Dutch delight

a short introduction to Dutch food

Dutch delight
photo by Rijksstudio Rijksmuseum

For me, the best way to get to know a country, is through its food. When I travel, I love to explore street markets and delicatessen shops and try out the local cuisine. The Dutch also have plenty to offer in the food department. On this page you can read about Dutch cuisine.

Culinary tradition.

Like in other European countries, in the Middle Ages the diet of the common people was simple and nutritious. Two meals a day were eaten, the hot meal usually at noon. Bread made with rye was a staple food, wheat bread was only eaten by the elite. Porridge was made from rye, barley, buckwheat or oats. Parsnip, tubers, peas, celeriac, pulses and onions were made into stews, sometimes a little salted meat was added. Otherwise people ate few vegetables. Monks usually cultivated vegetables in the monasteries and around castles and country houses vegetable gardens were created for the nobility. In the coastal regions fish such as herring or cod were part of the diet, as were oysters. Due to the lack of refrigeration the fish was pickled, smoked, salted, dried or cured in order to preserve it. Inland people ate mostly freshwater fish.

Salt, onion, vinegar and honey (if they could afford it) were used to give flavour to the dishes, so many dishes had a sweet and sour taste. Only the nobility could afford the imported spices from South East Asia. The meals were usually prepared over an open fire in one pot, to save on fuel.
With the meal, the common people drank water or beer, the elite drank wine. Milk was made into butter and cheese, to preserve it. There were cheese markets in Alkmaar, Edam, Hoorn, Woerden and Gouda. The best quality cheese was send abroad, the Dutch have been exporting cheese since the 12th century.
The oldest Dutch printed cookbook dates back to the year 1514, it contained 175 recipes, many of which were adaptions of French recipes. (The Dutch have been ruled by the Dukes of Burgundy in the past). It also contained the oldest known recipe for apple pie!

In the 16th century, after the discovery of the Americas by Columbus, an exchange of plants and animals took place. Potatoes, tomatoes, strawberries, pineapple, corn, pumpkin, tobacco, cacao and turkeys appeared for the first time in Europe. Potatoes (and tomatoes and pineapple) were at first only used as ornamental plants. The famous botanist Carolus Clusius already planted potatoes in 1588, but it was only at the end of the 17th century that the Dutch started to eat them.
After the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and de the Dutch West India Company (WIC) were founded at the beginning of the 17th century spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, mace and cloves became more affordable in the Netherlands. Also sugar, tobacco, cacao, tea, coffee and exotic fruit became widely available during the 17th century. The Dutch were open to outside influence and used the new products creatively.

In the middle of the 18th century the grain harvest failed several times and a cattle plague occurred, causing the Dutch to eat more potatoes. The potato was called 'a heavenly gift' in 1760. By the year 1800 the potato had become the staple food. Throughout the 19th century, the meals of the poor consisted predominantly of bread or potatoes, some fish and hardly any meat. When in the 20th century education became compulsory, a lot of girls were educated at domestic science science schools (huishoudschool), where they where taught to cook cheap and simple meals based on traditional Dutch dishes, which led to a frugal way of cooking.

At the beginning of the 20th century Chinese sailors settled in port cities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam, where they opened restaurants. From the middle of the 20th century Dutch food has been influenced by dishes from former colonies such as Indonesia and Surinam. Thanks to the migrant workers arriving in the '60 and '70 from Mediterranean countries like Spain, Italy, Greece, and later Turkey and Morocco the Dutch got to know paella, pizza, pasta, souvlaki, kebap and couscous. Vegetables such as courgette, eggplant, yardlong beans and sopropo were introduced. Many of these foreign dishes were incorporated in the Dutch diet. Finally, the Dutch love to travel and this wanderlust led to the introduction of even more foreign cuisine.