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The Chocolate Sprinkle Sandwich, and Other Treasures of Dutch Cuisine

The Dutch seem to have a soul above food, kind of. Partly it may be just the same common-sense pragmatism that makes bicycling so popular: why haul around several hundred kilograms of automobile when a fifteen-kilo bicycle will get you there just fine and be much easier to park? Similarly, why balk at eating a tasty nutritious meal of cheese and milk and whole-wheat bread for lunch just because you already had a tasty nutritious meal of cheese and milk and whole-wheat bread for breakfast? (An American colleague comments that to tell the difference between a Dutch breakfast and a Dutch lunch you have to look at your watch.) What do you mean, boring? Listen, you're healthy and you're fed. The whole world should be so bored. (Okay, the Dutch don't actually say that, but I bet on some level they're thinking it.)

Maybe this is why even after almost six months' residence I don't have much sense of what traditional Dutch food is like. Of course, there's beer, but the most renowned brews (often abbey manufacture) seem to be Belgian. Of course there are "patat frites" or french fries with the traditional mayonnaise sauce (quite yummy. Not diet food), but those seem to be Belgian too; at least, the best-known vendors seem to advertise them as "Vlaamse Frites" (Flemish fries). You get them "met" (with) or "zonder" (without) the mayonnaise. It may be a specifically Dutch thing to have satay sauce on them instead of mayonnaise---one of the Indonesian influences from colonial days. You can also get frites "oorlog" style, meaning "war"---with ketchup and mayonnaise and satay. I think the name just refers to the warring condiments, but it always reminds me of my former roommate Frances speaking of "train-wreck lasagna" (red and gloppy).

If you don't want fried potatoes, you can get fried things that aren't potatoes (various types of croquettes, breaded cheese fritters, etc.) and potatoes that aren't fried (e.g., the traditional "stamppot", a sort of mashed potatoes with cooked kale mixed in, a bit like Irish colcannon, and very tasty). Vegetables seem to be still largely restricted to "side dish" status. Favorites include "spruitjes" or Brussels sprouts (those darn Belgians again!) and little spherical carrots boiled with pearl onions. (I was disappointed to learn that the round carrots are carved out of regular carrots, like our "baby-cut" carrots, instead of being bred for sphericity---that *would* be cool.) It was very mystifying at first not to be able to find any dried legumes or grains in the supermarket: there are canned white beans and maybe chickpeas, but where are the little sacks of dry lentils, kidney beans, barley, garbanzos, etc.? There aren't even any dried split peas, a key component of the Dutch staple "erwtensoep" or split pea soup with sausage. I eventually found bags of legumes in a health food store, but I still wonder where all the split peas are.

Oh yes, cheese! Maybe cheese is *the* Dutch food; at least they seem to eat a lot of it (a German colleague was pretty stunned by the cheese section of a Dutch supermarket, and the Germans are no slouches themselves when it comes to cheese). The cheese slicer is probably the characteristic indispensable item of every Dutch household or lunchroom (well, next to the teakettle perhaps). The standard casual lunch buffet has a basket of sliced bread, some cartons of milk (or perhaps "karne melk", a tangy buttermilk-type variant, very popular), some luncheon meats, and a few big wedges of Gouda or similar cheese; everybody waits their turn for a go at the cheese slicer, puts the result between a couple pieces of bread, and there you are, lunch.

Unless you prefer the chocolate sprinkles, of course. There will also be a couple boxes of chocolate and/or multicolored sprinkles---you know, the candy jimmies that you put on ice cream or cupcakes, which I used to think was the only role they ever played in human nutrition---and it is considered perfectly normal to take a couple slices of hearty bread, maybe put butter or some other spread on them, pour on the jimmies, and there you are, lunch. Ick, frankly, but a lot of people like them!

A lot of people also like "haring", a whole raw herring (with the scary parts removed, though) generally eaten with chopped raw onion. The traditional mode of consumption is to hold the fish vertically by the tail and chomp at it from underneath like a hand-fed seal, but I was a wimp and ate it from a plate with a fork. I'd been told it tastes sort of like sushi, and it does, sort of, but not enough.

All right, enough criticizing; what do I *like* about Dutch food? I like the beer (even if it's really Belgian), I like the cheese (especially Gouda with cumin seeds in it), I definitely like the cookies (especially stroopwafels, round syrup-filled gaufrettes that you put over a teacup until the steam melts the syrup, and kokosbrood, a sort of wafer made of pressed coconut). I like the national passion for licorice ("drop"), which comes in sweet or salty varieties. I like "spruitjes", and they remind me of Thanksgiving. I like "frites met" a lot, but don't eat them very often!

—— Kim Plofker
2005-02-13 18:00:13

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Created: 08 Oct 2003
Last modified: Oct 15, 2004 3:58:04 PM
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