‘Foreign’ foods in the Netherlands

Here follows a history of ‘foreign’ foods in the Netherlands (3000 words; about 15 minutes). Please refer to this website when citing (parts of) the text.

What’s going on? We eat more pasta than potatoes now, every town has its own Thai restaurant, and supermarkets are selling ‘world cuisine’ ready meals like hot cakes. We’ve seen many changes since the start of the twentieth century. Then, the average Dutch person ate about 130 kilo’s of potatoes per year, mostly by shoveling tasteless mashes into their mouth. The cliché went that the Dutch were culinary conservatives. No longer! ‘Foreign’ foods are more popular than ever in the Netherlands. How did this culinary obsession come into being?

1800-1900: French and Indonesian influences

Of course, Dutch cuisine has always been the product of ‘foreign’ influences: spices, ingredients and preparation styles were borrowed from other people’s even before ‘the Netherlands’ existed. But by the nineteenth century, the Dutch increasingly called these outside influences by their ‘foreign’ name. Especially one particular cuisine, considering the use of French terms and French ingredients. Restaurants, increasingly popular during the first half of this century in the largest cities, offer French menu’s. At home, gastronomic innovations from France are also finding their way. Aaltje (1803), a cookery book that saw sixteen reprints, had recipes for ragoûts, haché, and ‘French soups’. At the end of the nineteenth century, the more fancy cookbooks give basically any recipe a French name: potatoes can be prepared à la Dauphine, gratinée, or as croquettes. No coincidence that this is a period of cultural nationalism, with many types of preparations an dishes being claimed by certain cultures and certain countries.

Colonial goods have always been another source of innovation. From the Dutch East-Indies come spices such as nutmeg, cloves, pepper, mace, cinnamon and more. These become more affordable at the end of the eighteenth century, when they slowly penetrate bourgeois cooking. Now, what some call typically Dutch cuisine emerges, namely the combination of simple vegetables with exotic spices: red cabbage with cloves, cauliflower with nutmeg. There is a Dutch saying that goes: that which comes from far away, tastes the sweetest (“wat men het verste haalt, smaakt het zoetst’). To some in the nineteenth century, this was common knowledge. These fusion dishes show that Dutch cooking opened itself up to foreign influences quite some time ago.

1900-1940: home cooking

But in the twentieth century, ‘foreign’ cooking becomes a national hobby. Post-1900, Indonesian influences start going far beyond the occasional cauliflower sauce. Parts of the population that have never been to the Dutch East-Indies get acquainted with ‘Eastern’ meals in the first half of the twentieth century. In large cities, multiple (Chinese-)Indonesian restaurants are founded. What is more, 1900-1940 sees the publication of eight Indonesian cookery books, often explicitly ‘adjusted for Holland’. Even the sober magazine of the home economics schools, In en Om de Woning, offers readers a nasi goreng recipe in 1919 while taking for granted the use of ingredients such as coriander seeds, cumin, galangal, lemon grass and shrimp paste. Apparently, these were obtainable post-World War I. Quite some people with a history as a soldier or a citizen in the Dutch East-Indies settle down in Dutch cities during the interbellum, especially in The Hague: in 1930, 12,000 of its inhabitants was born in the East. This diverse group of people often went on cooking and eating the dishes they were used to, bringing new recipes and tastes to Europe.

But there were also other options. In the 1930s, the first Italian restaurants were founded in cities like Amsterdam and The Hague. Regardless, despite some Chinese(-Indonesian), Italian, and Austrian options, it’s still French cuisine that is dominant. Perhaps that is why one Amsterdam restaurant called Giardino D’Italia advertizes their menu as ‘Italian and French’: an escape in case the

Italian dinner in a Dutch restaurant. Food history.nl
Uit: Het Vaderland, 1927.

popularity of Italian cuisine would dwindle. The practice of dining out was becoming more common, but remained a novelty to many, as evidenced by one cartoon printed in multiple Dutch newspapers of the time. A man, lacking in cultural capital, exclaims while eyeing the menu: “I’ll have the Vitorio Spinosi”, followed by the waiter telling him that this is not the name of a dish, but of the owner of the restaurant.

