Dutch cuisine is shaped by the practice of fishing and farming, including the cultivation of the soil for raising crops and the raising of domesticated animals, and the history of the Netherlands.
Traditionally the Dutch diet consisted of bread and herring. In the 18th century the potato (which had been brought from Peru to Europe by the Spanish in the 16th century) gained popularity, to become the staple food by 1800.
Historically Dutch cuisine was closely related to northern French cuisine, which is still visible in traditional Dutch restaurants and the Southern regional cuisine. In the course of the 15th century haute cuisine began to emerge, largely limited to the aristocracy, but from the 17th century onward these kinds of dishes became available to the wealthy citizens as well, often consisting of a rich variety of fruits, cheeses, meat, wine, and nuts.
The national cuisine however became greatly impoverished at the turn of the 20th century, when there was great poverty in the Netherlands. As mass education became available, a great number of girls were sent to a new school type, the Huishoudschool (housekeeping school), where young women were trained to become domestic servants and where lessons in cooking cheap and simple meals were a major part of the curriculum, often based on more traditional Dutch dishes, a process which has been slowly turned.
Regional Dutch cuisines
Modern culinary writers distinguish between three general regional forms of Dutch cuisine.
The regions in the north and east of the Netherlands, roughly the provinces of Groningen, Friesland, Drenthe, Overijssel and Gelderland north of the great rivers make up north eastern Dutch cuisine.
The region is the least populated area of the Netherlands; and the least developed part. The late (18th century) introduction of large scale agriculture means that the cuisine is generally known for its many kinds of meats. The relative lack of farms allowed for an abundance of game and husbandry, though dishes near the coastal regions of Friesland, Groningen and the parts of Overijssel bordering the IJsselmeer also include a large amount of fish.
The various dried sausages, belonging to the metworst-family of Dutch sausages, are found throughout the region and are highly prized for their often very strong taste. Most towns and various villages have their own variety of this sausage. The region also produces the traditional smoked sausages, of which (Gelderse) Rookworst is the most renowned. These sausages traditionally have been smoked over wood chips, and are served after they have been boiled in water. The sausage contains a lot of fat and is very juicy. Larger sausages are often eaten alongside Stamppot, hutspot or zuurkool; whereas smaller ones are often eaten as a street food.
The provinces are also home to many kinds of pastries and cookies. In contrast to southern Dutch cuisine, which tend to be soft and moist, the northeastern pastries generally are of a hard texture and heavily spiced with ginger or contain small bits of meat. Various kinds of Kruidkoek (such as Groninger koek), Fryske dúmkes and small savoury pancakes (including spekdikken) are considered typical.
In terms of alcoholic beverages, the region is renowned for its many bitters (such as Beerenburg) and other high-proof liquors rather than beer, which, apart from Jenever, is typical for the rest of the country.
The provinces of North Holland, South Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht and the Gelderlandic region of Betuwe are the parts of the Netherlands which make up the region in which western Dutch cuisine is found. The area is known for its many dairy products, which includes prominent cheeses such as Gouda, Leyden (spiced cheese with cumin), Edam (traditionally in small spheres) as well as Leerdammer and Beemster, while the adjacent Zaanstreek in North Holland is known for its mayonnaise and mustards.
Zeeland and South Holland produce a lot of butter, which contains a larger amount of milkfat than most other European butter varieties. A by-product of the butter-making process, buttermilk, is also considered typical for this region.
Seafood such as herring (eaten raw), mussels, eels, oysters and shrimps are widely available and typical for the region. Kibbeling, once a local delicacy consisting of small chunks of battered white fish, has become a national fast food.
Pastries in this area tend to be quite doughy, and often contain large amounts of sugar; either caramelised, powdered or crystallised. The oliebol (in its modern form) and Zeeuwse bolus are good examples. Cookies are also produced in great number and tend to contain a lot of butter as well as a filling of some kind, mostly almond.
The traditional alcoholic beverages of this region are beer (strong pale lager) and Jenever, a high proof juniper-flavoured spirit. A noted exception within the traditional Dutch alcoholic landscape, Advocaat, a rich and creamy liqueur made from eggs, sugar and brandy, is also native to this region.
Southern Dutch cuisine constitutes the cuisine of the Dutch provinces of North-Brabant and Limburg and the Flemish Region in Belgium. It is renowned for its many rich pastries, soups, stews and vegetable dishes and is often called Burgundian which is a Dutch idiom invoking the rich Burgundian court which ruled the Low Countries in the Middle Ages renowned for its splendor and great feasts.
