Fine dining restaurants, take-away stalls and juice bars — food in Amsterdam is an expression of the city's diversity
It's not all clogs, tulips and windmills. Or if we're looking at globally accepted food clichés for Amsterdam — cheese, pancakes and mayonnaise-laden fries.
Served in a paper cone topped with a generous squiggle of mayonnaise, these fries — called patate frites — are crisp outside and fluffy inside. On a cold, windy day we order individual cones, which warm our hands as their heat slowly leaks through the thin paper. They're topped with different sauces: tongue-tingling green pepper mayonnaise, mayo-sambal for some earthy spice and in deference of all things Indian, a robust curry sauce.
While Amsterdam is liberally peppered with these stalls, the most obvious signs are those for ‘Vlaamse fries' meaning Flemish fries, an acknowledgement of their origin from Flanders, the Northern Dutch-speaking part of Belgium.
Amsterdam's food is an expression of how diverse the city's population has become over the decades. Former Dutch colonies Indonesia and Surinam have had an impact so the repertoire here extends far beyond meat and potatoes: rice, noodles and a line up of spices the most flamboyant of which is the deadly Madam Jeanette, a red Surinamese chilly so hot even a nibble will make you feel like a key actor in Dante's Inferno.
Dutch food has changed dramatically over the centuries. Between the 15th and 17th Century it was haute cuisine, rich and luxuriant enough to rival France. However by the 20th Century, the Dutch – showing their signature sensible frugality — decided to set up housekeeping schools for girls, to teach them how to make economical, nutritious dinners from easily available ingredients. To this day, the food is robust, quick and seasonal, though there are fine dining restaurants cooking up heavy, elaborate winter-style food that recaptures the past.
A world away from these are the outlets of FEBO, a cheery cheeky staple on the local foodscape. I find my first FEBO as I'm wandering between museums squinting at my map and I survey it with the same delighted astonishment I'd lavished on Van Gogh's Sunflowers. It's a brilliantly simple idea — a series of little cabinets with hot snacks, constantly refuelled from the kitchen. To use it, you pop a couple of Euros into a vending-machine slot, open the window and help yourself.
Since the menu's in Dutch I randomly choose a kroket, which turns out to be a meaty, full-bodied paste encased in a crisp cylinder of breadcrumbs fried to a one-week-in-Goa-suntan shade. It's a no-fail formula — textured, salty and deep fried.
Although FEBO is a chain, apparently founded in Amsterdam in 1941, it's now become the defining word for this style of food. For something marginally healthier, try the raw herring, sold fromfriendly food carts. At the bustling Farmer's Market in Haarlem, my Dutch friends insist I eat mine the traditional (and embarrassingly ungainly) way, dipping it in onions and holding it up by the tail. It's briny and mellow, tasting of the sea.
For the reckless there's kapsalon, originating from a Rotterdam barber's favourite lunch: a wicked mix of Dutch pop-food rumoured to total 1,800 calories per plate: rice, grilled meat and a heaping handful of fries, all topped by puddles of melted cheese and jazzed up with Indonesia-inspired sauces. Don't let the desultory topping of tomato, cucumber and lettuce lull you into a false sense of security.
Strolling through Albert Cuyp market, I pass a juice bar with lego-coloured baskets filled with crushed ice and glasses of fresh fruit smoothies, then stumble upon a shop selling alphabetically ordered spices from all over the world. A for Africaans, B for Bami-Nasi, C for Cajun… Beside them are a variety of healing teas — to sleep better, for peace of mind and of course the inevitable aphrodisiac tea.
Outside, I try a warm heart-shaped stroopwaffle. Consisting of two brittle waffles held together by a sticky, sweet syrup that tastes of vanilla, cinnamon and — yes — clogs-tulips-windmills. The taste of Amsterdam.