Nasi goreng recipe. Dutch food history. ‘Foreign’ foods
Nasi goreng recept (In en Om de Woning, 1919)

Italian and Indonesian cuisine are among the most important ‘new’ foreign influences during the interwar period. The aforementioned magazine of the schools for home economics, for instance, offers no less than 83 savory macaroni recipes and 172 savory rice-based recipes between 1910 and 1930. I stress the word savory here, because both rice (rice pudding) and macaroni (with sugar and raisins) were often eaten as desert. Especially the middle classes liked showing off their knowledge of foreign cuisines as a way of demonstrating their culinary capital. That is not to say that interwar macaroni recipes were particularly difficult to make: just some onion, tomato, and cheese were usually enough to serve up some Italian. Or, if you didn’t know what to do with the elbow-shaped pasta, you could always just stir them through some cooked potatoes.

In the 1930s, another development takes place that is exemplary for the growing interest in foreign foods. In Baarn the Conserven Import Export Maatschappij [Preserves Import Export Company], or Conimex was founded. Its two founders start with the import of products from around the Mediterranean Sea such as anchovies and olive oil, but quickly shift their attention toward products from the Dutch East Indies. For this, they contact Wim and Elisabeth Millenaar, who had just moved from the colony to the Netherlands and had started a small business in Indonesian meals. At Conimex Wim Millenaar is able to use his contacts in the Dutch East Indies to import a variety of products, while his wife Elisabeth has a couple of very useful family recipes at her disposal. From the start, sambal and krupuk are produced in the backyard of one of the founders. The company quickly broadens its scope to canned bami and nasi goreng. During these years, Conimex is a growing business, but before World War II it would remain a company of modest scale. In the 1930s, the Dutch mainstream is both culturally and financially not ready for adventures in home kitchens.

During, and after, World War II

While the Second World War was going on, there was little in the way of culinary adventures. There were much more important matters than canned bami. Supply lines broke down, and supplying even the most basic food items now became a problem. Products were rationed, and many fell victim to the Dutch famine of 1944-1945 (the ‘hunger winter’).

The contrast with the 1950s and 1960s could not be bigger. The Netherlands rapidly recover from the war, and foreign foods quickly become more popular. Technological innovations mean more efficient and quicker transportation, and better transnational communication. There are also specific technological inventions for the production of foods: canning becomes much more efficient and thus cheaper, while freeze-drying and deep-freezing are added as (relatively) new techniques. Supermarkets present customers with an increasing range of foreign products, often explicitly marketed as American, Swedish, Italian, or Indonesian. Unprocessed foods also become mainstream: in 1970, women’s magazine Margriet tells readers about ‘fruits from far away nations’ such as broccoli, zucchini, red bell pepper, and what is then still called ‘mangga’ (mango).

Conimex booklet - Indonesian products for cooking (1949)
Conimex booklet: Indische Producten (1949).

Like products, the travels of people also become safer, cheaper and quicker in the post-war era. Europeans increasingly go abroad for their vacations, mostly on their own continent. Countries like Indonesia, which had become independent in 1949 after a bloody war, were still a little far away for most. However, emigration from Indonesia did already leave a mark on Dutch cookery: at the end of the 1940s, many soldiers and many Indonesian people came (back) from Indonesia. This group of more than 200,000 people brought back various Indonesian food habits to the Netherlands.

A more dominant cause for the growing interest in foreign foods in the Netherlands of the 1950s and 1960s was the growing prosperity. More and more, people went out to dinner. Especially Chinese immigrants started lucrative restaurants in these decades, where they served a combination of Chinese, Indonesian and Dutch cuisine. Amsterdam, for instance, housed only two Chinese-Indonesian restaurants in 1945, but this number had grown to 44 by 1960 (!). Italian restaurants were becoming more popular, too, with 10 of them already active in 1965. The preferences of baby boomers shaped large cities in the 1960s: there, groups of adventurous students chose the (Chinese-)Indonesian restaurant. Not just because portions were generous in these establishments, but also to bring some variety into a diet dominated by potatoes. Such convenient options only grew in popularity in an era that saw a growth in one-person households and in the participation of women in the labor force.

Popularising ‘foreign cuisines

Was it all smooth sailing? Did the Dutch become culinary adventurers in the fifties and sixties without any form of resistance? Weren’t they supposed to be huge conservatives with regard to cookery? A great help in researching this historical food trend are women’s magazines. This might seem like an odd choice: were these weeklies really that important? But don’t underestimate them: in the 1950s and 1960s, magazines like Libelle and Margriet were read by many. Libelle, for instance, had about 530,000 subscribers by the end of the 1960s, but was surpassed by Margriet, which had around 800,000. Moreover, reader surveys of the time show that both magazines were read cover to cover. And not just by women: about a third of Dutch men also read them. The cookery columns were of course a popular rubric, but back then, advertisements did not escape readers’ attention, especially in a time before television (1967) and radio (1968) commercials. Hence, in these decades, the women’s magazine formed the way to introduce new food trends, to mediate between the known and the unknown.