It is the only Dutch culinary region which developed a haute cuisine and it forms the base of most traditional Dutch restaurants including typical main courses served such as Biefstuk, Varkenshaas, Ossenhaas, these are premium cuts of meat, generally pork or beef, accompanied by a wide variety of sauces and potatoes which have been double fried in the traditional Dutch (or Belgian) manner.
Stews, such as hachee, a stew of onions, beef and a thick gravy, contain a lot of flavour and require hours to prepare. Vegetable soups are made from richly flavoured stock or bouillon and typically contain small meatballs alongside a wide variety of different vegetables. Asparagus and witloof are highly prized and traditionally eaten with cheese and/or ham.
Pastries are abundant, often with rich fillings of cream, custard or fruits. Cakes, such as the Vlaai from Limburg and the Moorkop and Bossche Bol from Brabant, are typical pastries. Savoury pastries also occur, with the worstenbroodje (a roll with a sausage of ground beef) being the most popular.
The traditional alcoholic beverage of the region is beer. There are many local brands, ranging from Trappist to Kriek. Beer, like wine in French cuisine, is also used in cooking; often in stews.
Foods in Dutch cuisine
Dutch agriculture roughly consists of five sectors: tillage-based, greenhouse-based, and fruit agriculture, animal husbandry and fishery.
- Tillage-based crops include potatoes, kale, beetroot, green beans, carrots, celeriac, onions, all kind of cabbages, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, endive, spinach, Belgian endive, asparagus and lettuce. Recently some initiatives have been started to encourage interest in such “forgotten” vegetables as common purslane, medlars, parsnips, and black salsify
- Greenhouses are used to produce tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, and sweet peppers
- Fruits include apples, pears, cherries, berries, and plums
- The Dutch keep cows both for milk and for their meat, chickens for their eggs and for meat, pigs for their meat and sheep for their wool and meat. Goat are increasingly kept for cheese production. Traditionally horse meat was a common dish (steak and sausage) but is less popular today.
- The fishery sector lands cod, herring, plaice, sole, mackerel, eels, tuna, salmon, trout, oysters, mussels, shrimp, and sardines. The Dutch are famous for their smoked eel and soused herring, which is eaten raw.
Structure of meals in Dutch cuisine
Breakfast and lunch
Breakfast and lunch differ little in Dutch cuisine and both consist of bread with a wide variety of cold cuts, cheeses and sweet toppings; such as hagelslag, vlokken and muisjes. Chocolate spread, treacle (a thick, dark brown sugar syrup called stroop), peanut butter (which is savoury, not sweet) and confiture are popular too.
The Dutch are famous for their dairy products and especially for their cheeses. The vast majority of Dutch cheeses are semi-hard or hard cheeses. Famous Dutch cheeses include Gouda, Edam, and Leyden. A typically Dutch way of making cheese is to blend in herbs or spices during the first stages of the production process. Famous examples of this are cheeses with cloves (usually the Frisian nagelkaas), cumin (most famously Leyden cheese), or nettles.
Dutch bread tends to be very airy, as it is made from yeast dough. From the 1970s onward Dutch bread became predominantly whole grain, with additional seeds such as sunflower or pumpkin seeds often mixed with the dough for taste. Rye bread is one of the few dense breads of the Netherlands. White bread used to be the luxury bread, often made with milk as well as water. A Frisian luxury version of white bread is suikerbrood, white bread with large lumps of sugar mixed with the dough. Kerststol is a traditional Dutch Christmas bread made of bread dough with sugar, dried fruits, raisins and currants and lemon and orange zest, eaten sliced, spread with butter.
Those who do not want to have breakfast but need something in their stomach in the morning often eat the famous Dutch ontbijtkoek. It is usually served as a small slice, possibly with butter.
Dutch people invite friends over for koffietijd (coffee time), which consists of coffee and cake or a biscuit, served between 10 and 11 a. m. (before lunch) and/or 4pm (Between lunch and dinner) and/or between 7 and 8 p. m. (after dinner). The Dutch drink coffee and tea throughout the day, often served with a single biscuit. Dutch thrift led to the famous standard rule of only one cookie with each cup of coffee. It has been suggested that the reasons for this can be found in the Protestant mentality and upbringing in the northern Netherlands. The traditionally Roman Catholic south does not share this tradition as for instan is the least populated area of large vlaai (sweet pie or pastry with filling), cut into eight pieces, is tradition when visitors are .
