Dutch national dishes tend to be of the ungarnished, hearty, wholesome variety -- solid, stick-to-your-ribs stuff. A perfect example is erwtensoep, a thick pea soup cooked with ham or sausage that provides inner warmth against cold Dutch winters and is filling enough to be a meal by itself. Similarly, hutspot, a potato-based "hotchpotch," or stew, is no-nonsense nourishment to which klapstuk (lean beef) is sometimes added.
Seafood, as you might imagine in this traditionally seafaring country, is always fresh and well prepared. Fried sole, oysters, and mussels from Zeeland, and herring (fresh in early June -- pickled other months) are most common. In fact, if you happen to be in Holland for the beginning of the herring season, it's an absolute obligation -- at least once -- to interrupt your sidewalk strolls to buy a "green" herring from a pushcart. The Dutch are uncommonly fond of oily freshwater eel (paling) and Zeeland oysters and mussels (Zeeuwse oesters and Zeeuwse mosselen), from September to March.
At lunchtime, you're likely to find yourself munching on broodjes, small buttered rolls usually filled with ham and cheese or beef, although a broodje gezond (healthy sandwich) with cheese and vegetables is a good choice for vegetarians. Not to be missed are the delicious, filling pancakes called pannekoeken, often eaten as a savory dish with bacon and cheese. Poffertjes are a sweet, lighter, penny-size version that are especially good topped with apples, jam, or syrup. Dutch gebak (pastries) are fresh, varied, and inexpensive; and you will notice the Dutch sitting down for a koffee and one of these delicious hapjes (small snacks, or literally, "bites") throughout the day -- why not join them?
The popular Indonesian rijsttafel (rice table), a feast of 15 to 30 small portions of different dishes eaten with plain rice, has been a national favorite ever since it arrived in the 17th century. If you've never experienced this minifeast, it should definitely be on your "must-eat" list for Holland -- the basic idea behind the rijsttafel is to sample a wide variety of complementary flavors, textures, and temperatures: savory and sweet, spicy and mild.
For authentic Dutch dishes, look for the NEERLANDS DIS sign, which identifies restaurants specializing in the native cuisine. Then there are the numerous moderately priced restaurants and the brown cafes, which are cozy social centers with simple but tasty food, sometimes served outside on sidewalk tables in good weather. Sidewalk vendors, with fresh herring and the ubiquitous broodjes (sandwiches) or other light specialties, are popular as well.
Though there's no such thing as a free lunch, there is the next best thing -- a dagschotel (plate of the day) and dagmenu (menu of the day). Another way to combat escalating dinner tabs is to take advantage of the tourist menu offered by many restaurants.
Beer, Gin & Wine
What to drink? Beer, for one thing. As you make the rounds of the brown cafes (the traditional Dutch watering holes), you can get the regular brands such as Heineken, Grolsch, or Amstel, or you could try something different. I happen to like the witte (white) beer, like Wiekse Witte, which is sweeter than pils, the regular beer.
Then there is the potent native gin known as jenever (the name comes from the Dutch word for "juniper"), a fiery, colorless spirit distilled from grain or malt, served ice cold and drunk neat -- without any mixer, or even ice. It was once the drink of the masses in Holland, where it originated as a kind of medicine.
There are even Dutch wines. Respectable white wine is produced in modest quantities by the Apostelhoeve and Slavante vineyards near Maastricht, in the southernmost sliver of the Netherlands, close by the Belgian border.