In the cookery columns of both Libelle and Margriet, the number of foreign recipes quickly rises between 1950 and 1970: from 18% to 38%. And these are just the recipes with a very clear marker of ‘foreignness’ in their title or description (‘French bouillabaise’). Advertisers, too, increasingly reference foreign countries: in 18% of all food advertisements in 1950, to 27% in 1970. In 1950, France is the most important point of reference, but this country’s influence quickly diminishes. On the rise are places like Southern Europe and the Eastern part of Asia. Editors turn away from options closer to home: Belgium and Germany feature less and less in the magazines food columns.

'Foreign' foods and recipes in cookery columns of women's magazines

In a perennial balancing act, the magazines present the foreign as non-threatening and commonplace, but also as something of an adventure. One editor uses the phrase ‘a safe adventure’, which perfectly encapsulates the general stance toward foreign foods of the period. Margriet and Libelle stress how odd foreign cooks and their food can be. Libelle, for instance, in a 1950 article about a Chinese chef, awkwardly wrote: “What his name is? Yes, that’s a difficult question. It may be Hok Sing Yang or Gauw Boeng Seng. (…) It’s difficult to make sense of all these strange sounds. Besides, what does it matter. What he’s cooking? Now that question is easier to answer, because we carefully observed Hok Sing Yang, or whatever his name is, wielding his ladle.”

Five years later, the magazine had a striking conversation with a Chinese restaurant owner: “You shouldn’t believe everything they tell you about Chinese foodways. It is absolutely not true that the Cantonese cook live, white mice in honey and let them slide down their throat like they were herrings. No, it’s not true. Those are just stories.” Both the existance of this myth and the fact that the author made sure to ask the Chinese chef, is telling: much remains mysterious and scary about Chinese cooking in the post-war decades. In a different part of the article, the behavior that confirm the audience’s ideas about the strangeness of the chef are stressed in a way that is meant to be flattering: he possesses ‘eastern politeness’ and speaks ‘funny, awkward Dutch’. The magazines present the unknown as strange, but reassure readers that there is no reason to be afraid. Hence, a ‘safe adventure’.

To convince the part of the Dutch population that seemed overly attached to the combination of potatoes, meat and vegetables, foreign foods could also be made more familiar in a way that was more practical than theoretical. Chinese-Indonesian restaurants, therefore, put garden peas and slices of ham in their rice and noodle dishes. The invention of deep-fried balls of bami and nasi – with a crunchy outside – was also a product of this culinary encounter. Here, Conimex played an important role. The company was quickly expanding, partly because it persuaded Dutch housewives to engage in hybrid gastronomy: why not try mashed potatoes with nasi spices, or liven up the gravy with a few drops of soy sauce? Fusion cooking, basically.

Dutch cuisine was, however, becoming less popular. It was hard to serve something interesting when limited to the Dutch canon, according to the average housewife. One survey (1968) found that she liked to ‘experiment’ in the kitchen, and that she enjoyed using new products. No less than 69 per cent of Dutch housewives ocassionally used sambal in their cooking, an Indonesian hot sauce.

Conimex advertisement. ‘Foreign’ foods in the Netherlands - A Short History. 1970
Conimex advertisement. From: Margriet, 1970.

The popularity of Indonesian cuisine in the Netherlands turned out to be far from just a brief hype. Perhaps that is why, in 1970, Conimex gently poked fun at the typically Dutch meal: “If, in these times of soggy old potatoes and expensive, hard-to-find vegetables you’re still charged with putting something decent on the table… only composure and Conimex can save you.”

Authenticity: a recent obsession

‘Authenticity’ is a notoriously complicated and flexible term (for how long should a dish be part of Indonesian cooking to call it ‘authentically’ Indonesian? Is twohundred years enough? Should all ingredients and cookery techniques be indigenous? Is it important that it is eaten in all of Indonesia? Should it be prepared by someone born in Indonesia?

