What is Dutch food?
There is an expression, ”Wat de boer niet kent, eet hij niet”. What the farmer doesn’t know, he doesn’t eat. It's a metaphor for cautious conservatism unknown is unloved but it has also a literal interpretation, that folks from 'the provinces' aren’t very adventurous when it comes to dining. I don’t know if that’s really true, because I don’t live out there.
Dutch people tell me Dutch food is rather bland. If you ask a born Amsterdammer to name some typical Dutch dishes, the first thing they usually mention is stamppot, or potatoes and vegetables mashed together. Okay. Sounds thrilling.
They're also fond of their haring the start of the herring season is a celebrated occasion. And they also have erwtesoep (pea soup), pannenkoeken (Dutch-style pancakes), and poffertjes, which are tiny pancakes sprinkled with powdered sugar. During the noisy run-up to New Year's eve, you see stands in the street selling fried pastries called oliebollen, which remind some people of doughnuts only without holes. The Nederlanders' most renowned street food, of course, is the patat, or vlaamse friets Belgian style fried potatoes served in a paper cone, usually with mayonnaise.
To me, the snackiest of snacks is a portion of bitterballen sphericles of crispy deep fried gravy served with mustard for dipping. They're not even remotely bitter; the name means they are a bar snack, to be eaten while you drink your 'bitters'. I think they're worth moving to the Netherlands for. Be careful and let them cool off a minute or two before you bite into one. Seriously, don't hurt yourself.
But there is more to this story. As you probably know, Amsterdam first became significant as a trading capital, bound by the sea to faraway places like the east and west ‘Indies’. Lands like today’s Indonesia and Surinam were long-time colonies of Nederland. Their food became Dutch food too. Roti and rijsttafel are Dutch meals, just as the English language is now a subset of the Dutch language. Holland is a sponge, soaking up everything and keeping some of it. The Hollanders have always taken in people, words, ideas, tools, and goods from everywhere, and adapted them to their own purposes. To me this is part of what being Dutch means. And it's why I find the current nativist backlash so ironic.
That pragmatic all-embracingness doesn’t make for a totally pretty story; there’s also plenty of slave-trading and punitive militarism in that stammpot. But it does help explain why life in Amsterdam can be so damn various.
The era of Dutch colonialism drew to a close in the late 1900s, and great crowds of people from former colonies moved to Nederland, bringing with them their cultural and culinary habits. Not only that, people from everywhere else in the world moved here too. Today’s Amsterdammers include at least 170 nationalities. I think this is why the city boasts a broader spectrum of restaurants than most other European cities. You name it, somebody here is probably cooking it.
Where do Amsterdammers buy groceries?
A lot of people favor the outdoor markets, for freshness and good prices. There are three big street markets open daily except Sundays: the Dappermarkt in Amsterdam Oost, Ten Katemarkt in Amsterdam West, and the Albert Cuypmarkt in de Pijp — which is a big enough attraction that as you approach it on the tram, the voice in the ceiling announces it in English: “Amsterdam famous street market!”
On Saturdays we have two more outdoor food markets. One is at Nieuwmarkt, right downtown — especially good for fish, says Nicole. And they still have the organic (’biologisch’) food market at the Noordermarkt, which is at the foot of the Noorderkerk on Prinsengracht.
The big supermarket chains here are Albert Heijn, Dirk van den Broek, Aldi, Lidl, Vomar, and Jumbo. Albert is the most pervasive, and reputedly the most expensive. It also has a web site, albert.nl, where you can order groceries for home delivery. The other chains are various shades of ‘discount’: Vomar is in fact a contraction of Voordeelmarkt, where the word voordeel means ‘advantage’, usually interpreted as economic advantage, or bargain. There are also a handful of supermarkets focusing on organic or natural foods, including Marqt, Natuurwinkel, Biomarkt.
In supermarkets, by the way, customers are expected to bag their own groceries, and if you haven't brought your own bags for that purpose, you can buy them from the cashier. The bag is called a 'tasje' or a 'draagtas'. Also be aware that although many people in service business do speak English, some supermarket employees do not.
A ‘toko’ is what they call a small grocery, typically offering more ‘exotic’ ingredients appealing to Arabic, Turkish or Asian kitchens. Some carnivores I know prefer to buy halal meat from their local Turkish or Arabic butcher (slagerij).
I sometimes see reports from tourists, and less diligent travel writers, claiming that the food in Amsterdam is not very good. I struggle to square that with my own experience, which is that there are more good eateries per capita here than in any other city I've lived in.
A travel writer recently told me that maybe there are some good restaurants here, but 'most tourists' will not discover them in one or two days. Which made me wonder why would anybody visit Amsterdam for just two days? That's insane.
One difficulty may be that there are so many places to eat at 1300 restaurants, 700 fast food joints, and 900 cafés, according to this 2008 report. Certainly many of them are set up expressly to serve hordes of faceless tourists whom the proprietors will never meet again, rendering moot the chance of repeat business. Some of them are, truly, horrible. The places that look most tourist-safe are probably the crappiest. The good places may be the less obvious. But I do know you can find good restaurants even in the most touristy zones. It just takes a bit of attentiveness.
In a section called 'Gems' on this site, I will list some of my and my friends' favorite eating places.
The term horeca means 'hotel-restaurant-café', and it's the general term for 'hospitality sector' in this country. There are different designations for eating places. There's the restaurant, the eetcafé (a bar that also serves food), and the traiterie, which usually means a place with just a few tables, mainly concentrating on take-out business. In Amsterdam the traiterie is also called a delicatessen.
Service. I hear lamentations about service in the horeca here, and from the natives too, not just from visitors accustomed to the American-style eagerness to please. I think that situation has improved somewhat in the time I've lived here possibly as a function of the economy getting worse. I also find I'll get more attentive service in restaurants owned by the people who work there, as they have a more tangible interest in my coming back. But service is still different here than elsewhere. If you want something like when you're ready to order, or want your bill, for example you need to wave to get your server's attention. Otherwise they'll leave you alone and not bother you. In fact I've made it a habit, when I'm done with a place, to walk right up to their cash register and say 'Mag ik afrekenen?' (May I reckon-off?). I don't know if that's considered rude, but it saves me some waiting.
About paying the bill. Nowadays a lot of restaurants have the gadget to let you 'pin' with your bank card. Not all, so it's good to check ahead of time. Also, not all restaurants can take credit cards. And if you are paying with a credit card, you may need to use your secret 4-digit pin number.
One time I was at restaurant de Nachtwacht when a party of eight out-of-towners, here for a business convention, informed their server at the end of the meal that they all wanted separate checks! They seemed to have no idea how uncool that was. Fortunately the waiter did not murder them, even though there were plenty of big steak knives lying around.
Me I try to leave about a ten percent tip. People seem okay with that. If I tip too high people think there's something wrong with me.
The people working in the places I eat at tend to be good to me, as if they're glad to see me. They recognize me, because I keep coming back. I've also had my share of dining at snooty joints run by absentee owners, where the staff are either disappointed that they are there, or disappointed that I am there. I simply don't go back to those places, so we'll never know if the situation would have improved with time.
I guess what this is all pointing to is that with 1300 restaurants in a small city, your chance of accidentally walking into a great one is less. It helps to ask real people where's a good place for dinner.