Cutting your cooking chops in a new land
If you get to know me you will quickly realise that I am one of those food people!
I obsess over finding some bit of rare produce I have never tasted, I am a snob with different types of curry powder (I have jars of both hot Indian and Jamaican in my pantry) and oregano (Italian and Mexican) and I have made it my job to eat Ethiopian food in ever country I visit, though sadly none of those has yet to be Ethiopia.
Changing cooking style
When I decided to make the move to the Netherlands, I knew it would mean a change in my cooking style. I was leaving my spacious kitchen in a 100-year-old house-turned-apartment building with its lovely gas range to a tiny Dutch one with electric burners and the appliance I have come to dread - the combination microwave-convection oven into which most baking dishes refuse to fit and spin.
I was leaving behind my home state with its amazing array of grocery stores, from the Latin tienda near my mom's place to the big-box, Asian-American and world markets where I would often get lost buying strange fruits and soy sauces. The lack of real Mexican food still hurts a bit as my homemade recreations can never compare, though I still try.
I made the decision to bring a lot of cooking stuff with me since my partner, while he loves and appreciates a good meal, is not quite a snob when it comes to pans and spices. I unabashedly am. I took my giant spice rack off the wall and proceeded to fill tiny bags and vacuum pack them with dried and crushed herbs.
I struggled with which appliances to bring with me since the airline weight policies are getting increasingly draconian and an overseas move is already prohibitively expensive. I had to separate my cookbook collection into must-haves and see-you-somedays.
It might sound dramatic, but cooking is my hobby and my way of relaxing and one of the ways I show others my love. It is serious! And having to leave the comfortable space I had come to know and love cooking in was difficult.
About Dutch food
I do not really have much to say about Dutch food. I am vegan and even though I can make a pretty damn good boerenkoolstampot with seitan sausage, I am less inclined to do so when there are so many intriguing flavours around.
While I miss my Latin tiendas and Caribbean markets, I have welcomed the likes of Turkish groceries and Indonesian food into my life. Vegans know a lot about tempeh, but it was a delight to find tempeh goreng in the deli case at the Asian market and see "regular" folks (see: not vegans) buying it. In America most people would turn their noses up at the fermented block as they do tofu.
Another great thing about having Indonesian people around? Locally-made tempeh and sambal manis, though I learned an eye-watering lesson when I tossed a tablespoon of the fiery paste into my peanut sauce recipe. An entire can of coconut milk could not save us.
Embracing the Netherlands and its flavours
There are many days where I miss the tastes of home and would sometimes give anything for a nice bowl of fresh tomatillo salsa and warm tortilla chips. But I remind myself that every moment spent missing the flavours of home is one I am losing embracing this new place and its personality and flavours.
Just like in America, the Netherlands is great and interesting for its immigrants and what they bring from home. As an immigrant myself, I appreciate that so many others have braved this experience and brought bits of home which I can enjoy and savour. I would be in a bind if Dutch food was the only thing around to eat. Immigrants are what make this place interesting.
Vegans in the Netherlands
While I wrote this piece as a rumination on how our palates may be forced to change as we move about the globe but that we should embrace it as another learning experience for our senses, I also wanted to note that this country is not so bad for vegans either.
The options are not as plentiful as they are in the U.S. where customer service and catering to every potential customer is becoming increasingly important in the dining scene, but the options are there nonetheless.
I enjoyed a great dish at De Wankele Tafel in my first few weeks here after picking up some groceries at a vegetarian Asian market in The Hague. In Rotterdam, right near the Lombardijen station, you will find my current favourite restaurant De Oude Plek, serving all vegetarian Chinese food.
I have heard there is a vegetarian Chinese place called Soy in Utrecht. And Den Haag is home to a new vegetarian butcher shop. Confused? I bet! You can check out HappyCow.net for more ideas on where to find vegetarian and vegan-friendly dining options in the Netherlands.
Missing the flavours of home?
And a word of advice - if you are missing the flavours of home and you just cannot get the hankering out of your mind, you have some options:
› Check out the many Asian and Turkish markets around.
I live in Breda and we have a winkelcentrum full of them. Those of you in bigger cities are probably swimming in options.
The Asian markets often cater to more than just Asian folks. Amazing Oriental in Breda has a small selection of Indian goods, American staples and even Caribbean sauces. This is also your go-to spot for baking soda, a hard-to-find ingredient in regular Dutch grocery stores.
Dried beans can be found in the Turkish markets. I still cannot figure out why the regular grocery stores do not carry dried beans.
› Visit your weekly markets.
Seriously, if you are just shopping at Albert Heijn and complaining about not being able to find the food you want, I have not sympathy for you. HollandseMarkten.nl is a good place to find dates and times of local markets.
Amazon for those things you just cannot do without and have not been able to find. Amazon.co.uk offers free shipping to the Netherlands for orders over 25.
› Health food stores
They are often expensive and jack up the prices on things you might otherwise be able to find in the ethnic grocery stores, but it is worth a try.
I wanted to make the Ethiopian bread injera at home, but could not find teff flour to save my life (though it is probably on Amazon). I went on a search for millet flour, a common substitute and found it in the health food store. And a word about flour and baking supplies: Head for the windmills. Some are still in operation cranking out fresh grains. I get mine at a spot in Terheijden.
› Figure out the translation for ingredients
If Google is not helping you, consult an online forum. Sometimes an ingredient may go by a completely different name than you expected. It is worth it to do some research ahead of time before frustrating yourself with a wild goose chase.
› Be flexible
This is not your home so stop trying to force it to be. Embrace the flavours, forget about what you cannot have and make something new. This is what I tell myself often when I think of tomatillo salsa.