Café au lait is also very common. It is called koffie verkeerd (literally “wrong coffee”) and consists of equal parts black coffee and hot milk. The Dutch drink tea without milk and the tea is quite a lot weaker than the typical English types of tea which are taken with milk. Other hot drinks used to include warm lemonade, called kwast (hot water with lemon juice), and anijsmelk (hot milk with aniseed). In the autumn and winter the very popular hot chocolate or chocolate milk is drunk. Both anijsmelk and kwast are hardly drunk any more and have lost their popularity.
Dinner, traditionally served early by international standards, starts at about 6 o’clock in the evening. The old-fashioned Dutch dinner consists of one simple course: beans or potatoes, meat and vegetables. Traditionally potatoes with a large portion of vegetables and a small portion of meat with gravy, or a potato and vegetable stew. A typical traditional Dutch dinner would include stamppot (Dutch mashed potato mixed with other mashed vegetables) and pea soup. Vegetable stews served as side dishes are for example rodekool met appeltjes (red cabbage with apples), or rode bieten (beetroot). Regular spices used in stews of this kind may be bay leaves, juniper berries, cloves, and vinegar, although strong spices are generally used sparingly. Stews are often served with mixed pickles, including zure zult (head cheese) or stewed pears (stoofperen). Due to the influx of other countries traditional meals have lost some popularity. Stamppot is traditionally eaten in winter.
If there is a starter, it is usually soup. The final course is a sweet dessert, traditionally yoghurt with some sugar or vla, thin milk pudding (cooked milk with custard).
The below listed meals have historic origins as meals for common laborers. In the 17th to 19th century workers worked 10 to 16 hours on farms or in factories in unheated rooms, hence these meals are very heavy on calories and fat and were meant to replenish a labourer’s energy.
Well-known Dutch dishes are:
- Hutspot, made with potatoes, carrots, and onions served with meats like rookworst (smoked sausage), slow-cooked meat, or bacon. Before potatoes were introduced in Europe hutspot was made from parsnips, carrots, and onions.
- Andijviestamppot, raw endive mashed with hot potatoes, served with diced fried spek (a kind of bacon)
- Hete bliksem (literally Hot Lightning), boiled potatoes and green apples, served with stroop (treacle) or tossed with diced speck
- Zuurkoolstamppot, sauerkraut mashed with potatoes. Served with fried bacon or a sausage. Sometimes curry powder, raisins or slices of pineapple or banana are used to give a stamppot an exotic touch
- Boerenkoolstamppot,- Kale mixed with potatoes, served with gravy, mustard, and rookworst sausage. This dish, boerenkool met rookworst, (which could be translated literally as farmers cabbage with smoked sausage), is made of mashed potatoes mixed with cabbage and it is usually eaten with smoked sausage. ‘Boerenkool met worst’ is one of the oldest and most popular Dutch dishes. Boerenkool was mentioned in cookbooks from the year 1661. 1661 mashed potatoes were not used in this dish yet, although the sausage was already served with the cabbage in this dish. The dish became popular after a few bad corn-seasons when potatoes became popular as food. Boerenkool contains a lot of carbohydrates, which makes it a popular meal for cold winter days.
Another dish served at the dinner table is a very thick pea soup, called snert and it can be served either as a main dish or as an appetizer and is traditionally eaten during the winter. Snert has a very thick consistency and often includes pieces of pork and rookworst – smoked sausage – and is almost a stew rather than a soup. The thick consistency of the Dutch pea soup is often described as that “..you should be able to stand a spoon upright in a good pea soup”. It is customarily served with roggebrood (rye bread) spread with butter and topped with katenspek, a variety of bacon which is first cooked and then smoked. The meat from the soup may also be put on the rye bread and eaten with mustard.
Meat dishes include gehaktballen meatballs, slavink, minced meat wrapped in bacon, balkenbrij, a type of liverwurst and meatloaf. The butter based gravy (boterjus), in which the meat has been fried and/or cooked, is also served. A variant of this, eaten around the IJsselmeer (a shallow lake in the central Netherlands), is butter en eek, where vinegar is added to the gravy.
Another Dutch dinner dish is pannenkoeken (pancakes are named after pannenkoeken), which come in several varieties including poffertjes (miniature pancakes) and spekdik (a Northern variant with bacon). Wentelteefjes (French toast) are similar. Broeder, a type of cake, is also eaten for dinner, mainly in West Friesland.
