Long before it became hip and cool to be seen paying exorbitant prices to eat raw fish in tiny plates served by kimono clad waiters, the Dutch had already discovered the pleasures of uncooked seafood.
Last summer, armed with my trusty Dutch travel guide, I headed to the market to partake in this culinary tradition. I read the extract about Dutch herring as I made my way.
“Hollandse Nieuwe (harring) literally means Dutch New and can only be eaten from late May till mid July.“
So what exactly is this Hollandse Nieuwe? I read on…
“In 1380, Willem Beukelszoon van Biervliet invented the process of cleaning herring by removing the innards, except the pancreas. The pancreas contains a number of natural enzymes used to convert the food into fat, a ripening process regulated by salt. Willem is revered; children learn his name in school! “
Call me weird, but I'm a bit sceptical of cultures where chefs who specialise in raw food are revered. But hey, maybe that's just me.
Even in the crowded market, it was quite easy to spot the herring stall – Just follow the smell of Dutch sushi and look for men and women with mouths agape and face skywards. Because that’s the best way to eat raw seafood – hold the tail between your fingers and lower the whole fish down your throat. Two swallows, a few lip smacks and it's all over.
“The herrings are silvery outside and pink inside when fresh, but should not be bought if they look grey and oily. Be careful - if it's not fresh, it will taste rancid.“
Rancid? What rancid? As I stood there, in front of an open air cart, looking at the rows of raw fish being sliced and gutted, the word rancid never entered my mind.
And as a helpful motivation, so you don’t chicken out at the last minute, the guide adds - “Do not fear - Hollandse Nieuwe is not technically raw but the result of a particular ripening process.“
Somehow, the words ‘not technically raw’ did not inspire confidence in me. But I mustered up courage to order a plate. As I stood there, surrounded by the lip smacking Dutch, I placed my fingers on the fish tail and turned my face skywards.
Fingers poised, I opened my mouth, closed my eyes and lowered the dangling fish…