April 4, 2017

Eating Amsterdam

A photo of the rijsttafel (c) Sally Rifkin
Sally Rifkin

As far as European countries go, the Netherlands isn’t exactly known for its fine cuisine. Basic foods, like potatoes, vegetables, cheese, and bread constitute the Dutch diet, owing to a penchant for frugality that dates back to the end of the Golden Age in the 17th century. However, in my experience, food culture is thriving in Amsterdam. Increased immigration in recent decades has brought forth a bevy of cuisines to the city. I can get almost any kind of food imaginable within walking or biking distance from school. Without further ado, here are six foods that have characterized my semester so far.

1.     Persian barbecue

Aryan, my host dad, is Persian and has little to no interest in cooking me Dutch food, which is fine with me. We eat Persian food almost every night, which includes a lot of slow-cooked meats, rice, beans, and fresh herbs. On special occasions, like my host sister Nathalie’s 10th birthday, Aryan will cook meat, typically slabs or kebabs of beef, outside on a grill. This past weekend marked the last day of Nowruz, the Iranian new year, a day on which Iranian families go on a picnic or just spend time in nature. I went with Aryan and Nathalie to a big park in the southeast of Amsterdam, where dozens of Persian-Dutch people were grilling kebabs on portable barbecues, kicking soccer balls, dancing, and napping in the sun all afternoon. I ate more than was advisable and then remembered I had dinner plans with a friend and her visiting parents. At the end of the night, I rolled home.

2.     Indonesian Rijsttafel

Indonesians constitute a large portion of migrants in the Netherlands. Rijsttafel, an elaborate Indo-Dutch meal, means “rice table” in Dutch. This dining experience consists of around 15 small fish, vegetable, and meat dishes and plenty of rice. You get to try a little bit of everything. I loved eating rijsttafel but I think enjoying it requires at least some understanding of the circumstances by which it is available. The presence of so many Indonesians in the Netherlands is due in part to a bitter history of colonialism, and the Indonesian influences on Dutch cuisine are due to an uneven power dynamic between the Dutch and various migrant groups. I’ve even heard that although the dishes are Indonesian in conception, the rijsttafel is rooted in colonialism; Dutch colonists in Indonesia invented the ritual to showcase a wide variety of “exotic” foods to visitors.  

3.     Hot dogs at the Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum is a necessary destination for visitors to Amsterdam. I would argue that Foodcrib, the hotdog stand just behind the Rijksmuseum, is also a necessary destination. Not much to note here, other than they serve their hotdogs in fresh baguettes instead of buns and you can add as many crispy onions on top as your heart desires. My vegetarian friends also swear by their veggie dogs and hemp burgers.

4.     Boerenkool

This is a traditional Dutch dish that Aryan makes sometimes. It’s mashed potatoes with boiled kale and sausage. You garnish it with sliced pickles. No, I don’t get it either.

5.     Bugles

You know Bugles. They’re those artery-clogging processed-corn cones (Finger hats? Tiny dunce caps?) that make you feel like a lump (but a happy lump) when you eat too many. In the U.S, I’m pretty sure I’ve only seen Bugles at various Hudson News stores in airports, but they are much more common in the Netherlands. They come in all different flavors, my favorite of which is nacho cheese. I don’t believe in the phrase “guilty pleasure” so I’ll just call these what they are: a pleasure.

6.     Coffee and tea

Within the canal belt, there are tons of little cafés (not to be confused with coffeeshops) that serve coffee and tea by day and beer and wine by night. Now that it’s getting warmer and staying light out for longer, many cafés are opening their outdoor seating. Coffee and tea are nearly always served with some small biscuit or brownie (or my favorite, a tiny stroopwafel, which is a thin caramel sandwich cookie). When you order mint tea, it comes as hot water steeped with fresh, bright mint leaves, which never fails to improve my mood.