In season, mosselen (mussels) are quite popular and commonly served with patat (french fries).
Desserts often include vla (vanilla custard) or yoghurt. Regional variants include broodpap, a bread porridge made from old bread, milk, butter and sugar.
Other puddings and porridges are griesmeelpudding, grutjespap, Haagse bluf, hangop, Jan in de zak, karnemelksepap, rijstebrij (rice pudding), krentjebrij (also called watergruwel).
Indonesian and Indo dishes became popular due to the arrival of former Dutch colonials and people of Eurasian descent in to the Netherlands, especially after the independence of Indonesia from Dutch colonial rule in 1949. C. Countess van Limburg Stirum writes in her book “The Art of Dutch Cooking” (1962): There exist countless Indonesian dishes, some of which take hours to prepare; but a few easy ones have become so popular that they can be regarded as “national dishes”. She then provides recipes for nasi goreng (fried rice), pisang goreng (baked bananas), lumpia goreng (fried spring rolls), bami (fried noodles), satay (grilled skewered meat), satay sauce (peanut sauce), and sambal oelek (chilli paste). Dutch-Indonesian fusion dishes also exist, of which the most well-known is the Rijsttafel (“Rice table”), which is an elaborate meal consisting of many (up to several dozens) small dishes (hence filling “an entire table”). While popular in Holland, Rijsttafel is now rare in Indonesia itself.
In recent decades, Arab dishes have become increasingly popular, especially as a snack food. In larger towns and cities, small restaurants selling Kebab, Shaorma and Falafel can be found on virtually any street corner.
On special occasions, usually different types of pastries are eaten. When a baby is born in a family, the young parents traditionally serve their guests beschuit met muisjes (Dutch rusk covered with sugared aniseed).
The Dutch festival of Sinterklaas (dedicated to Saint Nicholas, celebrating his name day) is held on 5 December. Saint Nicholas leaves gifts in the children’s shoes. On this occasion, the Dutch drink hot chocolate milk and eat spice cookies, like speculaas. These special pastries are said to be distributed by Saint Nicholas’ aide Zwarte Piet; and they include pepernoten (gingernut-like biscuits but made with cinnamon, pepper, cloves and nutmeg mix of spices), boterletter or Banket, (a baked pastry crust filled with a sugared almond paste filling and shaped into a letter), letters made from chocolate, marzipan, borstplaat (discs of fondant); and several other types of spiced cookies: taai-taai and kruidnoten and banketstaaf.
Christmas in the Netherlands is a typical family holiday. Traditionally there is family brunch with kerststol (fruited raisinbread; often filled with almond paste). Christmas dinner is also a family occasion where roast pork, game or other luxury meat may be served. An alternative typical Dutch tradition for Christmas meals is ‘gourmet’, when people sit together around a gourmet-set (small table top cooking stove with miniature frying pans) and use their own small frying pans to cook different types of meats, fish prawns/shrimps and finely chopped vegetables accompanied by salads, fruits and sauces.
On New Year’s Eve, Dutch houses smell of the piping hot oil used to prepare oliebollen and appelbeignets (battered apple rings) in deep-fat fryers. These yeast dough balls, either plain or filled with glacé fruits, pieces of apple and raisins and sultanas, are served with powdered sugar and are a special treat for New Year’s Eve. The Dutch also took their oliebollen to America, where they are now known in a slightly different form as doughnuts. In Limburg nonnevotte are sometimes served during New Year’s Eve, although it is mostly eaten during Carnival. Around New Years kniepertjes are popular, in particular in the northern provinces.
On birthdays all kinds of cakes and cookies are eaten, including Appeltaart (apple pie), bokkepootjes, Bossche bol, dikke koek, cream cake, Fryske dumkes, gevulde koek (cookies filled with almond meal), Groninger koek, janhagel, ketelkoek, kindermanstik, krakeling, krentenwegge, kruidkoek, Limburgse vlaai, ouwewijvenkoek, peperkoek (gingerbread), rijstekoek, spekkoek (originally from Indonesia), sprits, tompouce, trommelkoek, bitterkoekjes, kletskop and stroopwafel. Poffertjes are tiny puffed pancakes served on special occasions, served warm with melting butter and icing sugar on top. They are mostly combined with a drink: milk, chocolate milk or yogurt drink. Cafeterias all around Holland sell poffertjes. Dutch people call such a restaurant a poffertjeskraam. Poffertjes can be eaten as a dessert after dinner or as a sweet lunch.