Nonetheless, culinary authenticity has become of great importance to many, especially in younger, well-to-do, urban populations in the Global North. This extensive interest in authenticity, however, is fairly new. To illustrate: of the 118 Dutch language cookery books with the word ‘authenticity’ (authenticiteit) in their title, none was written before 1980. If it is true that this search for authenticity is a reaction to the globalisation of the food chain, as is often posited, it makes sense that the 1970s and 1980s appear to mark a turning point.

Authentic cookbooks in the Netherlands. ‘Foreign’ foods in Dutch history.

Before the 1980s, the majority of the Dutch population was more relaxed about culinary authenticity. In Margriet, in the year 1950, the ideal way and the practical way are given equal space. Bouillabaisse is made with herring and smelt, but “for real bouillabaisse, mediterrenean fish are used”, the author notes. Twenty years later, in 1970, the recipe columns have hardly changed their approach. Authors leave much room for improvisation: you’re supposed to serve bread with Coq au vin (but it’s fine to add potatoes), Guiso de maíz should come with chillies (but using bell pepper is o.k.). Even the very same ‘Dutch’ bouillabaisse is trotted out again. Readers are given information about ‘authentic’ versions, but adjustments are not a deadly sin. A well-known cookbook, De Hollandse Rijsttafel voor de Hollandse Huisvrouw en de Indische Rijsttafel (1959), is introduced by a word of reassurance: “Many Dutch people (…) are scared off by the names of unknown ingredients. But here the author helps us to find our way through this labyrinth and – very importantly – gives us their Dutch substitutes, that sound pleasantly familiar to us.” ‘Pleasantly familar ingredients’: simply a variation on the aforementioned safe adventure. One could argue, though, that the dishes would suffer from the use of these substitute ingredients: some examples are cow’s milk instead of coconut milk, tomato paste instead of chillies, and mustard instead of fresh ginger. In other post-war cookery books and magazines we see a similarly loose approach, resulting in inventions such as ‘Italian nasi goreng’ and babi pangang (fried pork) with cognac.

‘Foreign’ foods. Italian and Indonesian fusion cooking. Culinary experiments in Dutch history.
Recipe for ‘Italian nasi goreng’. From: L. Ducelle, Van Mond tot Mond: Favoriete Recepten Verder Verteld (1967).

This relaxed attitude means that the Dutch definition of, for instance, ‘Indonesian cuisine’, is stretched to a point where anyone can prepare and enjoy some of its classics. This meant a great impulse to the popularity of foreign dishes. The outlook did not always come from a place of ignorance, as evidenced by the previously cited interview with a Chinese chef in Libelle: “When we eat Chinese, we’re actually eating Chinese, European style. High quality, though!” For culinary writers, authenticity in itself was not a marker of excellence: only taste could be.

Perhaps there’s a lesson to learn from this flexible approach to authenticity. Nowadays, culinary knowledge is often thrown around as a form of cultural capital in a way that can be pretentious, if not a little neocolonialist. Knowledge about ‘exotic’ places and habits are produced in a relation with the Other marked by inequality, who gets little in return for the ever-growing interest – besides mass tourism. What is more, the idea of authentic, immutable, national cuisines is not sustainable. Maybe, the Dutch fascination for foreign foods also signals a true interest in people from other countries. In the post-war decades, however, this is certainly not the case. The encounter with Indonesian culture during the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, is fairly shallow. Cookery books tell Dutch housewives not to worry: “A hundred recipes from the Far East have something to tell us about human history, of course. Here, though, they function as mere exotic variation.” At Conimex, too, Indonesia is kept at a distance. Typical is the attitude of co-founder Alfons Sterneberg, who at his retirement of 1972 admits that now, he might go to the archipelago for the first time: “See what things taste like over there.” During these years, as the outside world increasingly penetrated Dutch food culture, clear terms were set: new experiences were very welcome, as long as they would turn out to be safe adventures.

Further reading:

Lisa M. Heldke, Exotic Appetites: Ruminations of a Food Adventurer (New York [Etc.], 2003).

Anneke H. van Otterloo, ‘Chinese and Indonesian Restaurants and the Taste for Exotic Foods in the Netherlands: A Global-Local Trend’, in: Katarzyna J. Cwiertka en Boudewijn Walraven (red.), Asian Food: The Global and the Local (Honolulu, HI, 2001) 153-166.

Alan Davidson & Tom Jaine (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford, 2014; 3rd Ed.) ‘The Netherlands’; ‘Indonesia’.

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