No. 21: Herring

The Dutch's stinky national treasure

The Dutch's stinky national treasure

Dutch people have a tremendous love affair for one particular small, slippery, slimy, fatty, smelly sea-creature- the hallowed Herring! To say that the Dutch like herring is a vast understatement.  Simply put, Dutch people are down-right mad for their stinkin’ Haring.

For those of you living under a stone, the herring is a small oily silvery-colored fish found in the North Atlantic and North Pacific ocean. Dutch people began fishing and trading herring over 1,000 years ago and much of Holland’s wealth and prolific history of sea trade and colonization can in fact be attributed to these slippery  species.  Business kicked into full swing in the 14th century when a Dutchman by the name of Williem Buekelszoon (yes, one of those funny Dutch names!) invented a tasty and popular process for curing the fish in brine.

Dutch Herring

"Throw it back, fellas!"

Now that the history lesson is over, we can get to the fun stuff: Dutch people do not eat their herring in a particularly civilized fashion. No, they love to make an amusing show and a big deal about the proper “Dutch way” to eat the little fishies. Trust me, it ain’t a pretty sight! Want to cut your herring into pretty pieces and eat it with a knife and fork? Dat mag niet! Dutch people serve herring with chopped raw onions and pickles, grab the fish by its slippery tail, cock back their heads and throw it down their gullets in one fell swoop! This act alone makes even the most humble Dutch person utterly proud and brimming with nationalistic delight!

Dutch people also make a big hoopla about the kick-off of the herring season (yes my friends, there is an official herring season)! Every year the sea-side city of Scheveningen celebrates the opening of the season with Vlaggetjesdag (Flag Day) and the first barrel is given to the Queen Beatrix to sell at auction for charity. The 2011 season kicked off last week and the first precious barrel was sold for a startling €67,750!

How much do Dutch people really love herring, you ask? Well my friends, the Dutch happily consume 12,000,000 kilos every year. Which translates to every Dutch person eating at least 5 of these slippery delights each year – so eat up – ‘tis the season!

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70 Responses to No. 21: Herring

  1. This is one of those things I am missing since my arrival here.
    Recently I learned there is a place in NYC that sells them so I will have to go have a look when I have time a money to go.
    But boy do I LOVE herring

    • yes, there is a restaurant in Grand Central Station that imports them when the new harvest comes in. I tried to find it one time when I was in NYC but i did not have enough time. . . plus i wonder about the price. I had some last year (2010) in NL & it continues to be one of my favorite things ever.

      • Dominic Van Der Meij says:

        Thnx I def have to check it out! Being looking for real Dutch Herring for years now!

      • Cootje says:

        Do you by any chance know a place in London where they sell Haring?

    • Corinne says:

      Pray tell, where????

      • Mandy says:

        I could eat 5 herring every single day.. I love herring! rollmops! smoked! boiled! pickled! raw! DELICIOUS!!! And I’m English.. not Dutch. A love of herring is the gold standard of civilisation!

    • Henry Gerrits says:

      You can get herring mailed to you in a vacuum package from various importers like van der Veens in Grand Rapids, Michigan

    • Diego says:

      how do you cook it? or does it come in boxes like sardines?

  2. My elderly parents came to visit for a few weeks, and I’m thrilled that my father got to see a Dutch man eat the haring Dutch-style at the popular herring stand near our house. Dad didn’t understand why I was waiting for the man to receive his herring, but then he got to see ‘the show’. Alas, won’t see me sidling up to a herring stand anytime soon…

  3. MissNeriss says:

    Herring (and its equally slippery partner in crime, Eel) is something that I just can’t stomach. I really want to be Dutch enough to eat it, but I just can’t get it near my mouth! My (Dutch) husband loves it and can’t get enough, but even he is a bit freaked out about the ritual of eating it all in one go…

  4. Paul Peters says:

    Heerlijk!

    I think though you forgot to mention that they (we) eat the herrings raw. Just chop the head off, gut it and enjoy (eet smakkelijk.)

    • Gido says:

      and with some chopped onions ofcourse ;)

      • cloggy says:

        The onions are there to mask the deterioration of the freshness of the herring.
        It does deteriorate quite fast ! that’s why it is gutted freshly

    • John R says:

      Still better than the fermented, half-rotten shark-thing the guys from Iceland are having. Or the scottish stuffed sheep-belly (Hagis)… and so on

  5. Martijn says:

    Really fresh herrings don’t need onions. The onions (and pickles in the Amsterdam region) were used to mask the pungeant smell and foul taste of old (or rotting) herring.
    I love to eat herrings without onions. 4, sometimes 5 at a time. They are a perfect cure for hang-overs. Start your day with a few herrings and you’re fit as a fiddle in no time :D

    • Just another Dutch living abroad says:

      so true, they are a bombproof hangover cure!!! missing those little fellas..

