Howdy, Mastication Monologues readers! I’ve been finding it harder as of late to keep up with my posts due to all of the fun happenings with the girlfriend and the job hunt. It seems like my inbox has been filling up with new places to write about, and I’m not even done with this throwback Europe series. It is nearing the end though, so I will have plenty of new restaurants to talk about in the near future. Anyway, back to the throwback vein of things. Today’s post brings us to the old but vibrant port city of Amsterdam.
I visited this city twice while living in Spain, but I found the second time around a lot more enjoyable. The first time I went there, for my birthday, it was deathly cold and windy. Northern Europe in the beginning of winter, go figure.
As we walked around the city, we were almost run over by the prodigious hordes of bikes that are all over the city. If you go there, keep your wits about you because you will get cracked if you’re too engrossed in a guide book or your smart phone. I found Amsterdam to be a quaint city that would have been more enchanting in the summer since I was more focused on not having my hands and nose fall off due to the chilly arctic winds. The canals and narrow houses harken back to the golden era of trade for the Dutch trading companies in global trade led by their innovated flat bottom barges that were useful in the canals of the city and the rest of the Netherlands. We managed to see the Rijksmuseum, Anne Frank House, and the infamous Red Light District and a few coffeehouses while we were there.
The latter two are the most notorious parts of Amsterdam for different reasons. The Red Light District since the canals are lined with full sized glass doors with each one sporting a saucy lady one could spend time with for a fee. However, contrary to popular belief that an area filled with prostitutes is extremely dangerous, it was one of the safest places in Amsterdam we walked in as there were men, women, and even old couples strolling past the sex shops.
There were even police on almost every corner, taking pictures of any of the working girls is prohibited in the Red Light District (you will get your camera confiscated by the authorities), and CCTV cameras watch out for troublemakers. The Dutch government, being liberal leaning since the 1400s, deems these window sex workers legal, collect taxes from them, and even require the girls to get regular medical exams to identify and prevent the spread of communicable diseases. As for the coffeehouses, not only do they serve the caffeine-laden beverages but also marijuana if they have the proper license. The smell is inescapable if you walk down the street in some areas, but it is nothing that is out of control in terms of people overindulging in public. The Dutch government is also cracking down on foreigners coming into the coffeehouses due to drug tourism and gangs attempting to sell hard drugs to coffeehouse customers. While these two aspects of Amsterdam seem to be the most popular in the collective imagination, I’d like to talk about two unique Dutch foods I tried while there: drop and rijstaffel.
My meeting with drop or licorice in English came in the train station under Shiphol Airport as we were waiting for our train to the main train station in Amsterdam. I had heard that drop was the most popular Dutch candy, and lo and behold I found some in a vending machine. Turns out that the Dutch consume the most licorice in the world, but I heard that this drop was definitely an acquired taste. This particular variety was half and half nibs where one half of the piece was fruit flavored while the other was the signature black drop. The first bite of this Dutch candy left me greatly puzzled since it didn’t taste like normal black licorice. After a bit of research, it turns out that it is flavored with ammonium chloride which gave it a salty yet stinging flavor. Out of my group of friends, I was the only one who enjoyed the chewy, mystery chemical licorice. Later on during our trip, we tried a Dutch specialty known as rijstaffel. The word “rijstaffel” in Dutch literally means “rice table” since it is a style of dining that originated in Indonesia during the Dutch colonial period in the 1600s and continued through to 1945. The Dutch traders wanted to eat elaborate meals that encompassed all of the interesting Indonesian dishes that existed throughout the archipelago, so the rijstaffel was born.
First, the servers would bring out a large plate of rice, and put it in the middle of the table. Then, anywhere from 10 to 100 smaller dishes, depending on how many diners there were, were brought out and combined with the rice. Indonesia has done away mostly with the rijstaffel since their independence in 1945, but this Dutch colonial tradition still is going on strong in Amsterdam as we experienced a slice of history. I remember the chicken satay served with sambal kacang (peanut sauce) was particularly delicious along with the bebek betutu (duck roasted in banana leaves) that was extremely tender with an essence of banana baked into the meat. Some of the other common dishes include nasi kuning (Indonesian yellow rice), nasi goreng (fried rice), lumpia (spring rolls), and babi kecap (pork belly in sweet soy sauce). I could go on forever with the other small plates since we had about 20 different dishes for about 30 Euros, but I highly recommend the rijstaffel if you want a unique Amsterdam dining experience.