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Mixed Pickle: The Sweet And Sour Legacy Of Dutch Trade

Jan 18, 2013
Originally published on January 22, 2013 8:36 am

In Amsterdam, a popular street snack of brined herring comes with chopped onions and a side of sour pickle. The history of Dutch trade, too, is buried under those onions.

The salt used in preserving both the herring and the pickles enabled sea travel for hundreds of years. The salt trade is credited with building a foundation upon which the Dutch consolidated wealth and power in the 16th century. Dominating the seas for over three hundred years, they were able to establish colonies in tropical climates to monopolize the valuable spice trade. As we reported before, the Dutch went to some extreme lengths to control the Indonesian islands where nutmeg was discovered.

Spices flavor many of the foods served in the Netherlands, especially in baking, but they scent the savories, too, like pickles, from one end of the former Dutch empire to the other.

One of the best known pickles for the famous multi-course rijsttafel, a bountiful spectacle developed by Dutch-Indonesians to display their comestible power, is atjar tjampoer, mixed pickles of shredded vegetables. It's typically seasoned with sambal oelek, Indonesia's ubiquitous spicy pepper sauce, as well as ginger, turmeric, vinegar, and sugar.

Karin Vaneker, a Dutch food scholar and author, points out that atjar tjampoer have a decidedly colonial makeup. "If you look at the ingredients," she says, "several aren't Indonesian but Dutch. Vegetables like spitskool [a pointy-headed] cabbage, carrots, and cauliflower probably would not grow well in Indonesia. In general, colonizers weren't interested in developing local agriculture, and [immigrants] likely tried to cultivate European crops."

A Colorful Jumble of Dutch-Surinamese Culture

Lined up on the shelf at Surinaams Buffet Catering in Amsterdam is a vivid display of the byproducts of Amsterdam's colonial past. A beribboned bottle of spiked punch cream and very European brandied plums flank jars of onions with a cucumber-like tree fruit called birambi, and mixed vegetable pickles of shredded carrots, pearl onions, cauliflower, red peppers, gherkins, and baby corn.

Caterer Mavis Hofwijk, originally from Paramaribo, Surinam, immigrated to Amsterdam in the 1960s. From a family of pastry chefs, Hofwijk cooks for visiting dignitaries, most recently Kofi Annan and Princess Maxima of the Netherlands.

Her pickles are soused in a big plastic tub. Bay leaves float lazily around the top of a murky brew fragrant with allspice, clove, coriander, onion, celery sticks, smashed whole ginger, and spicy pepper. Hofwijk stresses certain principles in her cooking, ones illustrated nicely by her pickles: "the best food needs balance," she says, "sweet, sour, and salt."

The very Surinamese souse marries well to many kinds of vegetables, including ones the Dutch love: beets and onions.

Jewish Pickle Carts And Famous Art

Dutch trade routes were not always long journeys by sea. Hofwijk's Surinamese flavors may lend an exotic flavor to Dutch cuisine, but they also share a kinship with the Jewish immigrants who circled Amsterdam with their pickle carts. Fourth generation pickle purveyor Fred Ooms has a cozy little shop in Amsterdam that he runs with wife Monique, but recalls the hard life of the previous generations.

For nearly a hundred years, his relatives maneuvered a handcart heavily weighted with tubs of sweet and sour pickles through the streets of the city. It was one of the only ways a poor Ashkenazi Jew could make a living in town in 1850. Inspired by a Dutch sailor about methods of herring preservation on the long sea journeys, founder Isaac de Leeuw experimented with salting cucumbers in old oak wine barrels.

Now, his famous pickles not only served with herring, above, but also exported around the world from De Leeuw Zuurwaren. It is the oldest family pickle business in the Netherlands.

Ooms speaks, too, of a lasting legacy of his forefather's travels around the city – not in the food world, but in the world of art. Living close to the de Leeuws in 1877, Dutch Impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh was inspired by brightly-colored pickles, and wrote about them in a letter to his brother, Theo:

"Because I have such a frightful number of stone thresholds and church floors and stone stoops of houses under my eyes and feet, I hit on the idea of making those maps of rocky Scotland and colouring them (red and green). I thought of those pickles which Uncle is so fond of and which I have learned to like too."

From boats laden with salt to international exhibitions of modernist art, the Dutch pickle has quite a passport.

Jennifer Burns Levin teaches literature at the University of Oregon and blogs at Culinaria Eugenius. She co-hosts a radio show called Food for Thought on KLCC, Eugene's NPR affiliate.

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.