The Story Behind Amsterdam’s Food Evolution

The Story Behind Amsterdam’s Food Evolution
© Julia Wytrazek / Culture Trip
With its world-class museums and Golden Age canals, a trip to Amsterdam isn’t a hard sell. For a long time, however, its food had a poor reputation. If you still think that’s the case, though, chances are you’ve not visited the city recently. Amsterdam now has a fast-evolving food scene that’s becoming more vibrant and exciting by the day.

There was a time when it was hard to describe the Dutch kitchen to visitors without using words like ‘hearty’, ‘stodgy’ or ‘simple’. This was, in part, due to the fashion for frugality that followed the frivolous Dutch Golden Age. Many Dutch girls were sent to huishoudscholen (domestic science schools), where traditional dishes were greatly simplified as the emphasis was placed on cheap, nutritious meals to feed the masses. This utilitarian approach to eating had a lasting legacy, and one that is only now starting to change.

The Amsterdam table has never been static, and culinary influences from afar are not new to the Netherlands. In fact, the Dutch kitchen was influenced by Roman food habits, and later by French, Italian, German and English cookery writers, and by immigrants from across Europe and beyond. A love for aromatic yet expensive Eastern spices, which first made their way to Europe by overland routes, is one of the reasons the Netherlands took to the seas in the first place. As a seafaring and trading nation that once controlled large colonies and settlements across Africa, Asia, North America and the Caribbean, you can’t really talk about eating in Amsterdam without mentioning Indonesian cuisine and Surinamese food.

Creations such as the rijsttafel (literally ‘rice table’, a sort of Dutch colonial tasting menu of the greatest hits of the Indonesian archipelago), are now seen as typically Dutch. So, too, are Surinamese street foods like roti and broodje pom, which are regularly enjoyed by Dutch people. Meanwhile, an influx of Moroccan and Turkish guest workers in the latter half of the 20th century has rekindled the Dutch taste for North African and Eastern Mediterranean flavours. It’s safe to say that Amsterdam’s cuisine has always been a melting pot, but at its heart were simple, traditional, home-cooked dishes largely based around meat and two veg.

Reinventing tradition

You’ll still find Dutch restaurants rehashing the classics, like stamppot (mashed potatoes with seasonal veg, topped with gravy and smoked sausage and/or bacon), mosselen en friet (local Zeeland mussels with thick-cut Dutch fries and mayo), hachee (beef and onion stew) and pannenkoeken (plate-sized Dutch pancakes, often served with bacon, apple and a dark molasses-like syrup).

But while there haven’t been that many contenders championing high-calibre local cuisine, at least half a dozen decent new Dutch restaurants have popped up in the last few years. Many of the city’s hottest next-generation chefs have set out to reinvent the local cuisine, using the abundance of locally grown produce such as premium-quality beef, pork, poultry and lamb, and some of the best seafood in the world. Organic farmer’s markets, artisanal bakeries and gourmet food stores are also on the rise.

Low Food

Perhaps one of the most telling signs that a new food culture was emerging was the birth of a culinary movement called ‘Low Food’, initiated by Dutch chefs and food entrepreneurs in 2018 to help shape and enrich the Netherlands’ food culture and food systems. Leading local chef Joris Bijdendijk of the Rijksmuseum’s Dutch-themed Michelin-star RIJKS® restaurant (Museumstraat 2) is one of the initiators of the movement: “We have everything we need to make it happen: a wealth of good products and talented young chefs,” he says. One of these chefs is Maik Kuijpers, whose excellent Central Station-adjacent eatery, Carstens (Damrak 1–5) adds a Dutch touch to brasserie classics. Think Caesar salad with traditional Dutch boerenkool (kale), yellow beet carpaccio and Kamper lamb braised in spices and served with herbed yoghurt.

New Dutch Kitchen

This emerging ‘Low Countries cuisine’ or ‘New Dutch Kitchen’, as it’s also often called, generally falls into one or more of three categories: restaurants that are rooted in local, seasonal ingredients; new-style Dutch brasseries; and fancier chef-driven establishments that are inspired by traditional Dutch cooking. Some of our personal favourites include Amsterdam’s farm-to-table pioneer De Kas (Kamerlingh Onneslaan 3), nearby Merkelbach (Middenweg 72), which was founded on the principles of the Slow Food movement and the delightfully casual Frisian specialist Thuskomme (Batjanstraat 1A).