A brief history of the typical Dutch bar snack: The bitterbal

A brief history of the typical Dutch bar snack: The bitterbal

You’re sitting in the pub having a few drinks, what do you order to satisfy your rumbling tummy? What else other than the classic bitterbal! The bitterbal and a tasty beer go practically hand in hand, but from where does this gooey ball of goodness originate? Is it Dutch or imported (like tulips) and has become Dutch over time? Let’s take a look, shall we?

The birth of the golden snack

Firstly, a nod to the ragout that can be found inside the bitterbal, as this was founded way before the bitterbal came into being. Ragout came about some time before Christ, when leftover meat from dinner was mixed with fat, bread and water to make a robust ragout that could be heated up the next day or given cold to those on a hunt. It took more than 1.700 years before the meaty ragout would be transformed into the bitterbal we know and love.

The year was 1568 AD, the start of the 80 year’s War. The Dutch were revolting against the Spanish and the bitterbal was on the verge of being discovered. So, who came up with the bitterbal first? Sorry to disappoint, but it wasn’t the Dutch. The Spanish had come across with their olives, chorizo and, amongst other things, their tapas. However, they were in the Netherlands, which meant good luck finding all the ingredients needed for their typical tapas.

As the Spanish chefs didn’t have everything they needed for traditional tapas, they were forced to experiment with Dutch products. They learned about the ragout and took the recipe one step further by rolling the mix in breadcrumbs and frying it in a pan full of oil. And thus, a cross between the kroket and bitterbal was born. When the war was over and the Spanish left, they took their tapas with them, but the legacy of the bitterbal lived on in the Netherlands.

The bitterbal we know and love

So, that’s how the bitterbal first made its appearance in the Netherlands, but what about its name? Bitterbal literally translated is bitter ball. But it’s not bitter at all, so what’s up with that?

Well, way back when, you’d order jenever at the bar, referred to as a “bittertje”, and the snack you’d order with it: a bitterbal. Bal (ball) refers to the shape. So the name for the bitterbal, probably came about because it was something you ordered when drinking jenever, and of course, its shape. As simple as that!

How do you make the famed bitterbal yourself?

Now that you’ve learnt all about the famed bitterbal, perhaps you’d like to try your hand at making it yourself… It’s quite simple really, you just need to make the ragout, cool it, and then roll it in flour, egg and breadcrumbs before frying. And if it doesn’t work out, you can always just buy some from the freezer section and pass them off as your own… we won’t tell.

Nowadays, there are tonnes of recipes which put their own twist on the bitterbal and its fillings. Here are a few from Albert Heijn, featuring cheesy, mac n’ cheese and pumpkin, goats cheese and chorizo variations.





Have you had bitterballen before? Tried any wacky flavours? Let us know in the comments below!

Mina Solanki


Mina Solanki

Completed her Master's degree at the University of Groningen and worked as a translator before joining IamExpat. She loves to read and has a particular interest in Greek mythology. In...

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