutch, lunch is a necessary part of the day in the sense that it's time to refuel for the afternoon's activities. The Dutch didn't build one of the world's largest and most efficient economies by feasting or snoozing their way through midday. Though most of the dyke and polder building is now complete – and though the unions most certainly wouldn't allow such intensive labour these days – the attitude towards lunch prevails.

Although, contrast this attitude with the reality of construction crews and you've got a real conundrum – they seem to be on lunch most of the day.

So with this utilitarian attitude, the Dutch go about building their utilitarian lunches. As I said, it's mainly ham or cheese, sometimes liverworst or chocolate spread. Combinations are frowned upon, as they waste filling for another sandwich.

Liverwurst sandwich: Dutch boterhamLiverwurst sandwich

There are other unusual constructions, the most remarkable being the open-faced hagelslag square-dance sandwich. For those new to Holland, hagelslag is chocolate-flavoured sugar sprinkles.

To make the square-dance sandwich, you cover a piece of brown bread (white is considered not healthy) with butter and your chocolate-flavoured flakes and then cut it, with your knife and fork, into nine equal pieces. You then pop each piece into your mouth as quickly as you can. Some variations use coloured sprinkles or jam in place of the hagelslag, but again, there is never a combination of ingredients except to add the ever-present butter.

Of course like most inexplicable behaviours, this is mainly a guy thing. And it's strange to watch guys in suits aged 30 and 40-something chase chocolate squares around their plates like school children. But they do.

I could never get into the chocolate square thing or the one piece of ham on the hamburger bun. At the office, I was always being a smart ass – adding a piece of cheese or (horrors!) running out for McDonalds. What I didn't realise was that the consequence of my actions was hurting my career. My Dutch colleagues chided me about bringing leftover Chinese food, heating up ravioli or taking fast food. But it was only after I left that they were more frank about their feelings.

"You didn't fit in," they said. "You think you're different." They kept coming back to the lunch thing, remarking how on such and such occasion I went to get pizza, or how I scoffed at their eating the same thing every day. They remembered every deviation from what they expected.

Dutch food: Dutch sandwichesHagelslag and coloured sprinkles are common sandwich toppings in the Netherlands.

What they were saying was something I already knew, but perhaps was too hungry to accept – that the Dutch lunch is a vital part of the work culture, and essential for co-worker relations. Skip it, modify it or complain about it and you are not one of the gang.

The experience was a lesson in what it means to acclimatise to a new culture and to mesh with new colleagues. My failure to grasp the norms of the lunch routine made me seem odd and aloof, as much so as if I had worn my pants backwards every day.

For me it was no great tragedy, as I've always been something of a non-conformist – and am not going to stop now, least of all by being told what to eat for lunch.

But if you're serious about 'fitting in' with your environment and colleagues, your cultural sensitivity may mean the difference between success and failure. Fast food may do more than ruin your arteries – it can kill your relationship with your co-workers in the Netherlands.

Norms for the Dutch lunch 

  • Lunch is generally 30 minutes long, maybe an hour; 12.30pm to 1pm is typical.
  • Work groups eat together – manager and direct subordinates.
  • If you're sharing, ingredients (bread, meats, cheeses, spreads) and equipment (knives and forks) are placed in the centre. Everybody takes what he or she needs, in no particular order. In general, one item (plus butter) is normal in a sandwich. There's no limit on the number of sandwiches you may have.
  • Conversation can vary between work and non-work issues. It is generally not too serious but participation is important.  
  • Going out for lunch or ordering in is not normal but acceptable if everyone decides to do it. Fridays or especially long days are more likely occasions for pizza or going to a restaurant.
  • Leaving your work group to, say, meet a friend for lunch would be antisocial if you were to do it too often. Better to invite the friend to join you. Eating at your desk is considered somewhere between too keen and obtuse.
  • There is of course no true generalisation; some Dutch eat whatever they want for lunch.


Kevin Lowe / Expatica

Kevin Lowe is a Candian expatriate who moved to Amsterdam.

Photo credits: Marina Noordegraaf (boterham thumbnail), Stu Spivack (liverwurst sandwich), Takeaway via Wikimedia Commons (cheese Dutch sandwich). Published 2003; Updated by Expatica 2016.

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1 Comment To This Article

  • Mrgalak posted:

    on 9th November 2016, 16:36:19 - Reply

    With such unhealthy dietary habits (high saturated fat, animal protein, no vegetables) it is little surprise that the Netherlands has one of the highest cancer death rates in Europe. Are expats supposed to adopt these bad habits ? I didn