Friday, August 10, 2012

Off the Beaten Track: In Dutch Herring Heaven

A native of the Netherlands, Irene de Vette works in Rome as a food and wine writer, sommelier and food tour guide. Her love for Italian food and wine is endless, but Irene also has an insatiable appetite for other cuisines. For this blog post, she goes back home. Find Irene’s recipes on

It’s definitely an expat thing. That specific craving for a motherland food that hits you at the most random times. On home visits, the first thing you do once you get off the plane is to immediately gorge on that long-missed item. I have American friends who O.D. on hamburgers back in the States, Mexican friends who put away as much fresh guacamole as they can hold and French friends who have buttery croissants for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

For me that food is herring. A silvery, oily delight that just doesn’t travel at all. And although the fish is ubiquitous in Germany and Scandinavian countries as well, the Dutch variety – raw, sort of – makes for one of the best treats in the world. Especially eaten the Dutch way: you grab the little monster by its tail, dip it into some raw onions and scarf it down, tilting your head back. The mere sight makes foreigners’ eyes pop out.

The Dutch have been eating herring for some 1000 years. Back in those days, only seafarers’ towns near the North Sea had the pleasure of eating haring, though, because the fish spoiled easily and quickly. After a process called haringkaken (gibbing) was introduced in the 14th century, herring became known in other parts of the Netherlands as well. Gibbing involved removing the gills and part of the gullet to eliminate the bitter taste. It was still heavily salted back then.

Nowadays, the fish is cleaned except for the liver and pancreas that release enzymes for flavor, then frozen so nasty bacteria don’t stand a chance. Finally, it's brined in a slightly salty solution. This process of ‘sousing’ makes the fish incredibly tender and mild.

Early June is an exciting time. The Hollandse nieuwe (new Dutch fatty herring that has reached the appropriate size for consumption) is announced with a bang. On Vlaggetjesdag  (Flag Day) at the end of May, a herring boat race announces the new season. Then, out of nowhere, red, white, and blue stalls pop up to brighten Dutch streets. There, the herring is extracted from the ice on order and further cleaned. When you’ve polished off your fish, napkins, lemon water and breath mints are at your disposal (you’ll need them). It’s quick, healthy, and delicious.

Some of my Italian acquaintances tend to make fun of Dutch cuisine, which, they claim, is non-existent. ‘What do you eat’, they rhetorically ask me, ‘Ah yes, bread and unsalted potatoes. You poor people.’ While I never doubt the Greatness of All Things Italian (God forbid!), I wish I could drag them to the herring stalls. But then again, those same acquaintances are not particularly known for their adventurous eating outings. Too bad for them!


  1. Ah, yes, Dutch herring. I should have included it in the Definer Dishes chapter of my ebook, DEATH BY TARTAR SAUCE.

    Definer dish? "All over the world, different ethnic groups have one (and usually, only one) food that acts as their definer. If you can eat it and ask for more, you're automatically defined as one of us. If you go all pale when it’s put in front of you, you ain't."

    Chitlins are in the chapter. And gefilte fish, haggis and hakarl. Dutch herring would have been a perfect addition.

    — jules

    1. Love it, Jules! If you cover the east, add Bombay duck to your definer dishes. Sadly, I'll never be one of us...

  2. Irene, you've almost sold me on herring. The picture looks yummy, not at all like the pickled herring I used to see in jars in German supermarkets. I'll give it try it next time I'm in Holland.

    Jules, I have another addition for your definer dishes chapter: kaleh pacheh, an Iranian dish made of the boiled head and hooves of a sheep. It contains all the organs - eyes (well, just the muscle, I'm assured), brains and tongue. And it's served first thing in the morning.

    1. Yikes! Chitlins and Bombay duck are starting to sound more appealing! Sheeps eyes and brains, huh? Tastes like chicken?

  3. 'Definer dish', yes, that's definitely herring! Actually, daring foodie frieds do mostly warm up to trying the fish when I convince them it's quite delicious. And that it's a must try.

    Jules, when can I find the book? Would 'trippa alla romana' (roman tripe dish) count as one?

    Heidi, the soup sounds interesting! Not in the a.m. though!

  4. Matjes!
    You don't get more Dutch than that. Such a surprising treat, it is too.

  5. Oh Irene, this post whet my appetite for lemon water and breath mints! The rest, well, I'll have to follow your recommendations for the Italian stuff, I'm afraid. Although, you seem to be more of an adventurer than this one.