Though it isn't ordinarily included among the world's culinary leaders, the Netherlands is nevertheless increasingly a force to be reckoned with. Hearty, hefty, filling – this is how Dutch cooking is usually described. Traditionally, food was given scant attention as there was work to be done. But if the Dutch are anything it's innovative, and that spirit carries over to the kitchen. The new wave of Dutch chefs are busy refining their humble culinary antecedents and giving them a contemporary twist.

Dutch

Van Gogh perfectly captured the main ingredient of traditional Dutch cooking in his Potato Eaters. Typically boiled to death, these 'earth apples' are accompanied by meat – and more boiled vegetables. Gravy is then added for flavour. It's certainly not fancy, but it is filling.

Few restaurants serve exclusively Dutch cuisine, but many places have several homeland items on the menu, especially in winter. Some time-honoured favourites:

  • stamppot (mashed pot) – A simple dish of potatoes mashed with kale, endive or pickled cabbage and served with smoked sausage or strips of pork. Perfect in winter.
  • hutspot (hotchpotch; stew) – Similar to stamppot, but with potatoes, carrots, onions, braised meat and more spices. Originated in Leiden, which reputedly inherited (and modified) the recipe from the occupying Spaniards.
  • erwtensoep (pea soup) – Plenty of peas with onions, carrots, smoked sausage and bacon. And the perfect pea soup? A spoon stuck upright in the pot should remain standing. (Sadly not served in summer.)
  • asperges (asparagus) – The white version, stout and fleshy, most famously cultivated in Limburg and Noord-Brabant; popular when it's in season (spring); served with ham and butter.
  • kroketten (croquettes) – Crumb-coated dough sticks with various fillings that are deep-fried; bitterballen, the ball-shaped version, are a popular pub snack served with mustard.
  • mosselen (mussels) – Cooked with white wine, chopped leeks and onions, and served in a bowl or cooking pot with a side dish of frites or patat (chips); they're best eaten from September to April.

Lamb is prominently featured on menus, the most prized variety raised on the isle of Texel. When you're near the coast seafood is on every menu. It is also eaten as a snack. Haring (herring) is a national institution, eaten lightly salted or occasionally pickled; paling (eel), usually smoked, is another popular delicacy. Kibbeling, battered and deep fried codfish, is a tasty snack commonly sold in street market fish stalls.

For dessert, cafes often serve appeltaart (apple pie) with slagroom (whipped cream). Vlaai is the signature pie of Limburg, filled with fruit or a smooth, subtly sweet cinnamony pudding filling a crumbly crust. Ambrosial.

Most towns have at least one place serving pannenkoeken (pancakes), like crêpes and often served with fruit and cinnamon, among many other sweet and savoury toppings. Poffertjes are the coin-sized version, sprinkled with confectioner's sugar and laced with butter. You can often find these fresh at markets.

Indonesian

Indonesian cooking, a piquant legacy of the colonial era, is a rich and complex blend of many cultures: chilli peppers, peanut sauce and curries from Thailand, lemon grass and fish sauce from Vietnam, intricate Indian spice mixes and Asian cooking methods.

In the Netherlands, Indonesian food is often toned down for sensitive Western palates. If you want it hot (pedis, pronounced 'p-dis'), say so, but be prepared for watering eyes and burnt taste buds. You might play it safe by asking for sambal (chilli paste) and helping yourself. Sambal oelek is red and hot; the dark-brown sambal badjak is onion-based, mild and sweet.

The best-known dish is rijsttafel (rice table), an array of spicy savoury dishes such as braised beef, pork satay and ribs served with white rice. Nasi rames is a steaming plate of boiled rice covered in several rich condiments, while the same dish with thick noodles is called bami rames.

Surinamese

Dishes from this former colony have Caribbean roots, blending African and Indian flavours with Indonesian influences introduced by Javanese labourers. Chicken, lamb and beef curries are common menu items, served either with rice or as sandwich fillings – the ever-popular Surinaamse broodjes. Roti, a chickpea-flour pancake filled with curried potatoes, long beans and meat (vegetarian versions are available), makes a cheap and filling meal.

Gezelligheid

This particularly Dutch quality, which is most widely found in old brown cafes, is one of the best reasons to visit Amsterdam. It’s variously translated as snug, friendly, cosy, informal, companionable and convivial, but gezelligheid – the state of being gezellig – is something more easily experienced than defined. There’s a sense of time stopping, an intimacy of the here and now that leaves all your troubles behind, at least until tomorrow. You can get that warm and fuzzy feeling in many places and situations, often while nursing a brew with friends. Nearly any cosy establishment lit by candles probably qualifies.

Where to Eat & Drink

Restaurants abound and they cater to a wide variety of tastes and budgets – chefs in many top-end addresses only cook up a surprise, multicourse menu with (not-always-fantastic) wine pairings. More casual are eetcafés, affordable pub-like eateries with loyal local followings.

