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Culinary Influences on the Dutch Kitchen


Culinary Influences on the Dutch Kitchen

An Indonesian 'rijsttafel' (rice table)

Photo © Ellen Schelkers
Many people have a preconception about Dutch food that it is bland and boring, lacking spice, both literally and figuratively. But in fact, the Dutch kitchen has been enriched by many foreign flavors. Early Persian and Arab influences were the result of trading. Roman, French and Spanish influences occurred because of various conquests throughout the history of the area. Things really spiced up when Holland ruled the spice trade in the 17th century. And, more recently, the Netherlands has seen an influx of immigrants from some of its former colonies as well as guest workers from Turkey and Morocco.


The Netherlands was once a colonial power, with colonies and settlements in Africa, Asia, North America and the Caribbean. Indonesia, with its wealth of spices, was considered the jewel in its colonial crown. For this reason, the Dutch wholeheartedly embraced Indonesian food not only in the colony, but back home too. The Indonesian rijsttafel (literally, rice table), a celebratory meal, was a Dutch invention. It consists of rice, spicy sambal paste and dozens of small dishes. Nowadays, the Dutch consider Indonesian food to be almost indigenous and they are quite likely to take foreign visitors to an Indonesian restaurant when they are entertaining. Meals like Bami Goreng, Babi Ketjap and Satay frequently feature in Dutch homes, while the Bamischijf (a deep fried snack of noodles in a bread crumb crust) and Patat Sate (Dutch fries with satay sauce) are excellent examples of Indo-Dutch fusion.

The Big New Influences: Turkey & Morocco

Guest workers from Turkey and Morocco came to the Netherlands in the latter half of the previous century. Many have settled here for good, opening corner shops and restaurants. In fact, the abundance of Turkish and Moroccan restaurants in the Netherlands has been very instrumental in familiarizing the Dutch with Turkish and Moroccan food. And, because it is so easy to buy all the ingredients in little immigrant shops around the corner, Hollanders have started trying their hand at some Turkish and Moroccan dishes, like Fattoush and Taboulleh at home too. Couscous and tajines have gone from being exotic to everyday in a matter of a few decades, and Turkish kebabs and pita breads are popular.

Caribbean Cooking: Surinam & the Netherlands Antilles

Rather surprisingly, the former colonies of Surinam and the Netherlands Antilles have not had a huge influence on Dutch cooking (yet), despite their tropical appeal. According to Koks & Keukenmeiden (1996, J. Van Dam/J. Witteveen) there is a good reason for it. Apparently, Surinamese and Antillean immigrants have pretty much kept their cooking to themselves, with the result that it has not become as widely entrenched in Holland as Indonesian, Turkish or Moroccan cooking. Nowadays, you can find the odd Surinamese sandwich shop and toko (immigrant store) selling Surinamese and Antillean groceries, while ginger beer and plantains are starting to edge their way onto supermarket shelves.

Dutch Legacy

The Netherlands hasn't only been on the receiving end of culinary influences, but also left its mark behind in former colonies and territories. So, for instance, the oliebol and its cousin, the apple fritter, were taken to the New World by early Dutch settlers, where they evolved into the donut. There is a saying in the USA, as American as apple pie but it really would be more accurate to say, as Dutch as apple pie, because early cookbooks show that the Dutch have been baking them since before the USA even existed.

Pancakes are eaten all over the world now, but they seem especially popular in the USA and South Africa (another former colony), where they are considered as big a part of the national identity as they are in their 'motherland' (of course, many other countries have tried to claim this honor, too). The Dutch also gave South Africa its beloved milk tart, koeksusters and vetkoek (both based on the oliebol), and soetkoekies (cookies that are similar to speculaas). Speaking of which, did you know that the Dutch introduced the cookie to North America? In fact, even the word cookie owes its etymology to the Dutch word koekje.

It seems that culinary influence is a two-way street. And that, folks, is simply the way the cookie crumbles.

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