    • K-dawg says:

      I love herring, but having one during some of my hangovers of the past would certainly have made me projectile vomit that thing, and everything else in my stomach, all over the floor.

      Although that might have alleviated my hangover…

  6. Phil says:

    I live in Scheveningen, & was woken on my 1st year by the loud dutch music early on a saturday morning & wondered WTF was happening? & the local Haring cart is usually parked maybe 20 meters from my flat most days, stil not bothered to try it yet, but I find there’s always an excuse for a street party, I always jokingly ask my neighbours which fish they’re celebrating today? & usually get a suitably sarcastic answer (very english sense of humour my neighbours!) :D
    The only downside is I live on a 1 way street which joins the main street, don’t plan on taking the car anywhere that day then! LOL :/

  7. Tamara says:

    In the Amsterdam region, we don’t eat herring like that. Here it’s surved in pieces with a ‘prikkertje’ (toothpick) to use as a fork. I don’t like herring though.

    • Marieke says:

      prikkertje met een Hollands vlaggetje dan toch wel?? (toothpick with dutch flag, you know…)

  8. Edwin Wijkhuijs says:

    Sitting here in the desert of Saudi Arabia with – you guessed it – a freezer full of herring. Love it!

  9. Jeroen says:

    Since 2008 I live in Hawaii, and while there’s literally great tasting fish all around me, both cooked and raw, there’s one fish I truly miss: rauwe haring!

    Well, make that two fishes.. I shouldn’t forget about Kibbeling :D

  10. Bart Craenmehr says:

    Good, the herring seems to raise a few eyebrows…. But thinking about omega three, health benefist and so all. A herring is full of unsaturated fat (yes for people who don’t know that is quite healthy stuff like the Omega’s) …. Compare that to the grand old english fish and chips… yes you guess it right full of saturated fats ;-) he he

  11. Wim says:

    The name is Beukelszoon, not Buekelszoon

  12. Sijmen says:

    Herring is delicious. I have never eaten it the traditional way but it’s perfect between some buns with onion and pickles.

  13. Louisa says:

    You all made me sooo hungry and so nostalgic for that good old haring. Grew up in Holland, live in the USA for 40 years now but go back to my country every year and eat at least 3 or 4 haringen while there.

    • Caroline Dennis says:

      Good for you Louisa! I too grew up in NL but moved 41 years ago to Sydney, Australia.I’m now planning on returning to the motherland in 2012 for an indefinite period of time for some Dutch cultural immersion!

  14. If you come to the Netherlands, you’ve got to LOVE the Herring!!! and YES, they are so pround of the way you eat it!
    Lekker!!

  15. Casper says:

    I love herring, and like all other kinds of fish they only stink when they are not fresh.
    In the past, it was not possible to keep the fish in ice after fishing like nowadays. Chopped unions were used as a conservation method. And because the combination of herring and union is so tasty, many people still eat them together.

  16. Corinne says:

    You mean “Onions” I presume…

  17. kuu says:

    this is related to the sardine?

  18. We had some Aussies in Holland back in 1990 or 1991. Apart from all the other Dutch traditions they were made to eat zoute haring in de kroeg. O my god they were good sports but all of them threw up afterwards lol. Aussies do NOT like zoute haring! Mind you I took my Aussie boyfriend for some kibbeling at the market and he thought he had died and gone to heaven haha.

  19. Elodie says:

    gehe.
    I love herring.
    but I DO eat it with a rork and knife!
    het mag wel!
    unless you meet those people in zeeland..maybe…

  20. Rutger says:

    I’m Dutch but herring is not my cup of tea, the smell let alone the taste, sheer horror.

  21. Lotte says:

    It really depends on where you are. In Scheveningen for instance people ALWAYS eat herring using their hands(the traditional way), while in Amsterdam most people eat herring on toast/sandwiches with a fork and a knife. It’s also the case that the closer you get to the coast, the more people seem to like herring. There are a lot of Dutch people who don’t like it at all and think it’s nasty.
    I love it though!

  22. Ivik says:

    I’d love to find herring to eat in London. Does anyone know where I can buy raw herring in London?

  23. ablabius says:

    Most herring is exported to Germany. But then, most of everything is exported to Germany (Dutch potatoes make up 30% of all German fries, for instance). 90% of herring is ground into fishmeal in Scandinavia. The English waged war over the fishing rights for herring.

