If you’re headed to Amsterdam and you love to eat, Amsterdam Food Tours is a great bet for finding the city’s best eats, drinks, and experiences.
As a food writer, beverage professional, and self-proclaimed gourmand, it should surprise exactly no one that my personal travel is often organized around what and where I want to eat. A simple internet search for “best things to eat in X” is often the starting position, and any worthy excursions in that place better find themselves well situated within the path of my intended food conquests. What to do then, with a scant few days in a gastronome’s paradise like Amsterdam, where the search results for “best things to eat” turn up scores of suggestions from pancakes, to pickled herring, to pie?
Enter Amsterdam Food Tours, which I found through Airbnb Experiences—a platform that connects travelers with locals for everything from food and beverage, to nightlife, to culture, to nature. Thijs van Royen operates a near daily tour to introduce travelers to some of the highlights of this progressive, food-centric place.
“The food and beverage culture is impressive in Amsterdam,” explains van Royen, and there are good reasons for that: a high concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants given the modest population, a strong immigrant presence of over 170 nationalities, and a recent renaissance of the food culture from the Dutch Golden Age of the 1600s and 1700s. “Also the city has an active policy that forbids any major fast food chain or cheap tourist restaurants to open new businesses in Amsterdam to safeguard the variety,” says van Royen.
Over a scant four hours, I was promised a taste of…well…just about everything, meaning I even stood a chance to also take a boat ride or visit Anne Frank’s house that weekend. While you may still be hungry (or made hungrier) following this literary food tour, know that in real life I didn’t eat again for the rest of the day.
1. Poffertjes (Pancakes)
Stop one was Café de Prins, a canal-side pub, adorned equally in wood as in paintings of jolly, mischievous monks. Mischief or no mischief, we would not be beginning the day with shots of genever, despite the location. Since it was 10 a.m., the first order of business was breakfast. The word “pancake” is cute and all, but the term in Dutch—poffertjes—is positively adorable, as are the pancakes themselves. Miniature in size with delightfully crisped edges, served with syrup and powdered sugar, and given extra lift or “puff” through a yeasted batter, they were anything but dainty in impact. At least not when you’re offered a plate of a dozen and you don’t yet know how much you should be pacing yourself.
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If you can’t make it to Amsterdam, you can still have adorable Dutch pancakes at home.
2. Haring (Pickled Herring)
If it seems jarring to follow up a pancake breakfast with pickled herring, think again. Because the texture of excellent Dutch herring—freshly caught, preserved whole, and prepared to order, as is the way at Zeewater—can only be likened to butter. (Slightly briny butter, but butter, nonetheless.) I enjoyed the bite-sized sample so much that I volunteered myself for the whole fish experience. Which I can then liken to eating an entire stick of butter. Pacing be damned.
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Spread the word. It’s like butter.
3. Kibbeling (Fried Fish)
There was one more thing to try at Zeewater, a bright seafood cafe in Amsterdam’s Jordaan district. With a nod to the keen Dutch sense of practicality, kibbeling are fried cod pieces that utilize the rest of the fish after the prized fillets are removed. Served with an herbed, garlicky tartar sauce, the batter was light and crisp as to not interfere with the clean freshness of the fish itself. Though the batter was certainly abundant, smaller fish pieces means a higher ratio of fry to fish. Fortunately, there was also a bit of Tulpenwodka—that is, vodka distilled from tulips—to cut through the richness.
4. Erwtensoep (Pea Soup)
So now it was actually time for lunch (as though we hadn’t been eating nonstop for an hour.) Pea soup has a history of being a sailors’ meal, since it is a low cost, low maintenance, high protein, and hearty food. So it’s no wonder that a country with a cracking maritime trade and whose colonial empire stretched as far as Indonesia would co-opt this sailor’s staple for their own. Studded with leeks, carrots, and sausage, and frequently offered by outdoor stalls as food for walking along the canals with, one suspects the Dutch love of pea soup might be less about maritime concerns and more about their penchant for gezellig. Simply put, it means “coziness,” or as van Royen explains: “gezellig refers to having a social and cozy time together without worries and feeling comfortable, or being in a place, environment or house etc. that makes you feel safe and comfortable.”
