Amsterdam? Bring an Empty Stomach and a Thirsty Mouth
When people put the city of Amsterdam on their travel itinerary, they often make plans to visit the Van Gogh Museum, the Anne Frank House, a coffee shop or two and a myriad of other cultural and historical sites. It’s a shame such little attention is paid to the needs of palettes and stomachs — and not just because food and drink must always play a regular part in any trip a traveler takes. From unique fruit pies to one-of-a-kind liquor and the delights of herring, Amsterdam has food and drink that will astound and sustain even the most seasoned and doubt-ridden foodie.
The Dutch were the first Europeans to commit wholeheartedly to perfecting the distillation process, and arguably, their greatest success was jenever. The precursor to gin, jenever gets its unique flavor from the juniper berry. It began its storied history as the Netherlands’ most famous liquor the way most aromatic liquors did — as medicine. By 1792, over four million gallons of jenever were already being exported around the world, and not much of it for medicinal use. Amsterdam is crawling with tasting houses where the curious can discover and taste the differences between “jonge” (young) and “oude” (old) jenever, as well as more specific varietals like red currant, lemon or corn wine. A word to the wise: A lot of tasting houses will fill a visitor’s glass to the brim. Lean over and sip straight from the glass to get the jenever to a reasonable level before picking it up.
When the Dutch head out for a night on the town or a relaxing drink after work, they do so with a drink in one hand and what they call bittergarnituur, which translates — somewhat unromantically — as “garnish for bitters.” In this case, “bitters” refers to alcohol, and the “garnish” is the food consumed with it. The assortment is decidedly delicious with items like Gouda cheese, cured meat and meatballs, but the highlight of any good bittergarnituur is definitely the bitterballen.
Bitterballen are a crispy, deep-fried and bite-sized doughy snack filled with a meaty roux and served with a good mustard. It started out as a staple in the home — a way to transform old meat scraps into something a Dutch family would still eat. These days, it’s found its true calling as the bar patron’s favorite companion to his favorite beer.
Limburgse vlaai is a light and tasty pie originally made in the Limburg area in the Southern Netherlands. Tradition has it that a woman from Weert created this style of pie and popularized it by selling it at the train station. Most often filled with fruit like cherries, plums and apricots, it has a crust lighter than more traditional American and English pie crusts — more like a cake batter that has been carefully crisscrossed to mimic what looks like a pie. It’s also flatter and thinner than most pie styles, and the compression of flavor is fantastic. A couple of non-fruit versions are worth sampling as well. Kruimelvlaai is filled with a buttery rumble, and rijstevlaai is a rice pudding variety.
With almost half a million tons of fish caught each year, no discussion of Dutch food could begin to be complete without a discussion on herring, particularly Hollandse nieuwe haring. This herring dish is only available between the months of May and July, and it has a very particular way it’s prepared and preserved. Once the herring is caught, it’s gutted onboard the ship, leaving the pancreas inside and intact. Pancreatic enzymes work as preservatives so that the brining liquid the cleaned herring is placed in needs less salt. The Dutch eat Hollandse nieuwe haring (soused herring) by holding the fish by its tail, throwing back their heads and sliding it into their open mouths. Not for the faint of heart, it’s also acceptable to eat it with bread as a broodje haring or fish sandwich. You can get this and other fishy treats at any of Amsterdam’s street-side fish stalls.
When it comes to pairing travel with exciting food and drink, consider the underrated, but fascinating restaurants, cafes and bars of Amsterdam, where courage may occasionally be necessary, but comfort is always readily had. Why not look here to find Amsterdam hotels close to the action?
Herring (Haring) photo credit: davidkosmos / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
About the Author: Louise Vinciguerra is a fantastic joke teller who matches her fonts to her moods. A Brooklyn native, she dirties her hands in words on weekdays and in soil on weekends.