I am sure by now you have seen the small white stands that especially flourish in the spring / early summertime. Or Dutch locals tilting their heads back to enjoy the Dutch delicacy at the ‘vishandel’. This is an experience of a foreigner with mature taste buds experiencing this salty fatty delicacy for the first time. So, buckle in!
If there is a food that is distinctly Dutch, it’s the Herring a.k.a. Haring or Hollandse Nieuwe. The Herring are eaten in many other parts of Europe. But each country has its own way of preparing it. Eating herring is an exciting and knee buckling way to get initiated into the colourful mosaic of Dutch culinary traditions. It is a delicacy that has held onto its own since the middle ages. There is even the famous “Vlaggetjesdag” (flags day) held in Scheveningen to celebrate the first Herring catch of the season.
Having lived here for a few years, it was finally time to initiate my tastebuds further into Dutch cuisine. No, this is not a jolly munching of the sugar powdered oliebol, or the mouth-watering variety of the ‘flammkuchens’ nor the perfect drink escorting bitter ballen. This is pro-culinary experience. An experience that somewhat determines if you are indeed ready to experience the Netherlands.
I strongly recommend taking this venture with a Dutch native. Trust me, you will need all the honestly blunt and objective support that you can get. My Dutch friend, Sanne, suggested a walk in the park. I kindly asked that she brings the Herring with her. The local herring boer in my area has currently closed. It is after all the fall/wintertime and the enthusiasm is not as warm. After all, I would genuinely not know how to properly order it.
Herring are small fish that live in the north Atlantic and north pacific oceans. The live-in big schools and are notably quite fatty especially as they mature. They are caught in hordes, and then promptly cured in a sweet salty brine. They are commonly eaten with raw onion and pickles. Sometimes smoked, they are mainly eaten raw, fermented, pickled, or cured.
The previous night I had asked what eating the herring was like. And in a true Dutch fashion, Sanne described it as eating sashimi—just saltier. However, this comment just fed into my anxiety. The thought of raw fish just snatched the curly tight coils off of my head. I was scared.
The next day I meet up with my friend in Amstel park. The fresh crisp air can barely mask that briny fishy scent. I know that she has come with the “goods”. We take a short walk around and find a lovely secluded place to sit. She takes the herring, raw onion and pickles from out of the bag. The scent is stronger now.
I take the fish out of the packaging. It is time.
The herring have been carefully deboned by the “haringboer” (roughly translates to ‘herring farmer’). You can choose to have the delicacy in a roll of bread as a sandwich. But do certainly expect a few raised eyebrows. As the saying goes: “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”.
Sanne can barely keep the giggles inside her. I make the decision to first try the herring on its own. Knees buckling, I take a piece and with eyes closed, place it in my mouth. Let the chewing begin.
Sanne was right; it is somewhat like a saltier version of sashimi. It is unmistakably fatty, and fishy. It is as though I can almost taste the sea in the flesh. I then try the second piece with raw onion and a pickle. This is now more friendly to my palate. The sweetness of the pickle and the onion balance out the saltiness of the herring. This medley of flavours is much more accommodating to my taste buds. Herring definitely have a pungent taste and scent. But nothing a few mints cannot fix. For those of the faint heart, I would advise you carry a can of coke with you.
But hey! I did it. I finally feel a little “Dutch”. I am quite happy. Will I eat herring often? Nope! But I tried it; and it does give one fascinating insight into the seafaring culinary culture of the Netherlands.