When I last visited Amsterdam to join a Viking Rhine River cruise, I wanted to make sure I spent some time getting to know Amsterdam a little better. I didn’t have the warmest of feelings for the city, and so I wanted to try a different way to get to know and hopefully like it a little better. To do this, I joined an Amsterdam food tour offered by Eating Europe of the Jordaan neighborhood, learning about the city in the best way possible, through the stomach. I learned a lot about the city’s history and culture along the way, as well as tasted some delicious Dutch food staples. I wanted to share a few of those items here, along with some other snacks and meals I tried on my own. A quick note to the critics, I realize that these foods may be overly basic and may even be considered touristy, but that’s ok. I’m not creating a cutting edge dining guide for Amsterdam here, instead I’m sharing some very iconic food experiences that I believe are important for everyone to have.
It’s hard not to love anything deep-fried and most cultures have some small, deep fried bit of goodness that they love to eat. Bitterballen are the Dutch version, usually served alongside a nice and locally produced beer. The filling is what they call a ragu of beef or veal, shaped into a ball and breaded. It was originally a way to use leftover scraps of food and can be found in most of the traditional so-called brown cafes around Amsterdam.
Where to go: Cafe De Blaffende Vis
Drinks are an important part of life in Amsterdam, from beers to great coffees there’s an appropriate drink for any time of day and there’s no better place to start than at a brown cafe. Getting their name from the dark wood and formally smoke-stained walls, so-called brown cafes are the Dutch version of the local pub or watering hole. They’re very traditional haunts where you go to catch up with local gossip or just grab a quick bite or something to drink. As our guide put it, if you’re a 20-something stockbroker looking to meet new people after work, this isn’t the place for you. No, instead these cafes are all about the neighborhoods and as I learned, some of the most traditional food in town.
Where to go: Cafe de Prins
I had heard of these classic Dutch treats long before my experience with them in the large Christmas market in Dordrecht, but I don’t think I’d ever tried them before. Like most great comfort foods, poffertjes are incredibly simple – they’re just small, light pancakes but not dense, instead they’re almost spongy in texture. Served with butter and powdered sugar, it’s the perfect food for a chilly Christmas market. Chatting with some Dutch friends, I was surprised to learn that poffertjes are usually just for kids; served at birthday parties or other important celebrations. That is until Christmas, when adults who want to relive some great childhood memories buy a batch to enjoy before continuing on to their shopping. I enjoyed poffertjes twice; in a market and at a small restaurant in Amsterdam. The restaurant version served with syrup was actually my favorite, but no matter how you eat them, they’re a not to be missed food tradition.
Where to go: Cafe de Prins
4. Cheese and meat
Dutch cheeses are famous around the world thanks to the arable land perfect for grazing herds of cows. Some of the world’s most famous cheeses come from Holland, so a cheese sampling session should be a part of any visit to Amsterdam. My personal favorite is Gouda cheese, from a town of the same name in the south of the country. You’ll find this famous cheese everywhere and in a variety of forms, from smoked to well-aged versions. If you like light and creamy cheese then be sure to buy a younger cheese, but aged Gouda is perfect if you prefer a stronger and sharper taste. Cured meats are also an important aspect of traditional Dutch food culture, and a well-done ossenworst (smoked beef sausage) or grillworst (grilled sausage) is the perfect accompaniment for some Gouda cheese and a nice wine or beer
Where to go: Butcher Louman for the meats and JWO Lekkernijen for the cheeses.
5. Colonial cuisine
Dutch food is about a lot more than cheese and beer though, it’s a worldly, international cuisine thanks in large part to the influence of the country’s former colonies. Both Indonesia and Suriname food traditions play a big role in daily food culture in Amsterdam, thanks to the immigrants who decided to call the city home. You’ll find these delicacies all around town and in fact a great Indonesian take-away is probably the city’s favorite meal. Balancing spicy flavors with a little sweetness, these are cuisines you may not know a lot about, but which are as important in Amsterdam as anything you’ll taste.
Where to go: Swieti Sranang
6. Apple pie
As an American, it’s hard to believe that another country takes apple pie as seriously as we do, but the Netherlands may just have us beat. Apple pie is the definitive Dutch food dessert, and people pass on their family recipes with care and precision. It’s a rite of passage to be the one chosen in the family to carry on the apple pie tradition, and the result for tourists is a great selection of many excellent pies found all around Amsterdam. The pies are similar to what we have here in the States, except that they’re not as sweet, tasting more like a tart than what we consider pies. That didn’t really matter to me though as I ravenously inhaled my massive slice, what I later learned was in actuality only half a slice. Whether or not you have a well-developed sweet tooth like I do, make sure trying an apple pie in Amsterdam is on your Holland travel bucket list.
Where to go: Either Cafe Papeneiland or Winkel 43
7. Restaurant RED
As a picky eater, I very rarely take advice from friends about where to eat when I travel. It never works out and I usually get lost trying to find the restaurant. In Amsterdam though I received a recommendation that was so intriguing, I had to try it and I’m so glad that I did. Restaurant RED, overlooking the beautiful Keizersgracht is a remarkable place not for what is on its menu, but for what’s not. Keeping things simple, there are only three options for dinner: steak, lobster or both. There are few things that I enjoy more than an excellent steak, and so I made reservations weeks in advance, drooling in anticipation. The small, homey but refined interior set the mood for what was one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time. For those with an interest, a variety of caviars are available as an appetizer, which I skipped in anticipation of the well-executed tournedos of tenderloin. Well presented and exceptionally well seasoned, it really was one of the best steaks that I’ve had in a long time. When capped off with a gooey warm chocolate cake, it was the perfect foodie way to end my time in Amsterdam.
Have you been to Amsterdam? What Dutch food classics did you discover?