Saturday, July 31, 2010


Amsterdam does not have an image as a foodie destination and, like the cuisines of most northern European countries, Dutch food has a bit of a poor reputation. This is partly the result of old prejudices being slow to die, but mainly I guess because of a circular definition of what constitutes 'Dutch' food. As a result, any new food brought to the Netherlands by immigrants, through contact with former colonies, and as part of the more general process of cultural cross-fertilisation which is a feature of globalisation, is dismissed as somehow not Dutch. As far as I'm concerned, "Dutch food" is just the food people cook and eat in the Netherlands, and on that definition it is excellent. Some of it is 'indigenous' (which just means people have been making it there for a long time), other foods are still identified by their place of origin but are well-established in the Netherlands, and there are plenty of new arrivals too.

Restaurant eating
When I was in Amsterdam with Gemma last week, our three evening meals fell into each of these categories. The first was at the impeccably "Dutch" Moeders Pot in the Jordaan. We had a rijsttafel (or selection) of dishes, including sausage, beef stew, red cabbage and stewed apple. (Rijsttafel, incidentally, means 'rice table' and was originally applied to a selection of Indonesian dishs. I'm not sure how fixed it is outside of the Indonesian context.)

Moeder's Pot

The next day we had another rijstaffel, but this time of the Indonesian variety, at Puri Mas on Lange Leidsedwarsstraat. The street itself is pretty awful - the kind of pedestrianised street full of touristy restaurants which makes one's heart sink - but the food was fine.

Puri Mas

However, for me the highlight of our evening meals was definitely a tiny Algerian couscous restaurant called rainarai on Prinsengracht, which had a selection of meat, fish and vegetable dishes to be accompanied with couscous or rice.


Street herring
Restaurant eating is fine, but I have to admit I'm not all that keen on it, particularly when the waiter service and napkin side of it is being played up. It also gets quite expensive. Fortunately, Amsterdam has some great street food, too, notably its fish stalls. Some of these offer a range of things, including fried mussels, smoked eel and shrimps, but herring is definitely king, served lightly pickled and accompanied by pickled cucumber and some chopped onion. There are stalls dotted around the city and they're all good, but the best I tried was definitely the one in Albert Cuypstraat. If you enter the market from Van Woustraat, keep going past the first fish van on the right (although I should say I had some great fried mussels there), and walk for another 5 minutes until you come to a large stall (also on the right) which sells only herring. You can have it on bread or on its own. Personally, I don't think the herring benefits from being put inside a fluffy white roll, so I chose the solo option.

This, of course, is Jewish food, and in fact my great-grandfather used to have a grocer's in London and made a weekly trip across from London to the Netherlands to buy cheese and herring (among other things, I assume). So, as well as being absolutely delicious, eating this gave me a lovely feeling of being connected. I still remember my great-grandpa, who died when I was 7 years old. We called him "little grandpa" to distinguish him from his son, my grandpa Sam. (We also had a "new grandpa", but that's another story.)

Gember bolus
Continuing with the Jewish theme, we also ate these delicious little sweet rolls filled with candied ginger. I came across them in the cafe of Amsterdam's Jewish Museum but was unable to track them down elsewhere. (I asked in a couple of places but apparently they are only available in Jewish bakeries, so one for my next visit.)

gember bolus

I had a look for recipes on the internet but didn't come up with much (other than the odd item about people choking to death on a 'ginger bolus'). However, I think I know roughly how they are made, and hope to have a try and post the results soon.


Baking Soda said...

I was going to say that you are very brave to try -and like!- our raw herring but then you explained.. Still I think it's quite an accomplishment. Herring eaten this way stems from Jewish tradition then?

While tracking down the recipe for you I found that they are indeed exclusively(?) made and sold in kosher Jewish bakeries. A very famous bakery unfortunately closed in 2008, not sure where-else to find them. I'd say.... bake!

Tim in the Kitchen said...

Have to admit I'm not 100% sure that the herring is Jewish in origin - it may well be the other way round, as it's obviously something that Jews have picked up somewhere on the North or Baltic Seas.