As this year draws to a close, millions of oliebollen will be baked and eaten in the Netherlands in the coming weeks.

While many tourists and expats get hooked on the oily snack, the interesting questions remain: why do the Dutch eat oliebollen around Christmas and New Year’s Eve? And where did this doughy snack come from?

So while you’re here, grab a drink, a seat, and an oliebol, and let us discuss the delicious Dutch delicacy.

First of all, what are oliebollen?

Oliebollen are small balls of dough that have been fried in a pan with a layer of oil — hence, the (translated) name: oil balls.

This Dutch dessert is usually eaten on New Year’s Eve, with raisins/currants inside or powdered sugar on top. You can also add other ingredients to the batter, such as cinnamon or apple pieces.

They are called oliebollen or smoutballen in the Netherlands, smoutebollen in Flanders, croustillons in Wallonia, and schmalzkugeln in Eastern Belgium and Germany.

Origins of the oliebol

The history of the oliebol goes back a long time. Nobody knows who ate the first oliebol, or how they made their way into the low countries, but die-hard oliebollen fans and experts point to a painting by Aelbert Cuyp from about 1652 depicting a cooking pot with oliebollen, to show that they have existed a long time in the Netherlands.

photo-of-man-holding-tray-of-oliebollen
The history of the Oliebol is a long one. Image: Rob Bogaerts/Wikimedia Commons/CC1.0

Historians also add that a recipe appeared for the first time in the northern Netherlands cookery book ‘De verstandige kock’ (the wise cook), which dates from 1667. In that book, the oliebol was called “oliekoek” and many suspect that they were probably eaten much earlier than that time.

There are some people who believe that the oliebol might have been brought to the Netherlands from Portugal and Spain by Sephardic Jews who were forced to flee from the Spanish Inquisition in the Middle Ages. At that time there was already a delicacy in Portugal that looked a lot like an oliebol.

Batavians and Frisians

Another story goes back even further to a time when the Batavians and the Frisians would eat food made of a kind of fatty dough around the turn of the year, in order to escape a Germanic goddess known as Perchta or Berchta.

It was believed that in the winter, she would go around with a sword, ripping open the stomachs of those whose bellies were not fat. Only those with fat bellies filled with this fatty dough were spared.

So why is oliebollen eaten during the holidays?

There are several theories about why the Dutch eat oliebollen around Christmas and on New Year’s Eve. Some Dutch folks believe that the practice originated at the end of the Middle Ages to celebrate the end of the Catholic period of Lent.

In the Middle Ages, people fasted between St. Martin (November 11) and Christmas. After this period of fasting was over, they feasted, drank and ate. “Oil cakes” were an important part of this celebration, because they were filling and rich in nutrients, and thus were perfect for the winter period.

Another reason why oliebollen is eaten around the Christmas and New Years period can also be attributed to the same Middle Ages when the rich lords of the land handed them out to the poor and beggars in the hopes of being rewarded with goodwill for the new year.

In the time between Christmas, New Year’s and Epiphany, it was a late medieval custom for the poor and vagrants to go door-to-door to get something to eat in exchange for a New Year’s wish or a song. The oliebol was ideally suited to be handed out because it is warm, filling and nutritious.

Nowadays people no longer go door-to-door because they are hungry, but this social tradition has continued with the baking and eating of oliebollen becoming a regular part of New Year’s Eve today.

These days, oliebollen can be bought at small mobile food trucks at train stations all over the country. It is customary to eat them with powdered sugar, and on New Year’s Eve, to wash them down with some champagne.

Oliebollen-photo
Oliebollen aren’t the prettiest…Image: Michelle Boon/Wikimedia Commons/CC4.0

Some tasty oliebollen facts

  • The first recipe for oliebollen, “oil cakes”, can be found in a cookbook from 1667: “De verstandige kock” (the wise cook). Those “oil cakes” were flat, and filled with raisins, apple, and almonds, among other things.
  • When Holland became more prosperous in the 17th century and worldwide trade made it easy to obtain olive oil and flour, cakes became thicker and fried in more oil and that was how the modern-day oliebol was created.
  • In 1868 the Dutch dictionary, Van Dale recorded the word “oliebol” and soon after that, the name “oil cake” kind of disappeared.
  • There is no word in any other language for “oliebol“. In the United States, they are called “Dutch doughnuts”.

Have you ever tried the oliebol, and what are they called in your country? Tell us your experiences in the comments below!

Feature Image: Marjon Besteman/Pixabay

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in November 2020 and was fully updated in December 2020 for your reading pleasure. 

1 COMMENT

  1. I’m a second-generation Dutch-Canadian. I was born in Canada; my parents were Dutch post-WWII immigrants. Yes, I’m very familiar with oliebollen. My mother always made them on New Year’s Eve and we would roll them in icing sugar and snack on them until we went to bed on New Year’s Eve. From the late afternoon until 11:00 pm, the house would smell of oil on the stove frying oliebollen. When one of my omas immigrated to Alberta from Amsterdam with her adult daughter in 1953 to where we were living on a dairy farm in northwestern Alberta, she also would make these doughy snacks. My mother usually put raisins in them. As far as I know, they are called oliebollen in Canada, but they are not widely known. Only people with Dutch ancestry know of them and make them for New Years Eve and sometimes other times of the year. My dad also loved them cold on New Years Day, rolled in icing sugar with a cup of coffee, watching the Rose Bowl Parade on TV. I’ve learned, however, by watching cooking shows, that most cultures have a form of oliebollen that they make for celebrations, deep-fried balls of dough.

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