The complete guide to eating herring in the Netherlands (without traumatising yourself!)

So you want to Dutch and eat herring. Like, really, “part of the crew”. Cool – we dig that. But you’ve got to earn it like an Airborne earns his jump wings, we’ve got a patch for your uniform too, soldier. The Dutch herring AKA. de haring.

Don’t worry though – we wouldn’t kick you out of a plane without a parachute, and we’re not going to subject you to herring without showing you how to eat it like a Dutchie. Are you ready? Great! Attach that safety line to the steel bar over your head and try not to jump into the propeller. 😉

What is the Dutch herring anyway?

This true Dutch delicacy is difficult to explain, even for the veteran herring-enthusiast, without having tasted it. The herring, obviously, is a fish. The Dutch serve it by cleaning it out and then storing it in brine (a saltwater solution) for a long time until it’s at least cured to ‘Hollandse Nieuwe’-standard, which is the freshest, newest batch of herring every Spring.

The brine makes the fish soft and very salty – bringing out a strong fishy flavour. When we say salty, we mean salty – saltier than an angry Dutchman’s hangover. Believe us, we get pretty salty after a hangover.

This is where the argument begins whether it’s “raw” – has the fish ever been cooked or baked? No, but after having been submerged in brine for so long it’s not like you’re eating it after it’s just been plucked from the sea. Would you consider a pickle a raw cucumber? Probably not.

After the herring is removed from its brine bath, it is then thoroughly cleaned by removing the skin, the insides and, for as far as humanly possible, its bones. Don’t worry, what few fish bones are left have gone very soft due to the brining process.

Where do I get haring?

Many people will say that the best herring comes from street carts, but many enthusiasts will disagree, there are some fantastic carts that will surely sell you top-notch haring. But as the hardcore lovers (we actually go in hard and dirty) – we buy them straight from the barrel and clean them ourselves! Why? Maybe because we’re sick in the head.😅 Secondly, you’ll have guaranteed quality.

Here’s the thing, herring doesn’t have a long shelf-life once cleaned and it’s of vital importance to eat it ASAP. If the herring is left untouched it will develop an inferiority complex, do a lot of pot, and marry a divorced man ten years it’s senior. Not good. For as far as taste goes, a not-so-swiftly consumed herring loses flavour rapidly and potentially becomes oily and smelly. Also not good.

The point is that it often takes too long before herring gets consumed when bought from a cart, so either ask a Dutch friend/lover/family member to check the quality. Either that or make sure that the cart is busy and haring batches are constantly being served so you’re not being shipped off with sub-par fish. A reputable fish store or cart will do so.

Herring from supermarkets should be avoided like the plague, no matter what anyone says. It’s like supermarket sushi, but worse (if that’s even possible).

Should I add toppings to herring?

Most carts will add onions and pickles to a herring. Never ever eat it with pickles. Unless your mission is to destroy the taste of the herring and break the heart of every honest Dutchman. It’s a crime against humanity and the reason the International Court of Justice is in the Netherlands. We will come after you. 👨‍⚖️

Onions are fine, the perfect ratio depends on the taste of the herring – another reason to do this yourself – delicate herring only requires little onion, strong tasting herring requires more. Carts however go with a standard scoop, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but not very likely to reach perfection.

How do I eat haring?

Here comes another subject of argument – how do you handle your herring? The stereotype is that you:

1.Pick up that slippery bastard by the tail,

2.Dip it in onion

3.And lower it down your throat like a hungry pelican.

Supposedly this is the only true ‘Dutch-way’. Except that’s not true. At all.

There’s an alternative – the Amsterdam-way. Before places like Scheveningen (in The Hague) and Rotterdam became “Herring hotspots” there was Amsterdam. However, because a fair share of the populace was poor and often with many family members their fishy was “parted” so everyone could have a piece. In other words, it was cut into small parts often served with a little Dutch flag to prick into the herring. That way everyone gets a piece.

Today, to say the least, Amsterdam isn’t quite a poor town anymore – in fact, it’s one of the most expensive cities in the world – but the haring tradition is very much alive. We Amsterdammers prefer eating our favourite fishy in parts.

Why? It’s convenient, more relaxed, and it looks a little more chique as you avoid getting slippery fingers. So for all of you from abroad a little reserved about grabbing that herring, go Amsterdam style! FYI, the parting has no ill effects on the quality, it’s just a preference.

What kind of drink goes well with herring?

I’m going to let you in on a secret. The alcoholic kind. A fine Heineken is a perfect fit, but there’s a beer that will knock your socks off with its amazing taste, and you can only get it during the Fall – the Herfstbock.

The ‘Bockbier‘-variants (from many brewers) are actually are beers with a fantastic depth of flavours, almost honey-like, with a sweet streak that comes from the last leftovers of the brewing process. It’s a little more expensive and exclusive but it’s fantastic, especially with herring. Believe me.

Another great Dutch liquor (which is totally under-appreciated) is jenever – it’s actually the parent of Gin but much more pure-tasting, much like Vodka. Want to know the kicker? It’s usually cheaper than both! A true Dutchman, when eating herring at home, will drink a beer and a shot of jenever with their meal.

The great thing is that haring is that because it’s an oily fish, it absorbs much of the alcohol. This is especially true when you combine it with bread and onions. Don’t over do it though. A Dutchman knows when to stop and so should you! The best jenevers are from Schiedam (Rotterdam) and Amsterdam-breweries.

On top of that, the alcohol will probably mellow out any anxiety you have about eating it.

Go on, try herring!

Alright, soldier. We’re over the drop zone and we’ve told you everything you need to know. This is it. No crying, no wetting your pants. Just jump! Trust us.

Honestly though, while herring is not for everyone, you should try it at least once. Oh, and it comes with its own little badge of honour – breath you can smell from a mile away that’s best described as the Loch Ness Monster’s morning breath.

As well as this lovely gift, it also comes with a cute little Dutch flag. You can pin it onto something to show off that you ate a whole herring and your friends chickened out! We advise putting it in the buttonhole of your jacket or in your hair. Not your eyeball though. Take it from a Dutchman. Make me proud, trooper!

What’s your experience eating herring? Want more tips or advice? Let us know in the comments below!

Feature Image: Alix Guillard/Flickr

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in March 2017, and was fully updated in April 2021 for your reading pleasure.

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Bobby Salomons
Bobby Salomons is an Amsterdam-based published author and movie-blogger holding up too many balls to juggle at once. Suffering from Tortured Artist-syndrome he is left with no choice or hope until eventually breaking through.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Marry me!!! You are so funny!
    & you have inspired me to take this herring challenge although in Melbourne, Aus, it will be an added challenge. Thank you!

  2. Have NEVER had pickled herring (or rollmops) with the skin removed…. and been eating them for 60 years.

  3. My Family Loved it. I am definitely sharing Guys, Thanks For sharing this Great Recipe. this recipe and this website with my friend. Hope they also love it. Thank you again for sharing such a great recipe.

  4. I sent a email awhile back and told you how your pickled herring is terrible. I am not asking for anything free or a refund, only why your product is not good like it use to be. I will also send you the jar with the herring or empty, choice is yours as long as you pay shipping.

    • Hey Wayne, we’re not surprised “our” herring doesn’t taste nice — because we’ve never sold herring! Perhaps there’s a chance you purchased this from another store? But we’ll gladly take your empty jar 😉

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