Consider those great Dutch still-life paintings: a brace of pheasant, a basket of golden pears, loaves of country bread, all vivid, all nearly edible. More tempting, at times, than Dutch food itself, which inclines to the heavy.
There are, however, obvious and wonderful exceptions. Take the herring, for example. Holland herring is the world's best.In a word, sublime. It is especially good from the street vendors in Amsterdam, at the terrace cafe of the Schiller Hotel there.
Another treat worth sampling is Indonesian food, the famous rijsttafel, or rice table, with its endless variations. A mini-rijsttafel that was spicy and fine was offered on board a KLM flight to Amsterdam as an alternative to the usual "continental" cuisine.
In Amsterdam itself, the best Indonesian food can be had at Sama Sebo, PC Hoofstraat 27. There's rice, of course, and rempah, which is seasoned meatballs with toasted coconut. Sateh babi is grilled meat on a stick with peanut and soy sauce. Also there is pickled pineapple, fried plantain, and the delicious crisp kooepoek, or shrimp chips. And, it seems, half a hundred other delicious delights.
The Broodjes are a national snack, and you find them everywhere. These are little sandwiches made of freshly baked rolls stuffed with ham, salami, shrimp, pork, liverwurst. They are best sampled in Amsterdam at the Broodje Van Kootje in the Leidseplein, where the crowds are a continual street show.
Another Dutch snack is the Uitsmijter, or "throw outer." It's what folks eat before they begin the journey home after a long evening, a hearty concoction of buttered bread topped with ham or cheese or roast beef and a fried egg or two.
For a healthy appetite, there are the traditional Dutch specialties. Erwtsensoep is a thick pea soup with slices of smoked sausage. Zuurkool Met Spek en Worst is a sauerkraut dish with bacon and sausage. Relpens is minced beef, fried apple, and red cabbage. And Hutspot is a traditional stew of beef ribs, carrots, potatoes, and onions.
For lunch or a snack or merely to rest, to read the newspapers, or meet the locals, there are Amsterdam's "brown" cafes, socalled because of their plank floors, wooden beams, reddish carpets. Some of the ancient ones make you feel you've just popped into a Vermeer.
Also worth a visit for its decor as much as its food is the cafe at the Americain Hotel in the Leidseplein. It's pure art nouveau and reminds you how fervently the Dutch took to decorating their buildings in every age. Mata Hari, incidentally, had her wedding here.
For a serious meal, more along French lines than Dutch, there's the Excelsior in the Hotel de l'Europe, which has dazzling views of the canal and old town, with a kitchen at canal level.
More typically Dutch is Dikker & Thijs, Prisengracht 444, with a sort of deli , a ground floor cafe, and a very imposing dining room upstairs, which is one of the few places you can dine after a concert. The food is reasonable. There are Dutch and continental specialties, but it's the atmosphere that's so winning.
Under crystal chandeliers you may find yourself in a rather eclectic company, here a party of earnest Dutch businessmen plodding through course after course in silence, over there a clutch of seemingly well-to-do rock musicians nodding in time as Amsterdam's answer to Bobby Short plays Cole Porter on the grand piano.
Venture out of Amsterdam and you'll find a country full of immensely hospitable people as well as some regional specialties. Up near Groningen in the far north, where I visited friends recently, they produce excellent gingerbread as well as some fine apple cake, which led me down the garden path to several large helpings. Here is the recipe. Mrs. Grommer's Apple Cake 1 3/4 cups self-rising flour 2/3 cup butter 2/3 cup sugar 5 cups sour apples 1/2 cup more sugar, or to taste 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/4 cup raisins 1/2 teaspoon ginger, optional 1 egg yolk 1 tablespoon sugar 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1 tablespoon flour
Combine flour, butter, and 2/3 cup sugar and blend well into a paste. Butter a baking dish or cake pan well. Line the bottom and sides of pan with the paste. Slice apples and place half of them in a layer on the paste. Over apples, sprinkle half of the sugar, cinnamon, and raisins, then place another layer of apples, sugar, and cinnamon. Add ginger if you like it.
Beat an egg yolk lightly with remaining sugar, cinnamon, and flour and pour over cake. Preheat oven at 400 degrees F., then turn down to 350 degrees F. and bake cake about 40 minutes.