Traditional Dutch food and drinks to try in the Netherlands
Most people visiting the Netherlands know little to nothing about Dutch food before they arrive. Depending on where they’re from, they may have tried some rubbery imitation Gouda or Edam cheese, or they might be under the impression that everyone eats hash brownies for breakfast. Fortunately, neither of these are the reality. And while Dutch food is still pretty undiscovered internationally, this only makes it more of an adventure for the first-time visitor to try. So if you’re coming to Amsterdam, here are the must-eat traditional Dutch specialities.
Dutch food tours in Amsterdam
Before we get into the list of food and drinks, a quick note about food tours. I’ve taken absolutely loads of food tours (partly because I was editorial manager at a food tours company for three years) and I genuinely think they’re an excellent way to get to know a city. In Amsterdam’s case, they’re also a great way to get to know Dutch food, as they allow you to taste lots of small snacks without having to commit to an entire meal. I recommend the food tours by Eating Amsterdam and Devour Tours although there are other options on TripAdvisor. If I may offer one further piece of advice: if you’re only in Amsterdam for a long weekend or a short stay, take your food tour on day one. No only with it help you to get your bearings geographically, but your tour guide can also give you recommendations for where to eat over the coming days.
Gouda cheese comes from (wait for it…) Gouda! Unlike the rubbery, flavourless imitations that pop up in supermarkets globally, real Dutch Gouda is a thing of intense flavour and majestic beauty. You can eat it young, extra-mature (2+ years) and every age in between – with the young version being sweet and creamy, and the old version being salty and crumbly. The Dutch also like to add spices to their cheese, which means you may see komijnekaas (cheese with cumin seeds) or nagelkaas (cheese with cloves) on sale – although this may not technically be from Gouda, it has the same texture as cheese from the city itself.
The jury’s out on the best way to eat herring: the “Amsterdam way” is sliced into small pieces, topped with raw onion, and eaten with a toothpick (preferably with a Dutch flag on top!). The “Rotterdam way” involves tipping your head back and lowering the entire fish into your mouth. First date food, this is not! However, the arrival of the Hollandse Nieuwe (“new herring”) in June every year is an event in itself, with thousands of people eager to taste the first catch of the herring season. Whichever way you choose to eat it, there are fish stalls and fishmongers all over the city selling raw, brined herring as a typically Dutch snack. If you prefer your fish cooked, try kibbeling: small pieces of white fish, battered and deep-fried to golden deliciousness.
Searingly hot in the middle, bitterballen are best enjoyed with a beer – not least because it’ll cool your mouth off in between bites. Bitterballen are hard to describe because their recipe is rather mysterious: think beef-ragu croquettes but then spherical. The breadcrumbs on the outside are deep-fried to crispy perfection, while the mushy, beefy inside heats up to nuclear temperatures. It’s best to let them cool down for five minutes before dipping one in mustard and popping it in your mouth. Almost every brown café serves these popular beer snacks, so you’ll have no problem finding them!
Whether you call them chips or fries, the Dutch are particularly good at frying potatoes till they’re crispy on the outside and fluffy in the middle. But don’t make the mistake of ordering yours with tomato ketchup. Instead, go to one of the patat stands and ask for oorlog. Translating as “war fries”, they come with mayonnaise, peanut/satay sauce (that’s the Indonesian influence – more on that later) and raw onions. You can’t do better at the end of a night out.
Rookworst and stamppot
Literally translating as “smoke sausage”, rookworst is a tasty pork sausage that originates from the Gelderland province. And there are many ways to eat it: go to your local butcher, and chances are they’ll have a few rookworsten keeping warm, ready to be popped into a broodje (sandwich). Alternatively, eat slices of the stuff dipped in mustard with your after-work beer. Or serve it alongside stamppot: potatoes mashed with everything from kale to bacon to sauerkraut. Rookworst is a perfect wintertime staple.