At Bar Boca’s, a hip Jordaan neighborhood cafe, my group got gezellig around a table in the large front bay window, and along with pea soup came a generous tasting of bitterballen. To call bitterballen simply fried meatballs would do them a huge disservice, as they are not simply balls made of meat, but balls made of roux—that is, meat stock thickened with flour. The result is a prestidigitation of textures and flavors: the crackling exterior giving way to a robust meat flavor but with a decidedly creamy interior. A beer was offered as a pairing that was poetic in both name and meaning: bitterballen with Blossom Blonde, a snappy, floral ale made by brewery Gebrouwen door Vrouwen. (“Brewed by Women.”)
Stroopwafel are the ultimate portable Dutch snack or dessert: a thin waffle sliced lengthwise (or sometimes two thin waffles), spread with a sticky brown sugar syrup. If you haven’t had stroopwafels in The Netherlands, perhaps you’ve had stroopwafel in a packaged form. If not, there is still time for you. Let your first taste be the real thing. Rather than run to your neighborhood coffee retailer for a sub par, room temperature, and cloyingly caramel version, might I suggest booking a ticket to Amsterdam instead? Get yourself to the Saturday Lindengracht market, visit Wonder Waffles, and have them make you a fresh one to stroll with, hot from the iron and heady with cinnamon.
7. Chicken Satay
Lest you think you’ve accidentally warped into a different round-up, hear me out. “Amsterdam has always been a city of immigrants,” explains van Royen, “and in the second part of the 20th century many Indonesian and Surinam people from the former Dutch colonies settled themselves here. And because the Dutch never had a strong feeling of tradition like the French or the Italians, their flavors were easily adapted to the Dutch cuisine and food culture.” Ergo they secured a taste for the likes of satay, complete with aromatic peanut sauce and savory shrimp crackers. And no Dutch food tour worth its salt (or fish sauce) would be complete without a tribute.
Even the sausage bears the mark of colonization. Among the four sausages we tried at the gorgeous 1890 butcher shop Slagerij Louman (yes, this is all still the same day for those counting calories), the kruidnagelworst stood out: a robust dried pork sausage born from cold-weather peasant cultures, studded with cloves. “Of course our food is hugely influenced by the spices from the former Dutch colonies,” says van Royen, “having been the biggest trading country in the world for over a century.”
Gouda is one of the oldest cheeses on record still being made today. Somewhat surprisingly, then, unlike some of its cheese brethren in Italy and France, “gouda” is not a protected term. Though it originated in The Netherlands, named not for where it was made but for the post where it was traded, gouda can be made anywhere on earth. (Provided there is access to dairy as well as visionary people who understand the benefits of having regular access to this style of simple farmer’s cheese.) At this point I hardly needed a snack. I hardly needed a snack maybe from this point forward until forever given the full day of eating. But I took those samples of young, truffled, and aged gouda from JWO Lekkernijen like I hadn’t eaten cheese before. To be fair, I hadn’t eaten cheese yet on this day, so maybe that counts?
No food tour nor food tour round-up would be complete without dessert. Much like the term “going Dutch,” I’d never considered that “Dutch apple pie” very specifically referred to a style of a thing originating in the Netherlands, with top and bottom crusts that are more cake-like than flaky, and a sturdy density of sliced fruit where the natural sweetness of the apples is favored over the addition of much sugar. The subtle sweetness might not make this American as American Apple Pie, but even famed American sweet tooth Bill Clinton reportedly had two pieces when he visited Café Papeneiland.
So which of these Amsterdam foods are you most eager to try? Let us know in the comments!
Header image courtesy of Kav Dadfar/Getty Images.