What’s in a name… bitterballen

If you asked me what the culinary legacy of the Netherlands is, I would probably fall silent. My country does not boast a world-famous cuisine. We do not produce stunning wines, and our traditional delicacies form a metaphor for our country in general: wet, dull and without high points. Stodgy stews and thick soups rule the roost in the traditional Dutch kitchen, with the odd ‘stamppot’ thrown in.

But we do have a few culinary gems here, oh yes. It’s just that we do not export them. We tend to keep the good stuff for ourselves in Holland. And send the mass-produced crap out all over the world. The Dutch cheese you get outside of Holland is invariably soapy, orange and would not even be put in a mousetrap in the Netherlands. Edam may be the famous Dutch cheese, but the Dutch won’t touch Edam with a bargepole. Gouda is infinitely better, especially the cured ones. But we barely produces enough of the good stuff for the domestic market so the rest of the world gets the industrial grade cheap stuff.

The same goes for beer. A Dutch beer may well be one of the most well known in the world (I dare not mention its name just in case some bigshot lawyer reads this), but the smaller boutique beers are infintely more tasty.

The delicacy I find the most iconic Dutch food, and would even consider Holland’s gift to the world is the bitterbal (plural: bitterballen). Yes, that translates quite literally to what you think, but there is nothing bitter about them. In old Dutch, the word ‘bitter’ is used to describe any stiff drink, especially jenever, the Dutch equivalent of gin. These tasty deep-fried snacks are an excellent accompaniment to afternoon beers. Go to any Dutch café, whether it is one of the ‘brown’ kind or a glitzy minimalist ‘grand café’, and you will see the waiters whizz about with tray upon tray of these brown round balls, more often than not accompanied by mustard and Dutch-flag toothpicks.

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I love bitterballen. So much so that I cannot bring myself to even calling them anything else. Bitter balls? No thank you! If you can say ‘tagliatelle carbonara’ and ‘coq au vin’, I insist you can also make the effort to say ‘bitterballen’! Dutch is not that hard!

Whenever we have guests from abroad in Holland, we take them to one of our favourite cafés (De Posthoorn in Den Haag for instance) and treat them to a plate of bitterballen. People love them! They go crazy over them! Which makes it all the more baffling that the bitterbal has yet to conquer the world. They are só much nicer than those cardboardy falafel balls yet you can buy those on every street corner. Absurd. The world needs bitterballen!

Maybe the problem is that they are far from easy to make. Basically an bitterbal is a ball of thick ‘ragout’; a roux-based sauce with lots of soft succulent beef or veal in it, that has been slow-cooked until it falls apart in threads. That thick roux is then rolled into balls, frozen, covered in batter and breadcrumbs and then deep-fried. I know nobody who makes their own bitterballen, that’s how complicated it is. We all just go and buy frozen ones from the supermarket. Or better still: we go to a café, order some nice beers -Belgian more often than not!- and polish off a dozen of these brown crispy warm delicacies.

If ever you come to the Netherlands: do yourself a big favour and order bitterballen with your drinks. You will thank me for it.

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