Think of asparagus, and most of us generally think of the bright green variety. But in the Netherlands and Belgium, the fatter white variety of asparagus is more commonly eaten. Known as “white gold”, you’ll find this highly seasonal ingredient all over restaurant menus in May but almost never at any other time of year. The Flemish (our neighbours in the north of Belgium) like to dress it up with butter, eggs and parsley, and sometimes turn it into a full meal with the addition of ham and potatoes. Given the south of the Netherlands’ proximity to Belgium, this is a tradition that’s been steadily creeping north.
An uitsmijter is a hearty breakfast dish consisting of three fried eggs on sliced white or brown bread, usually topped with ham, cheese or both (bacon and tomatoes are sometimes options, too). Fun fact: the Dutch word uitsmijter literally translates as “out-thrower” and is the same word given to bouncers at bars or nightclubs. But what’s the reason? One theory goes that an uitsmijter is very quickly and easily prepared, meaning that a customer ordering it in a café will leave very soon after eating it (therefore being “thrown out” quickly). Either way, you’ll find uitsmijters at many Dutch and not-so-Dutch cafés on their breakfast and lunch menus.
For those with hearty appetites, a Dutch pancake makes an excellent brunch option. Thicker than French crepes but thinner than American pancakes, the Dutch pannenkoeken are usually the size of a dinner plate and come topped with anything from bacon and cheese to apple and cinnamon.
Traditional Dutch sweet treats
Poffertjes are miniature fluffy Dutch pancakes, traditionally prepared with yeast and buckwheat flour using a special cast-iron pan with tiny hollows in which to pour the batter. They became known as poffertjes because they puff up during the cooking process. Eat them freshly made at one of the markets, served with icing sugar that melts all over them. Delish.
Stroopwafels may now be ubiquitous at Starbucks the world over, but they started here first. Stroopwafel literally means “syrup waffle” and is essentially a spiced wafer, split in half and sandwiched with a layer of caramel. They come from Gouda originally – which makes Gouda officially one of the foodiest places in the Netherlands. Until you’ve tasted a freshly pressed stroopwafel from the market, still oozing with caramel goodness, you haven’t lived. For the fresh, warm, real-deal variety, take a trip to Lanskroon bakery, the Albert Cuypmarkt or Lindengracht Market. You can, of course, buy the packaged variety in the airport on your way home – just don’t let on to your friends and family that they’re eating the sub-standard sort.
Pepernoten and oliebollen
Pepernoten and oliebollen are an annual ritual in the Netherlands, and you’ll see them start to appear in autumn in the run-up to the festive season. Pepernoten are tiny cookies – hard, crunchy and flavoured with warm spices – that are an inseparable part of the Sinterklaas festival, which means that you’ll find them in shops between late October and early December. The custom is that Sinterklaas and his helper, Zwarte Piet, throw handfuls of pepernoten as treats for the children. Meanwhile, oliebollen (literally translating as oil balls) are an equally seasonal guilty pleasure: akin to doughnuts or beignets and liberally dusted with icing sugar, you can buy them from bakeries or mobile stalls in the run-up to Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
The Dutch drop (liquorice) is an acquired taste that’s not for everyone. These black candies come in different varieties, from very sweet to very salty, and tend to divide opinion. I’ll leave you to make up your own mind!
Traditional Dutch drinks to try in Amsterdam
If you haven’t heard of jenever, you’ve probably heard of gin. Well, you have jenever to thank for your G&T! Jenever’s history began 400 years ago, and involved distilling malt wine and flavouring the strong liquor with juniper berries. Legend has it that English soldiers in the Netherlands (in around 1630) were given jenever to drink to calm their nerves before battle – hence where we get the expression “Dutch Courage” from. Jenever was brought to England, where it evolved into English gin.
The Netherlands’ national drink, there’s far more to Dutch beer than Heineken and Amstel. In Amsterdam alone, there are several local breweries making their own special beer varieties. From easy-drinking lagers and hoppy IPAs to autumnal bock beers and wintry dark beers, there’s something for everyone. And one of the best ways to enjoy a glass (not a pint – beer here is generally served in 250 ml glasses) of the local brew is to hole up in one of Amsterdam’s local microbreweries – Brouwerij ‘t IJ, Oedipus Brewing, Lion’s Head or Brouwerij Troost.