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The Netherlands is a Culinary Hellscape

I have lived in the Netherlands for three years now. I love the idyllic countryside, the canals, the bike lanes, the cobblestoned paths, the skinny cookie-cutter houses, the quiet solitude, the vibrant tulips, the beer, the art museums, and of course, the weed. But like any immigrant who has come from afar and made this country their second home, I often engage in the passionate lament of the food culture. 


On paper, the Netherlands possesses everything it needs to have a great food scene - many immigrants, a colonial past, a walkable infrastructure, and bustling city centres where people congregate on the weekends. The prominent food cities of the world - New York, Los Angeles, London, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Cairo, Rabat, Beirut, Cape Town, New Delhi, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, and I can go on - have most, if not all of these characteristics. 


Food is a medium that communicates culture and history whilst serving as an artistic expression of one’s identity. Excellent dishes are distinguished by their texture, aromatics, presentation, quantities, and most importantly, their flavours. The richer the history and intercultural mingling, the more complex and exciting the flavours.


 A city with an impressive food culture always has a democratized food scene - meaning, the best food is found at a cheap and fair price, and accessible to all; i.e. the most bang for your buck. Case in point, the street vendors of Macao and Bangkok, who possess a multitude of Michelin stars and Bib Gourmands, operate from crudely built shacks to serve some of the best foods in the world that anyone can afford. If we are thinking of the West, New York’s Chinatown, and New Jersey’s India Square have some of the finest and most inexpensive Chinese and Indian food outside of China and India. If countries on opposite sides of the world can have amazing flavours at a price point reasonable for the lowest classes of society (e.g. students), then why can’t the Netherlands? Why is my takeout Shawarma 8 euros, when I can get it back home for 4 Euros, with sides? Why is the Indian place selling Biryani for 20 euros, when I can get it back home for 10 euros, with kebabs?


Yet, despite the pocket-pinching price points, the dishes are lacklustre and uninspired; they are not made with love, as one talking French rat would have preferred, but rather with the sole intention of covering one’s 9-to-5 shift and fulfilling the day’s orders. Conventional economic wisdom is quick to retort with the difference in purchasing power parity - that is, how much you can buy for a dollar in a country - across wealthy countries and developing countries.  To which I say, even the more expensive ethnic food I have tried in this country tastes like baby food’s less flavourful and sophisticated cousin.


 

The dishes are lacklustre and uninspired; they are not made with love, as one talking French rat would have preferred.

 

An explanation I have pontificated on is the health regulation and the set-up costs of running an eating establishment. In many of the Asian examples mentioned, sanitary and health regulation tends to be an afterthought, with the restaurateur and chef (often one and the same in Asia) mainly focused on selling delicious food. Ambience is also an afterthought, and the crowds could not care less. In this case, the flavour becomes paramount, as the chef can no longer hide behind the veneer of a flashy and well-designed ambience. Indian dhabas, or roadside eateries, draw massive crowds because of their appetizing food; the ambience is secondary. 


I feel that many restaurateurs here are constrained by the need to make their cafés and restaurants aesthetically pleasing to attract customers. But if the food is terrible, why would diners show up in the first place? Restaurants need to sell dishes through their inherent flavours, which would actually get people talking and build a reputation through word-of-mouth. However, having dined with my European friends at one of the “less sophisticated” places in The Hague’s Chinatown, I do notice that Europeans tend to place more emphasis on surroundings, atmosphere, and hygiene, which could explain the high bar for ambience faced by Europe’s restaurateurs. 


I live in a neighbourhood filled with immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Having grown up in that part of the world, I was excited to go out and explore some of the places in my area. To my disappointment, these spots were either too pricey or tried too hard to constrain their flavour profile. Perhaps, there is a need to trade authenticity and taste for more customers to sustain the business, assuming the vast majority of customers are Dutch. Immigrant-run restaurants here often play it safe with flavour, since sticking to what sells seems less risky for their business. But what if they are missing out on a huge opportunity? By making their dishes taste unique and authentic, restaurateurs can draw on crowds from their own countries, whilst marketing their cuisine to the locals in its truest form. Yet again, this has not happened, likely due to the effects of costly set-up, rents, and taxes on restaurants’ appetite for risk and avant-garde flavours (or lack thereof). 


The Dutch Kapsalon, in my opinion, is single-handedly carrying Dutch food culture. It is a metaphor for Turkish immigration to this country - a story of taking experiences and flavours from one’s roots, and combining them with what is available on hand. Unfortunately, the Kapsalon is an outlier. The Surinamese broodje with curry and roti, alongside the rich and flavourful food from the ABC (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao) islands, has yet to popularize itself across the Netherlands.


 

The food scene is dead because no one takes a risk, but no one takes a risk because the food scene is dead.

 

To put this all into perspective, my greatest culinary experience was eating Shawarma at 4 AM at a shack in the old quarter of Dubai. The A/C was broken, the humidity was 70%, and the wrap was spicy and greasy, dripping down my fingers while I devoured it to satiate my appetite from the night out. The shawarma man, who in every regard was a chef because of the sheer artisanal skill of excellent shawarma making, was a Malayali man. In his tank top, without a hairnet or gloves, he chiselled away artfully at the rotisserie chicken sculpture, which was painted a caramel shade of brown by the heat of the spinning grill. He had spiked my shawarma with spices from Kerala, India, adding onions and a spicy garlic chilli paste – a sacrilege for the shawarma purists. If the chef had not taken creative liberties with the Shawarma, perhaps there wouldn’t have been a queue stretching across the block at 4 AM that Sunday - a hot summer day in the middle of the Arabian Desert.





 

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