Cafes

When the Dutch say ‘cafe’ they mean a pub, and there are more than 1000 of them in Amsterdam alone. In a country that values socialising and conversation even more than the art of drinking itself, cafes aren’t just for drinking: they’re places to hang out for literally hours of contemplation or camaraderie. Every town and city has a variety of atmospheric cafes that regular customers have considered a ‘second home’ for years, if not generations.

Many cafes have outside seating on a terras (terrace), which are glorious in summer, and sometimes covered and heated in winter. These are fetching places to relax and people-watch, soak up the sun, read a paper or write postcards. Most serve food as well, ranging from snacks like traditional bitterballen (small, round meat croquettes) to surprisingly excellent full meals.

Of course, the Netherlands will go down in cafe history for its historic bruin cafés (brown cafes). The name comes from the smoke stains from centuries of use. You may find sand on the wooden floor or Persian rugs on the tables to soak up spilled beer.

Grand cafes are spacious, have comfortable furniture and are, well, just grand. A good tradition in many is an indoor reading table stacked with the day’s papers and news magazines, usually with one or two in English. They generally have food menus, some quite elaborate. They’re perfect for a lazy brunch or pre-theatre supper.

Theatre cafes are often similar to grand cafes, and are normally attached or adjacent to theatres, serving meals before and drinks after performances. Generally they’re good places to catch performers after the show, though they’re lovely any time of day.

Quick Eats

Broodjeszaken (sandwich shops) and snack bars proliferate. The latter offer multicoloured treats in a display case, usually based on some sort of meat and spices, and everything is dumped into a deep-fryer when you order. FEBO, the national chain of snack bars, has rows of coin-operated windows à la the Jetsons and are the lifeblood of late-night partiers.

Lebanese and Turkish snack bars specialise in shoarma, a pitta bread filled with sliced lamb from a vertical spit – also known as doner kebab – and Turkish pizza, aka lahmacun, a baked flat bread that is topped with spiced chopped meat, salad and sauce, then rolled up and served.

Vegetarians

It's surprising how few Dutch consider themselves vegetarians – only about 4% in most polls. Outside the major metropolises you'll be hard-pressed to find a strictly vegetarian-only restaurant in the small town you're visiting; in this case, you'll be relying on the couple of veg options available on most restaurant menus. Check their purity before ordering, though, as often you can't be sure whether they're 100% meat- or fish-free (meat stock is a common culprit). At the ubiquitous Surinamese snack bars, tofu and tempeh are usually available as sandwich fillings.

Top Food Festivals

There are plenty of culinary fests from late spring through early autumn. If you're in the country, don't miss the following:

  • Food Truck Festival Trek (www.festival-trek.nl; multiple Netherlands locations; mid-May to mid-September) Dozens of food trucks caravan it to eight different Dutch towns for a truly movable feast, with live music to boot.
  • Vlaggetjesdag Scheveningen (www.vlaggetjesdag.com; Scheveningen; mid-June) The coastal town ushers in the herring season with a procession of decked-out fishing boats and plenty of maatjesharing (soused herring).
  • Taste of Amsterdam (www.tasteofamsterdam.com; Amsterdam; early June) Amsterdam’s best restaurants and top chefs present their signature dishes by the banks of the Amstel.
  • Haarlem Culinair (www.haarlemculinair.nl; Haarlem; early August) Haarlem’s master chefs match culinary skills in the shadow of the big church.
  • Preuvenemint (www.preuvenemint.nl; Maastricht; late August) Claiming to be the country’s biggest food fest, Preuvenemint (‘tasting event’) showcases the southern city’s myriad restaurants.
  • Nijmegen Bierfeesten (www.nijmeegsebierfeesten.nl; late May) Some 20 breweries proffer their wares in the heart of the city.

Purely Dutch

The sight of a local slowly sliding a raw herring head-first (thankfully headless) down their gullet never fails to get a double-take from newcomers. But the Dutch love this salted delicacy. If an entire fish is too much to stomach, it can be cut into bite-sized pieces and served with onion and pickles. You'll find vendors the length and breadth of the country – look for the words haring or Hollandse niuewe and dig in. The arrival of new herring each May is a cause for celebration across the nation.

Another acquired taste in Holland is drop. This so-called sweet is a thick, rubbery liquorice root and Arabic gum concoction the Dutch go crazy for – a reputed 30 million kilos of the stuff is consumed each year. Its bitter taste is reminiscent of childhood medicine and some foreigners have trouble taking a second bite.

Distinctly Cheesy

Some Dutch say it makes them tall; others complain it causes nightmares. Whatever the case, the Netherlands is justifiably famous for its kaas (cheese). The average Dutch person consumes 18.6kg of the stuff every year.

