I'm standing in the middle of Albert Cuyp Market, in Amsterdam checking out a pair of size 39 orange clogs, you know for kicking around in, when my husband, Jeff says he wants to take me to lunch. I narrow my eyes, put down the clogs and look at him—trying to gauge where this is going. I am leery because of this: My husband is the cheapest man on earth. End of story. He feels visceral and real pain if he has to spend even the smallest amount of money for anything (importance is irrelevant.)
We were in Amsterdam for a weekend away and I was holding out hope that in those three, kid-free days we might actually eat somewhere nice-ish; a place that had stools, a bench, possibly even chairs. A dining experience that did not begin with, ‘Can I take your order?’, or involve vending machines.
We walked for a while toward the mystery lunch destination, taking in the beautiful architecture, admiring the canals and the quite streets, when we were bamboozled by a plump, naked lady dancing in her window. This didn’t make any sense; we were blocks from the Red Light district. Okay, she had an illuminated red light on outside her window, but it seriously looked like she was in her living room—it was so out of context. I imagined, five minutes before she was watching the Dutch equivalent of All My Children, eating some Gouda and crackers, maybe drinking a glass of milk and decided that she’s rather open the curtains, strip down to her thong and dance around the poll she had installed in her family room.
Equally upsetting though was the special lunch ‘treat’ Jeff told me I was in for; broodje haring: raw herring and raw onion sandwich. ‘It is what you eat when in Amsterdam,’ he chortled.
I don’t know which one made me more uncomfortable, the porky housewife practically vacuuming while naked, or the Dutch fishwich my husband was blathering on about. Oddly, he was at ease with both ideas. Maybe it’s because he travels to Amsterdam often for work and is desensitized to naked women dancing in front of their living room windows, and eating penguin food for lunch, or maybe it’s because he’s simply a human-garbage-disposal-woman-admiring-man. I discovered later at lunch, that he was so comfortable with both concepts, he ate a broodje haring while watching the naked lady swirl around a poll—to him this was multi-tasking.
Back to the sandwich. The idea of it honestly scared me. After my run-in with rollmops a few months ago, the gastronomic potential of a couple fillets of raw herring (bones included) and copious amounts of raw onion piled into a white bun was lost on me. I mean, sashimi is a thing of beauty; the attention to design, the way the unadulterated fish is arranged on the plate. Herring, on the other hand, raw or cooked, looks like the fish-model that animators use when drawing a cartoon about a mangy alley cat searching through trash cans for dinner.
Like the pop-up naked dancing lady, there was no escaping the threat of a lunch filled with broodje haring—Amsterdam is home to dozens of Vishandles, market stalls selling broodje haring (among other seafood). They are popular as an inexpensive place to get a snack. And the idea of super-fresh seafood, so affordable and quick is what I am all about—but I was sincerely still shell-shocked from my experience with the pickled herring I had gagged on in England and was reluctant to try the oniony Dutch version.
We stood at the Vishandle. I shifted my weight anxiously from side to side as I felt the first few raindrops. There were plenty of other sandwiches I could order, but I knew that I should try the broodje haring. Jeff nudged me, ‘Don’t be such a baby. Get the herring,’ he whispered. He held up his thumb and index finger and said, ‘Twee broodjes haring, met uien, alstublief’ (two herring sandwiches, with onions, please—but he was just showing off, every Dutch person I’ve ever met speaks better English than all the Americans I know). The lady handed us two soft white buns brimming with chopped onions, and raw herring. I must have looked like every other American tourist about to eat their first broodje haring, because the lady said, ‘Don’t worry madam, you can eat the bones.’
We thanked the lady and walked on toward Anne Frank’s house. I figured the best way to eat this sandwich was to dive in at the deep end—no smelling, no more looking it over, just take a huge bite and chew fast.
I opened my mouth wide, like an Anaconda about to slither down a baby wildebeest and bit into the fluffy bun. Within a second or two of chewing quickly, I began to slow down, to savour this sandwich. My taste bubs registered that this was a good sandwich. A really good sandwich. I took another bite, breaking easily through the fresh raw fish and bones, inhaling the sharpness of the onions. So surprised and happy that I had gone with the broodje haring that I didn’t even notice we had come to a stop and were standing in front of another poll-dancing, huisvrouw’s window.
We walked around the city for the rest of the day. As we burped our way around Amsterdam, I figured out my husband’s thrifty plan: Broodje haring was an economical lunch that we repeatedly
enjoyed experienced all afternoon.