A famous Dutch sweet is zoute drop, (lit. “salty liquorice”) and other liquorice sweets. These sweets are small, black and look much like gums. The four types of drop are soft sweet, soft salt, hard sweet and hard salt drop. Liquorice can be bought in shops and pharmacies and has a medical function as it is supposed to help cure throat and stomach aches. Dutch drop is sold in a large variety of shapes and forms. When they are flavoured with coconut fondant they are called Engelse drop (lit. “English liquorice”; liquorice allsorts). Other varieties are made with honey (honingdrop), mint (muntdrop), salammoniac (salmiakdrop), or laurel (laurierdrop). Typical shapes are diamonds, ovals, oblongs and as coins. A honeycomb shape for honey drop is also popular. Some manufacturers have introduced speciality ranges where the drop is made in thematic shapes, such as cars (autodrop), farm animals and farm machinery (boerderijdrop), etcetera.
Another popular Dutch sweet is the stroopwafel (“stroop” meaning syrup). A thin wafer, made typically in a pizelle pan, is sliced horizontally and used for sandwiching a layer of light caramel syrup, the stroop. Occasionally, crushed hazelnuts will be mixed with the stroop, and the wafers may be spiced with cinnamon.
One of the Dutch confectionary specialties is vlaai. It is a sweet pie made with a yeast dough and filled with fruit (such as apple, apricot, pineapple, plum) or berry filling. Other ingredients may include custard and rhubarb. Rice vlaais, stuffed with a rich rice-and-cream filling, are also popular. They can be additionally grafted with fruits, whipped cream or chocolate.
The Dutch have their own types of fast food, sold at a snackbar. A Dutch fast food meal often consists of a portion of french fries (called patat or friet), with a sauce and a meat product. The most common sauce to accompany French fries is fritessaus (a low fat mayonnaise substitute), while others can be ketchup or spiced ketchup, peanut sauce, a pickle relish of chopped vegetables and spices, such as piccalilli or joppiesaus. Sometimes the French fries are served with a combinations of different sauces, most famously speciaal (lit. “special”), which consists of mayonnaise with spiced ketchup and chopped onions, and oorlog (lit. “war”), with both mayonnaise and peanut sauce which is sometimes topped with chopped raw onions. A quite new addition to Dutch fast food is the Kapsalon (lit. “barbershop”), consisting of either shawarma or döner, and with fries, salad, cheese and various sauces, all put into one take-out box. It was given its name because the original (Patat) Kapsalon, which was a lunch meal as ordered by the owner of a barbershop in Rotterdam.
Snacks made with meat are usually deep fried, this includes the frikandel (a skinless minced meat sausage), and the kroket (a meat ragout roll covered in breadcrumbs).
A smaller, spherical version of the kroket, the bitterbal, is often served with mustard as a snack in bars but also at official receptions. Regional snacks include the eierbal (a combination of egg and ragout) in the north and east of the country, and the slightly spiced Brabants worstenbrood or saucijzenbroodjes, slightly spiced sausage meat baked in pastry (similar to the English sausage roll).
Other snacks are the Indonesian-inspired bamihap or bamischijf (a disk shaped mie goreng patty which is covered with breadcrumbs and deep-fried), nasibal (similar to the bamischijf, but then ball shaped and filled with nasi goreng), and kaassoufflé (lit. “cheese soufflé” but in actual fact a deep fried puff pastry envelope with a small amount of cheese in the centre, popular amongst vegetarians).
Almost all fast food meat products are factory made from cheap cuts of meat and supplied to the snackbar frozen. French fries need to be deep fried twice at different temperatures. In most cases the fries are supplied frozen and pre-fried, only needing to be fried once at the snack bar. Some snackbars offer locally prepared snacks, e.g. sliced pork belly covered in breadcrumbs.
Fish is also sold as fast food at the so-called viskraam, most often street stalls and market stalls that specialise only in prepared fish products. The Netherlands is famous for its raw herring, optionally served together with chopped raw onions and gherkins, and which is eaten by lifting the herring high up into the air by its tail, and then biting into it upwards. Raw herring is also commonly sold in a soft white bun. Other popular fish snacks are kibbeling (deep-fried nugget-sized chunks of cod), lekkerbek (deep-fried cod, similar to the British Fish and chips, but delicately spiced and with a more tempura-like batter), gerookte paling (smoked eel), and rolmops.