An Englishman in Twente part IV: Food – a Dutch Passion
Only a few days before Brexit, project manager Liam moved from County Durham in England to Denekamp in Twente. He writes a series of articles about what it is like to live and work in the Netherlands as an Englishman.
Part IV: Food – a Dutch Passion
When the subject of hobbies comes up in conversation, I often half-jokingly (but half very seriously) mention eating in the same breath as listening to music, watching movies and such. What can I say? I love food, and – much to my delight – so do the Dutch.
I am convinced that they think about food as much as I do, which is pretty much all the time. In fact, they love food so much that they use the word lekker – meaning ‘tasty’ or ‘delicious’ – to describe all kinds of things: rather than ‘Goodnight’, for instance, they might say Slaap lekker (‘Sleep tasty’), or instead of ‘I don’t feel well’, Ik voel me niet lekker (‘I don’t feel delicious’). It seems I’m not the only one who has noticed this either; even in the deepest, most backwater reaches of Twente – where anything that isn’t stamppot is considered exotic – you can find various establishments dedicated to the provision of unlimited quantities of pan-Asian cuisine: I am talking, of course, about all-you-can-eat ‘wok restaurants’.
Indeed, some pioneering restauranteurs took the Dutch at their word – the word lekker, that is – and offered them infinite food in return for their custom. There are similarities with all-you-can-eat places typically seen in the UK – such as the ‘buffet’ aspect of walking around and taking a bit of this and that, and the lack of overall quality compared to a good, ‘regular’ restaurant – but there is the added delight of the teppanyaki/wok/grill section. Here, you can take a selection of raw meat and vegetables (with noodles and/or rice if you like), pass your plate to the person behind the counter and ask for your sauce of choice from a range comprised of oyster, sweet and sour, black bean and such. Your raw ingredients are thrown into the wok, furiously fried up and within a couple of minutes, returned to you a steaming, flavoursome dish. Alternatively, you might like to have a marinated steak or grilled salmon fillet prepared on the grill and brought to your table. Add to these tempting choices the obligatory orange-squeezing contraption, which pours out fresh juice at the turn of a nozzle, and a plethora of fancy dessert machinery (some of which, admittedly, are also occasionally found in UK restaurants) and you have the perfect recipe to satisfy the Dutch’s enthusiasm for eating.
In the UK, all-you-can-eateries are almost exclusively found in large city centres and shopping malls, where they still usually manage to fare significantly worse than the wok restaurants of the Netherlands. There are some notable examples that have done well and remain fixtures where they are, but even these are rarely anyone’s preferred option when it comes to eating out. I don’t blame them, either; the kind of UK city centre with an all-you-can-eat place will also have myriad other restaurants, covering a vast spectrum of cuisine. Therefore, it makes sense that people will opt for better-quality restaurants, or ones that specialise in the food they desire rather than a huge selection of reasonable versions from a ‘world buffet’. Perhaps this – being based in large city centres and such – is part of the problem for this type of establishment in Britain. By contrast, in the Netherlands many wok restaurants are located in the outskirts of towns and villages, far enough from specialised competition but close enough to home for potential diners (and with plenty of space to park your car – something often sorely lacking in Dutch cities). In any case, the sheer abundance of wok restaurants in the Netherlands, as well as their success, points to both the Dutch fascination with food and good business sense from the restaurant owners to cash in on it, while offering more than just an all-you-can-eat concept.
Yes, the Dutch love to eat, and in cosmic quantities. Now, before you get too agitated in disagreement and end up choking on your frikandel, consider for a moment that we’re talking about the country that took the Swiss’ raclette and made it more meaty. Apparently, the Dutch tradition of gourmetten started in the 1970s when two chefs toured the nation in an attempt to boost the Netherlands’ meat industry by demonstrating how easy it was to cook on such a device. Thankfully, it caught on, and nowadays it is commonplace for Dutch families to enjoy gezellige evenings together around the gourmet grill. I, for one, am thrilled about this, and of course it further demonstrates that the people of this country simply love to eat.
Wok restaurants, gourmetten and suchlike all add to my certainty about the Dutch having a special passion for food, but I can trace when the seed was first planted to my very first weekend here. It was a bright Spring Saturday in 2018, and my partner’s grandmother’s birthday party. The temperature was in the low twenties – too warm for my pale, British skin – but I was more preoccupied with meeting and trying to make a good impression on what seemed to be her entire extended family for most of the afternoon. Thankfully, half of this task was done for me nearly 80 years prior; many of the elderly people there associated me with the British soldiers that liberated them from the Nazis when they were children, and so greeted me with wide smiles and lengthy handshakes.
At some point, the catering people showed up and began serving a variety of choice meats, cooked to perfection on a large green barbecue grill. My partner and I ordered, took our stacked plates and stood with her father as he fervently inhaled the contents of his. I couldn’t blame him: the beef was soft and tender, every satisfying bite drawing another generous waft of its rich, just-smoky-enough flavour; the sausages, their partially browned, toughened exterior easily punctured with a fork, were equally delicious, and even more so when complemented with a creamy dollop of garlic sauce. He asked if I was enjoying it – “Lekker hè?” – and I commented on the high quality of the meat and the cool grill they were using.
A bright reflection flashed across his glasses. He paused, and as he did, everything around us began to slow down, caught up in the tides of time. Clouds veiled the sun, its light diluted in grey.
“That, Liam”, he said as he turned his gaze towards me, the rest of the universe grinding to a halt in unison, “is the Green Egg.”
I returned his gaze as his words passed through my eardrums, fired neurons and assigned brain cells to retain this new information, whereby it was irrevocably etched into my very being. “Nice,” I said, and everything returned to normal as I took another bite of a sausage.
Since then, there have been many more barbecues, gourmets and restaurant visits, and long may they continue; the Dutch are truly fascinated by food, and you won’t hear me complaining about that any time soon!