A tale as old as time: the Netherlands and India’s surprising relationship

There is a little joke we make in India — “first comes the software boom and along come our countrymen.” Arriving at Schiphol five years back, little did I realise that this country of windmills was going to make room for many Indians like me.

Today, the Dutch cultural sphere is brightened by a colourful Indian diaspora, thanks to computerization and procreation. However, this connection is anything but recent, for there is history between the Netherlands and India that existed long before any computer prototype was made.

Blast into the past: the Netherlands and India

While much is known about the Dutch connection with Indonesia, their relationship with India isn’t as widely spoken about. Dutch voyagers camped on the shores of India for a solid 200 years, so it certainly was no simple layover.

With a great business acumen and an eye for deals, the Dutch back then remind us of the Dutch today. Whilst other colonial powers pushed to gain political control, the Dutch VOC was mostly after fortune.

Textiles and spices made the biggest buck for Dutch traders and as they acquired larger parts of the country, labourers were employed, transported and traded in. That is how an entire generation of people with Indian origin came to live in Suriname and subsequently in the Netherlands.

A Dutch-Indian love story

While “doe normaal feels almost like an anthem, some stories about the Dutch then were filled with drama! One is that of Eustachius de Lannoy, a Dutch war prisoner who was handpicked by a strategic Indian Maharaja (king) to be his general.

Photo-of-De-Lannoy-Dutch-Indian-History
A depiction of De Lannoy. Image: Infocaster/Wikimedia Commons/CC3.0.

His ladylove Margaret lived in the British controlled territory of India and wasn’t allowed to marry him. That is, until de Lannoy’s boss stepped in. The Maharaja threatened to send his army over if Margaret’s parents didn’t agree to this union! Subsequently, they lived happily ever after.

This must be one of the many Bollywood-esque love stories, because there is a sizeable community of people who trace their origins back to Dutch marrying Indians.

Dutch food and Indian food: an interculinary coupling

Talking about love stories, how can we overrule the lowlanders’ classic love for bread? Did you know that the mundane ontbijtkoek is a celebratory breakfast on feestdagen in parts of India and Sri Lanka? Breudher (like brood) is made with flour, butter, spices and sometimes bananas/candied citrus peels to lend extra flavour. The result is a dense bread that tastes like cake.

Cake for breakfast. What’s not to love? Image: Amy Meegan/Unsplash.

Where the Dutch have been, so have Poffertjes — the dish that disguises itself as breakfast, snack and desert. Many countries in Asia practice this love for baby pancakes, albeit in different names and forms.

However, India has its own version of this Dutch delight and their take is even more varied. It goes by several names in every part of the country. Paniyaram (the name I have been accustomed to) is popular in the south of the country which celebrates rice, spice and everything nice.

Naturally, it is made with a fermented batter of rice, sweetened with brown sugar, spiced with cardamom. This is shallow-fried in an indented pan with clarified butter to make delicious golden-brown balls, not too different from poffertjes.

No sweet tooth? Don’t worry, there is also a savoury version that uses intensely hot chilli peppers, ginger and coriander. Whether the former colonies twisted a Dutch classic or if the Dutch twisted a local classic, it is safe to assume that most of the mankind agrees on one thing — fried bits of dough are divine.

The Netherlands and India today

While all these commonalities and history are interesting, Indians today are just as enamored by Netherlanders. Many now choose to send their kids to Dutch-medium schools, celebrate Sinterklaas and gobble pepernoten by the dozen!

Did you know about this secret affair? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below! 

Feature Image: Dariusz Sankowski/Unsplash.

Vatsalya Balasubramanianhttps://haguelyindian.blogspot.com/
Born and bread (carb lover here!) in colourful India, my husband and I came to Holland for a short three months. With three months stretching beyond three years, I now juggle various interests while also trying to balance a temperamental toddler. When not cursing the wind while riding a bike, I write a blog, try different coffee blends and of course, wait for the blink-and-miss Dutch summer.

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