There Might Be Such a Thing as Dutch Cuisine After All
“There is no such thing as Dutch cuisine”. A sentence that many people who have recently moved to the Netherlands are confronted with. I recall arriving in the Netherlands over three and a half years ago and being completely dumbfounded by the variety of food locations. The myriad of steakhouses in the center of Amsterdam, kebab and falafel snack bars sprinkled all around the city, all sorts of Indonesian and Surinamese Warung eateries, vegan food spots, and so on. In fact, if I were to list all the different cuisines present in Amsterdam, it would take up the entirety of this page. With such an intense variety, it is no wonder that ‘Dutch food’ finds its voice somewhat entangled with the many others.
In all fairness, one need only enter a bar somewhere in de Jordaan, for instance, to find a menu ripe with Dutch delectables such as bitterballen, cheese sticks, and potato fries. Some time ago I heard the phrase: “Het leven is bitter, het leven is zuur, maar alles smaakt beter uit de frituur.”. This roughly translates to: life is bitter, life is sour, but everything tastes better out of the deep fryer. I think that this quote embodies the Dutch attitude towards food. At risk of overgeneralizing, it seems that food plays an important role as an anchor to people who, in their daily lives, can get caught up with work and responsibilities. While many internationals I speak to believe that Dutch food is purely meant to be fuel for these activities rather than an indulgent escape, I would have to say otherwise.
Cuisine is heritage. Plain and simple. It reflects the system and society in which it develops as well as sustains it. Dutch food is often simple, easy to make and can be eaten on the go. These characteristics are necessary for a culture known for its hardworking, committed attitude. Need breakfast? Slap some butter and chocolate sprinkles on a slice of toast. Lunch? A quick salad or ham and cheese sandwich to go. And finally, finish the day off with a borrel and some fried snacks. More so than a physical energy resource, food also affords certain practices. On a nice sunny day, it is expected to see swathes of people gathered on terrasjes collectively munching on a platter of bitterballen and sipping on beer.
In this way, Dutch cuisine is very much alive and thriving. It is very much the social adhesive and anchor that allows people to find comfort in where they are. But it is also unfair to limit the scope of Dutch cuisine to fried snacks and hagelslag. Generally speaking, the evolution of food is messy and its character very much a part of the conditions in which it arises. While it is perhaps necessary to distinguish between different ‘cuisines’, we should not neglect the overlap that often happens between them. For this reason, I think of all foods present in Amsterdam as also being part of the evolution of Dutch cuisine and history more broadly. The most obvious example here would be Warung spots, where primarily Indonesian and Surinamese food is served. These locations are vestiges to the Dutch colonial past and have now proliferated enough so that this type of cooking is co-evolving alongside ‘traditional’ Dutch cuisine and history, sometimes even being referred to as ‘modern Dutch cuisine’.
Indeed, it is quite odd to be able to eat a bakabana (fried plantain) in Northern Europe in June, yet that is very much the case in the Netherlands. There is just something beautiful about indulging in a culinary experience that is otherwise quite distant from your own. Such is the greatness of food. It delivers a small window into the history of its origins, enabling more appreciation for others and in so doing, offers immigrant minorities a powerful voice to be heard and seen.
I spoke to a Kebab store owner in my neighborhood about his thoughts on food and food spaces as liberating entities. By his request, his own name and the restaurant’s will remain anonymous. I often visit this place late at night after going out, so it was somewhat odd to enter the space during daylight. As one enters the relatively small space, they are confronted with a wide, see-through fridge containing all sorts of fried snacks, spiced cuts of meat, and some chocolate bars—all meticulously organized and wrapped in plastic. To the right and within arm’s reach are two other fridges for drinks: from soft drinks to chocolate milk to energy drinks to Ayran. Otherwise, the store is pretty simple, with a couple of stools and a kitchen right behind the see-through fridge. It is this very setup, not just the food, that defines the character and spirit of the cuisine.
We exchanged pleasantries and, after explaining my intentions he began to give me his perspective. Moving to the Netherlands from Egypt in the 80s, his hope was to find better work opportunities. For 30 years, he worked in the food industry in different locations and contexts all within Amsterdam. I was astounded to hear how much experience he had and was keen on listening to his answers. Here was a person that, beyond his culinary activities, is a totem of Amsterdam’s history and development. I asked about the daily comings and goings of standing behind the counter. Essentially, his job is much more than simply preparing the food. He has many regular clients, most of whom live in the area. He knows them on a first name basis and enjoys talking to them about their lives. I found this wholesome simply due to the intimacy with which he is comfortable at holding a conversation. I then asked whether he felt there was a difference in interacting with people from different backgrounds to which he simply replied: “Mensen zijn mensen.” or ‘People are people.’
Within the confines of a kebab store, one’s background dissipates into the air as surely as the vapor rising from the fryer. I finally asked, with great caution, whether he felt like he is treated differently due to his identity. Once again, I was struck with the positivity with which he replied, saying: “I would not be here if I did not like it”. I found this statement very powerful, and as a Moroccan who moved to the Netherlands for higher education, it resonated with me. There is always a choice, and one can choose to either neglect that possibility or use it as an empowering tool. The man said that he found comfort and value in working hard and that there is no excuse to do otherwise. It feels as though his store is a space in which he is able to safeguard his own heritage while also spewing it out into the historical context of Amsterdam.
The common thread here is positivity. Food is a positive act. It is an essential part to any social fabric and the trick is to channel that positive culinary energy into healthy, sustainable relationships with others. At the end of the day, food spaces, regardless of what cuisine they purport to serve, are burning hearths of local culture.