Red Herring: The Hidden History of Food in The Hague

The Hague is the third-largest city in the Netherlands and is the seat of the Dutch government, Parliament, the Supreme Court, and the Council of State, but is somehow not the capital of the country (that’s Amsterdam. Don’t ask me why. I’m confused too). Additionally, it is home to the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. In other words, it is a MUN kid’s wet dream. Balim, Sunaina, and I all do some sort of international relations work and were very excited to go see what the fuss was all about.

The Hague is only a short train ride from Amsterdam (you can read about my love of Dutch infrastructure here). We got there bright and early and proceeded to explore this historic town.

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Stumbled upon The Hague’s Chinatown. I’m drawn to these things like a moth to a flame.

In a nod to the international spirit of the city, we soon found ourselves wandering on cobblestone streets flanked on either side with Greek (or is it Turkish?) gyro stalls, Indian (or is it really more British?) curry restaurants, and Chinese (or is it Singaporean?) chicken rice vendors.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring, one of my all-time favorites.

After stopping to say hi to Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis, we headed to an Indonesian restaurant for lunch. After all, the only Western city with better Indonesian food than Jakarta is Den Haag. The satay and nasi goreng did not disappoint us which is quite an achievement seeing as Balim grew up in Singapore, I grew up in Hong Kong, and Sunaina spent most summers in New Delhi. Our mini-United Nations panel of food critics came to the consensus that Dutch Indonesian food was certainly worth the hype.

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I sadly don’t have better photos of this amazing meal. Was frankly too busy enjoying it to properly document!

But let’s take a moment to unpack how something like “Dutch Indonesian”, or rijsttagel (literally meaning “rice table”) even came to be. The evolution of food has always been a political process. The origins of rijsttagel are entirely colonial. Over the course of the 18th century, the powerful Dutch East India Company was the dominant economic and political power on the island of Java. In 1800, the company was nationalised and the area came under the administration of the Dutch government. Many Dutch business people and ministers relocated to the island in order to oversee its governance. Rijsttagel was created as a feast to showcase cuisine from all over the archipelago to those Dutch officials. It traditionally consisted of many (up to 40) small dishes including gado-gado (vegetables in peanut sauce), krupuk (shrimp crackers), and everything in between. All of these small dishes were ceremonially paraded up to the table and served with rice.

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Rijsttagel in the 18th century. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Though this is a gross simplification, Dutch rule in the area had all the classic trappings of colonial life: a rigid and racially based social order, establishment of Western models of infrastructure, exploitation of natural resources, and a certain degree of violence.

The words colonialism and its uglier cousin, imperialism, often illicit strong reactions, and for good reason – as concepts, they tackle complicated themes of self-determination, race, history, and globalisation. My purpose in writing this is not to make some grand statement about the Age of Empire (I might write about that some day, but not today). Rather I’m trying to demonstrate that something as seemingly simple as deciding what to eat while on a trip to The Hague is actually a decision laden with historical circumstance.

But as messy and complicated as that hidden history is, isn’t our consumption (literally) of that history the beauty of travel? The idea that eating like a local can be a history lesson, more vivid and salient than anything in a textbook, is very moving to me.

Food is primal. And food is often, for better or worse, tied up with national identity. The Turks and Greeks fight over who owns yogurt. A classic South East Asian fish salad is called yusheng by the Singaporeans but yee sang by the Malaysians. Both have pointed fingers at the other for “hijacking” the dish. Even the Aussies and the Kiwis, two peas in a pod, have fought over who has claim to pavlova!

So what does it mean to consume food and history from all over the world? What do we make of amazing dishes like rijsttagel that wouldn’t have been possible without colonialization? I’m honestly still not sure (although I’m certainly not going to stop eating Hong Kong’s classic egg tarts, a result of British colonialism, any time soon). Perhaps the answer lies in another sight from The Hague – a collection of hopes and aspirations from around the world on a wishing tree outside the Peace Palace. Between the three of us, we were able to read messages in English, Spanish, French, Turkish, and Chinese. The majority of the messages simply wished for world peace and international cooperation.

As Hallmark-worthy as it sounds, people from all around the world just wanted the same things: an end to violence and a better life for their children. Similarly, people from all around the world just want to eat good food. Though food will always been historically complex, I think the best of our food should simultaneously be a celebration of what makes our cultures unique while also being an homage to the fact that the love of food is universal.

But argh, enough of that cheesy stuff. Bringing it back to the title of this post. I’m sure you’re all wondering if I worked up the nerve to try pickled herring. The answer is: yes, of course I did. And it’s honestly pretty normal. It’s just salty fish. I quite liked it actually. But really, I was just happy to be eating something that was definitively Dutch… or is it Nordic (inlagd sill)? German (Bismarckhering)? Estonian (marineeritud heeringas)? Ah! When will I learn!

