It's basically happy hour, but better. Proost!

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Credit: Tracey Kusiewicz/Foodie Photography

If you’re traveling to the Netherlands this year, chances are you’re not really in it for the food. As writer Emily Wight explains, Dutch cuisine doesn’t have the best reputation. To put it bluntly, “people think it’s a lot of boiled mushes.” (Those people have something of a point, though — stamppot, essentially a chunky stew of boiled, mashed vegetables, is considered the national dish.)

Savvier Amsterdam-bound travelers may have read up on stroopwafels, the waffle cookies that fill airport gift shops across the country, or the famous fluffy, round poffertjes and sweet crepe-like pannekoeken. Still, for many, the list of must-try foods is short and sweet.

But Wight, author of new cookbook Dutch Feast, knows better. This is a robust cuisine with quirks and subgenres that every epicurean traveler should know. “The Dutch are quite good with sturdy, strong pastries that go well with black coffee,” says Wight, “and they do a nice job with comfort food — soups with a fantastic, hearty slice of rye bread and Dutch butter.” The influences of Dutch colonialism abound, too, with a national love of Caribbean food and Indonesian-fusion specialties like the elaborate, colorful rijstaffel.

One of the most important culinary rituals is borrels, widely described as “Dutch tapas” — a happy hour tradition of tipples and drinking foods that is woven into the social life of Dutch cuisine. “Everything about it is satisfying,” says Wight — “the type of thing you just want to eat.” Visitors to Amsterdam and the Netherlands’ up-and-coming second cities, like Rotterdam and Utrecht, shouldn’t miss the chance to take part.

Credit: Tracey Kusiewicz/Foodie Photography

What is a borrel?

Technically, the word borrel refers to a modest pour of alcohol, and is etymologically related, according to Wight, to the word for a small drinking glass for traditional spirits like genever (a botanical ancestor of gin). It’s also used interchangeably to mean a social gathering of people going out for drinks, and the crunchy, fatty, salty snacks that inevitably come alongside.

Borrels, for Wight, embody “the whole idea of setting aside some time in the evening before you go on with your night.” Everyone does borrels in their own way—as a picnic, at a dive bar, in bed while watching TV. “What’s really cool about the idea of borrels,” she says, “is that you can pick up little snacks from the grocery store after work, call some friends over, get little packaged cheeses and meats and bar snacks to heat up at home.” Borrels is what you want it to be.

This drinking tradition has its own terminology. Borrelhapjes refers specifically to the snacks involved. One very important category of borrelhapjes: borrelnootjes, or “borrel nuts.” These are consumed around the borreltafel (“borrel table”) at borreltijd — literally, “drinking time.” Those wanting a sober night might limit themselves to the diminutive een borreltje.

To do it right, says Wight, “sit down with a little snack, and a little drink, and take a moment for yourself or some time off to socialize. Making space for leisure time and socializing is an important part of Dutch culture.” It's a tradition that's now as far-reaching as the former Dutch empire, with borreltijd still honored in Aruba and other former colonies.

What should you eat?

“It’s a lot of deep fried foods,” says Wight. “Things that are sort of moreish and salty and go well with alcohol.” Common crispy options include bitterballen — “like a croquette but smaller, little round balls meant to be paired with beer,” kibbeling (fried cod), kaassoufflé (fried cheese), bamischijf (deep fried bami, or Indonesian noodles) — “even deep fried nuts! You can literally deep fry anything.”

Chilled snacks are also popular, including marinated herring, ossenworst (raw sausage), and garlic shrimp. And, since the Dutch love their cheese, a cheese plate is usually in the mix. “If you wanted to do a sampling of Dutch cheese,” says Wight, “I would do a double-cream Gouda, a goat gouda, and an aged Amsterdam — a variety of Gouda that’s firmer, almost like an Asiago. My favorite is a Friese cheese that tastes like a Gouda with caraway seeds.”

One borrelhapje of note is kipsalon, literally translated as “hairdresser fries.” The dish, a common offering at most fast-food places, “is kind of like Dutch nachos,” says Wight, “with cheese and french fries and hot sauce — and shawarma meat on top.” The recipe, available with many others in the pages of Dutch Feast, is a perfect exemplar of the changing face of Dutch cuisine, mixing European and Middle Eastern elements for a near-perfect pile of drinking food.

Borrels Chapter Opener
Credit: Tracey Kusiewicz/Foodie Photography

What should you drink?

“Anything, really,” says Wight, but to keep it local, go for genever. This juniper-laced predecessor to modern gin typically comes in two varieties: jonge (“young,” made in the modern style, lighter and more neutral in taste) and oude (“old,” the more traditional style, which is maltier and smoother). Also worth trying is advocaat, a custardy, golden dessert alcohol made with vanilla and egg yolks.

The Netherlands produces a number of fine gins, vodkas, and brandies, and beer is also fair game — there’s always Heineken or Grolsch, but also look out for smaller labels or brews from the country’s remaining Trappist producers. And the craft cocktail scene is making waves, especially in Amsterdam and other large cities.

Where should you go?

To get great borrels in the Netherlands, says Wight, “you can pretty much walk into any bar.” Breweries are also a good bet, or a traditional brown café — a typical Dutch pub so-named for the dark, cozy atmosphere and the patinaed wood and wallpaper that come from centuries of serving the locals.

Wight’s pick for Amsterdam? “I really liked Mossel & Gin,” she says. “They do a lobster kroket and a shrimp bitterbal, which is super cool. Usually they’re made of veal or chicken.” She also suggests the Market Hall in Rotterdam, with “a fantastic selection of cheeses, not just regular Goudas and Edams” — look out for other Dutch favorites like Limburger and Maasdam.

The best rule of thumb, according to Wight, is to go where the locals go. “Get out of the center of city proper. Venturing outside the touristy places that are all about pancakes and tostis, you’ll find what real people are snacking on." She suggests exploring towns surrounding Amsterdam, like Haarlem or Amstelveen.

If you’re tight on time or on a budget, locals also love to pick up borrels at the grocery store. “It can be nice to poke around,” says Wight. “If you find an Albert Heijn, go check out the borrels case. Look at all the different bread toppings. Get a couple drinks. Get a sense of the culture by seeing how people live every day.”

How to celebrate borreltijd at home:

Beemster Classic
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Beemster Classic

A nutty cheese that has been produced in the municipality of the same name since 1612, when a series of dikes was completed to drain the town's swamps for agricultural use., $21

Skansen Herring
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Skansen Soused Herring

This Finnish brand makes a reliable marinated herring — maatjesharing in the Netherlands, where this type of preserved fish is a common drinking snack., $25

Bols Genever Gin
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Bols Genever

Founded in 1575, Bols is one of the most important distilleries in the Netherlands and claims to be the world's oldest producer of genever., $50

Verpoorten Advocaat Chocolates
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Verpoorten Advocaat Chocolates

Verpoorten, a famous brand of advocaat, also makes candy filled with their signature eggy-yellow liqueur., $25

Stroopies Stroopwafels
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Stroopies Stroopwafels

While not technically a borreltijd food, these classic Dutch sweets conjure images of tulip fields and windmills., $12.25

Dutch Feast Book
Credit: Courtesy of Dutch Feast

Dutch Feast by Emily Wight

This new cookbook includes recipes for bitterballen, kibbeling, and more Dutch treats., $27