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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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