That one time I almost biked into a canal…

No prize for guessing the location of this particular memory correctly. In the list of thing-that-are-so-Dutch, bicycles and canals rank up there with tulips and windmills. incidentally, the latter feature in this story as well.

I was travelling with two of my dearest friends, Balim and Sunaina. We had decided to skip American Thanksgiving in favour of a trip to Amsterdam. We were dedicated to getting as much out of the Dutch experience as possible. After checking off Rembrandt and stroopwafles, bikes and windmills were in order. We decided to pass through Rotterdam in order to reach Kinderdijk, windmill capital of the Netherlands.

Now, at the time, I was the first to admit that I was pretty Type A. Ok. Very Type A. Make-my-bed-every-morning-type Type A. Consequently, I had planned our trip to Kinderdijk to a tee: walk to the train station, train to Rotterdam, ferry to just outside Kinderdijk, bike to the windmills, repeat on the way back. Simple! Luckily for me, the Netherlands as a country is just about as Type A as it gets. The infrastructure: amazing!

The three of us easily followed my plan and made it to Rotterdam. We had some time to walk around this very cool and industrial city before hopping on our ferry.

After hopping on the ferry, we were making good time to Kinderdijk. So far so good. We were having an (type) A+ day! We hopped off at our spot and walked over to the bike rental store. Alas! Despite all my planning the store was closed for the season. I was a little annoyed but don’t worry, I didn’t spontaneously combust right there and then. My particular brand of type A also includes A for Adaptability. Unfazed, the three of us set out to walk to the windmills instead.

Is there anything lovelier than a nice walk on a beautiful day with friends? Yes. A nice walk plus a hearty meal. After hiking along for quite a while, we stopped in a little pub in order to quell our growling stomachs. And, as luck would have it, the pub also rented out bicycles. Don’t you just love it when things work out?

After our little meal, we each hopped on and did our best impressions of effortlessly chic Dutch bike riders (with varying degrees of success – no surprises as to who was the least graceful). We biked for about ten minutes before finally reaching what we had trekked all this way to see: the stunning windmills of Kinderdijk. We had made it!

The three of us excitedly peddled up to the path that would take us in and amongst the mills. We zipped up the land exhilarated at the fact that we were finally here. Now, they say that you never forget how to ride a bike. While this is true, you can certainly be a little rusty after not doing it for a while – a fact that normally wouldn’t be a problem save for the fact that I was surrounded by canals on both sides. This by itself is also not a problem. What really screwed me over were my millennial tendencies. The lovely Balim was right in front of me and she had mastered the art of biking with one hand while taking photos on her phone with the other. Anything you can do I can do better, I thought.

Wrong.

Feet peddling wonkily, handle turning wildly, and hand flailing pointless, I looked less like a effortless Dutch girl and more like a toddler who had just graduated from training wheels to a “big girl bike”. I somehow managed to plunge my hand into my coat pocket and pulled my phone out. Never had I been more frustrated with my lock screen. Suddenly, I careened off the path and had to put both feet down in order to stop myself, phone and all, from plunging into a canal. I stopped seconds away from being drenched in weeds, mill water, and embarrassment. I learned my lesson. Live in the moment. Bike now – pics later.

I caught up to the other two and pretended like nothing happened. Not that they would have cared – they were two busy being mesmerised by the rosy sunset that was happening before our eyes. As we turned around to head back the way we came, the sky was slowly painted different shades of pink and orange. Sunset’s are natures version of HD TV. Never static, the colours faded into one another with each passing minute being somehow more beautiful than the last. We were speechless.

While peddling along in silence, I reflected on yet another lesson I had learned that day. Sometimes, the most Type A and thorough plans fall through for a reason. Had we rented the bikes from the ferry stop, we would have come and gone too early to witness the silhouettes of the windmills against the beautiful magenta sky. We would have completely missed the beautiful show that mother nature had put on for us. It was as if She herself had closed the first bike rental shop in order to ensure that we would arrive at the mills at the perfect time of day.

When we got back and returned our bikes, we realised that we had in fact missed the last ferry back. Somehow wiser and decidedly more chill than I was this morning, I laughed off the scheduling error and simply asked a local how we could get back to Rotterdam. She pointed us to a bus stop where the three of us waited patiently, still savouring the last of the ever-changing sky.

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A fiery sky and a perfect day

The whole experience is truly one that I will never forget. I wouldn’t say that I am no longer Type A. Nor would I say that I’ve turned my back on my picture-taking millennial roots (as exhibited by all the pics that I ended up with in spite of my near disaster with the canal). However, I do find myself putting the phone down more and living more in the moment and I would now call myself Type A-. I still make my bed everyday and my Google calendar is as color-coordinated as ever. But whenever I miss a bus or take a wrong turn, instead of freaking out, I remember the sunset, the windmills, and that one time I almost biked into a canal.