So you want to be Dutch. 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 paratrooper training, or a parachute, we’re not going to subject you to the herring without showing you how. Are you ready? Great, attach that safety line to the steel bar over your head and try not to jump into the propeller – there isn’t much we can do about that.
So what is the Dutch herring anyway? Is it really raw?
This true Dutch delicacy is actually slightly difficult to explain, even for the veteran herring-enthusiast, without having tasted it. The herring, obviously, is a fish that’s been cleaned out and then stored in brine (a salt water solution) for a good long time until it’s at least cured to Dutch ‘Hollandse Nieuwe’-standard, which is the freshest, newest batch of herring every Spring. It makes the fish soft and very salty – bringing out the taste very strongly. And when I say salty, I do mean salty – saltier than an angry Dutchman’s hangover. And believe me, 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 hardly raw. Would you consider a pickle a raw cucumber? Probably not.
After the herring is removed from it’s brine bath, it’s thoroughly cleaned by removing the skin, the insides and, for as far as humanly possible, its fish bones. What few fish bones are left, don’t worry, they’ve gone very soft due to the brining process.
Where do I get herring? And how do I eat this monstrosity?
Many people will say that the best herring comes from street carts, but many of the true enthusiasts will disagree, there are some fantastic carts that will sell you top notch herring surely. But amongst the hardcore lovers we actually go in hard and dirty – we buy them straight from the barrel and clean them ourselves! Why? Because we’re sick in the head. Secondly, guaranteed quality.
Here’s the thing, herring doesn’t have a long half-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 its senior. Not good. For as far as taste goes, a not swiftly consumed herring loses flavor rapidly and becomes, potentially, oily and smells strongly. Also not good.
That’s why, if this is an option for you, tempt a skilled Dutchman to clean a herring by hand for you with promises of sexual favors and alcohol or bring a gun. Whichever you have easier access to.
The point is that it often takes too long before herring gets consumed at a cart, so either ask a Dutch friend/lover/family member or make sure that the cart is busy and herring batches constantly are being served and you’re not being shipped off with sub-par fish. A reputable fish store or cart will do. Herring from supermarkets should be avoided like the plague. No matter what anyone says about it. It’s like supermarket sushi but worse.
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 taste of the herring – another reason to do this yourself – delicate herring requires little onion, strong tasting more. Carts however go with a standard scoop, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but not very likely to reach perfection.
Here comes another subject of argument – how do you handle your herring? The stereotype is that you pick up that slippery bastard by the tail, dip it in onion 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 (the Hague) and Rotterdam became ‘Herring hotspots’ there was Amsterdam, but 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 had 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 globally – but the herring tradition is very much alive. But we, yes I’m from there, prefer eating our favorite fishy in parts. It’s convenient, it’s more relaxed, it looks a little more chique and no slippery fingers! So for all of you from abroad a little reserved about grabbing that herring, go Amsterdam style! Ask for parts!
For good measure, 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 a deep tasting beer with a fantastic, almost honey-like, sweet streak that comes from the last left overs 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 underappreciated, is Jenever – it’s actually the parent of Gin but much more pure tasting much alike 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 herring, because it’s an oily fish, absorbs much of the alcohol in combination with the 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 all our anxiety about eating it. And your driving ability.
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, it is is not for everyone, but everyone should try. Oh and it comes with its own little badge of honor – a breath you can smell from a mile away that’s best described as the Loch Ness Monster’s morning breath. And! A cute little Dutch flag that you can pin onto something to show off that you ate a whole herring and your friends chickened out!
We advise putting it in the button hole of your jacket or your hair. Not your eyeball. Take it from a Dutchman. Make me proud, trooper!