Nearly two-thirds of all cheese sold is Gouda. The tastier varieties have strong, complex flavours and are best enjoyed with a glass of wine. It's classified by how long it's been aged, ranging from jong (young) to belegen (mature) to oud, the last being hard and rich in flavour. Oud Amsterdammer is a real delight, deep orange and crumbly with white crystals of ripeness.

Edam is similar to Gouda but slightly drier and less creamy. Leidse or Leiden cheese is another export hit, laced with cumin or caraway seed and light in flavour.

In the shops you'll also find scores of varieties that are virtually unknown outside the country. Frisian Nagelkaas might be made with parsley juice, buttermilk and 'nails' of caraway seed. Kruidenkaas has a melange of herbs such as fennel, celery, pepper or onions. Graskaas is 'new harvest' Gouda made after cows begin to roam the meadows and munch grass.

Dutch Dining Essentials

  • Reservations It never hurts to phone ahead and make a reservation for restaurants in the upper price bracket.
  • Don't go hungry Dutch kitchens can close early; 'continental' dining times are for elsewhere on the continent. In smaller cities and towns be sure to be dining by 8pm or you might end up at a cafe or late-night snack stand (not necessarily a bad thing).
  • Tipping Diners do tip, but modestly. Round up to the next euro, or around 5%; a 10% tip is considered generous. If your bill comes to €9.50, you might leave €10. If you’re paying by credit card, state the amount you want to pay, including tip, as you hand your payment to your server.
  • Cash rules Many restaurants don’t accept credit cards unless they have an embedded chip. If they do, some levy a 5% surcharge: check first. Lately some places do not accept cash either, just European debit cards.
  • Saving money Dagschotel is the dish of the day; heartier appetites might go for a dagmenu (a set menu of three or more courses). Cafe breakfasts tend to be overpriced; consider hitting a bakery instead.

Frites

A national institution, Vlaamse frites actually come from Belgium. These fries are made from whole potatoes rather than the potato pulp you will get if the sign only says frites. They are supposed to be smothered in mayonnaise, though you can ask for ketchup, curry sauce, garlic sauce or other gloppy toppings.

Best Chippies

  • Vleminckx Hole-in-the-wall friterie cooking up fries and a choice of 28 sauces in Amsterdam since 1957.
  • De Haerlemsche Vlaamse A local institution in Haarlem.
  • Friture Reitz Its crisp, double-fried frites have appeased the Maastricht masses since 1909.

Breakfast

The Dutch start the day with a filling breakfast of a few slices of bread accompanied by jam, cheese and a boiled egg. Lavish hotel breakfast buffets serve the same, in addition to a healthy choice of nuts and seeds, fresh fruit, muesli and yoghurt.

A uniquely Dutch breakfast item is hagelslag (literally 'hailstorm'), aka sweet sprinkles that come in a variety of flavours (milk or dark chocolate, lurid-coloured fruit flavours, aniseed or vanilla) and shapes (curls, shavings, tiny balls), and are sprinkled on top of buttered bread. To celebrate the birth of a baby, pink- or blue-coloured sprinkles called geboortemuisjes (literally 'birth mice') are feasted on with gusto at the celebratory breakfast table.

FEBO Snacks

The country's original fast-food outlet, FEBO has churned out a range of snacks via automatic vending machines since the 1940s. Born in Amsterdam, its branches are countrywide today.

  • Frikandel Skinless sausage of mercifully unspecified ingredients; worrisomely addictive.
  • Kaas soufflé Lava-like pocket of gooey cheesy goodness.
  • Bami Indonesian-style noodles and veg in a deep-fried orange lozenge.
  • Kipcorn Deep-fried crumb-coated sticks with lamb, beef, satay and meatless fillings.
  • Broodje bal Meatballs on a bun.

Foodie Websites

  • Lekker (www.lekker.nl) Track the newest restaurant openings and get the low-down on more than 9000 restaurants and cafes countrywide.
  • IENS (www.iens.nl) Everyday eaters give their restaurant opinions; in Dutch.
  • Amsterdam Foodie (www.amsterdamfoodie.nl) Restaurant reviews galore.
  • Your Little Black Book (www.yourlittleblackbook.me) What's new and hot in Amsterdam.

Pork

At any given time the Netherlands has a population of about 12 million pigs against 17 million humans. Despite being small in size, it is Europe's largest exporter of pork and domestic consumption is huge.

The Basics

In cities and larger towns there's a multitude of places to eat. To dine well and eat local, book ahead for weekend dining. Some places don't accept credit cards.

  • Restaurants Open for lunch from 11am or noon to 2pm and dinner from 5pm or 6pm to 9pm. Range from unchanged for a century to contemporary minimalist; urban dining is deliciously international, rural dining staunchly Dutch.
  • Eetcafes Casual and laid-back, pub-like eateries serving traditional Dutch and European cuisine to loyal locals.
  • Bars Many contemporary bars serve all-day food and/or Sunday brunch; cuisine is European or international and late-breakfast 'n light-lunch perfect.