    Herring is consumed in a number of ways, salted, dried, smoked, fried, laid in herbs, cream, or white wine, and even wrapped around a pickle and laid in vinegar, but never really raw.
    You see, after the fish is caught, its head and gills are cut off, but the pancreas is left in the body. For those that missed biology, the pancreas is the gland that produces the enzymes that break down meat. Yes, you read that right, the fish is left to digest itself! Of course, being dead, the pancreas doesn`t produces any more enzymes, but those already present in the fish will ‘pre-digest’ the herring ever so slightly, giving it its peculiar, lovable taste, smoothing its texture, and making it easier to digest. For this last reason, herring was often prescribed by doctors to patients that had been severely weakened by their illnesses. Digesting food takes a lot of effort, but with herring, part of the work was already done! (If you think this is gross, I`ll spare you the details of ‘voorkauwen’.)
    Don`t worry though, you will not risk eating a rotten herring. When exposed to air, the oils in the fish will slowly start to oxidize and turn rancid long before the herring starts to rot. And all herring is frozen before being sold for consumption to kill possible parasites.

  24. Dutch Groot says:

    As an American of Dutch-born parents, we always had creamed or pickled herring, and smoked eel was a favored treat, but I don’t ever recall having the herring raw. I remember the folks bringing back the eel in butcher’s paper on the airplane, but with the laws now, it has to be packaged (shrink wrapped) before we can get it here in the States.

    • Wim Jongejan says:

      Herring is indeed my favourite. Some people eat it with raw onions, but I take it with pickles. Every Saturday morning I go the baker for fresh bread. Right next to him is the fishmonger. And yes! I take a herring, every Saturday morning.

  25. Alexandra says:

    Thank you for a great post! Dutch herring was a huge surprise for me, when I arrived to Amsterdam. For my entire life I’ve been sure that raw salted herring+onions is a typical Russian dish… It is a #1 fish, we’re so used to it. Now I see that no Russian consumes such a load of herring in comparison to Dutch people! Though I must admit it is tastier here in some aspects.

  26. Mark says:

    I disagree,

    I think herring is utterly disgusting

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  28. amy says:

    After living here for 3.5 years, then moving back tot the US for 4.5 years, and now having recently returned to the NL for a temporary stay, I cannot eat enough herring. It is delicious once you get used to it, and just think about how healthy (fully of omega 3 fatty acids) it is. I tried to find it in the US and could only find a sickingly sweet version in a jar full of white wine, vinegar and sugar. He The Americans are starting to go crazy for the paleo diet and some are even drinking fermented cod liver oil, but for some reason consider herring to be suitable as bate. Herring in the Netherlands is reflective of a true culture with roots in real food. When it froze in February, I went ice skating outside after eating herring and have never felt so good in my life!

  29. Manuela says:

    Yukh!!!!!!!! I HATE HERRING!

  30. Anne says:

    Ugh, I hate fish. This is really really really a bad stereotype since I have maybe 2 friends who actually like fish enough to choose it over other dishes (and the most of my other friends can’t even swallow it, like me, ugh)

  31. will says:

    Just to clarify: Herring is healthy. Yes, but all fish are. And some are even healthier when it comes to the amount of saturated fat acids. Herring isn’t anything special when it comes to the nutritional value.
    That said, I love the taste of this fish! I’ld take a herring over an ice cream, or any outdoor snack any day.
    I also use them in salads. 1 chopped up apple, 1 springonion, 2 herring chopped, 2 spoons of creme fraiche or yoghurt, pepper and salt, some lemonjuice. yummy! great on a sandwich.

  32. I’m fortunate to spend some time here in Kikkerland, I want to see how many of your observations I can see for myself. Great post!

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  34. A E says:

    In New York, good Dutch herring can be found at Russ & Daughters, on Houston Street. Not as cheap as good standard, or even French smoked. It’s so yum.

  35. Maarten says:

    It’s not actually true that everyone eats their herring with onions. In fact, it is a faux pax, according to connoisseurs. Originally, chopped onions were added to mask the taste of old herring, later in the season. Right now, all herring is fresh so the addition of taste-changing onion is unnecessary.

    Then again, lots of Dutch people like the taste, apparently.

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  37. Dropje-Kopje says:

    Eat a raw haring? Dat kan ik NIET.
    But a tin full of kippers is good to eat!
    O tinned kippers: so meaty and fine,
    So delishy and fishy, like kings shall we dine.
    If the pull tab ring breaks off — Bummer, bad news!
    Not enough rim for a can opener to use.
    But we must get the kippers, so make like McGyver
    And pound the can open with a flat blade screwdriver.

  38. Daniel says:

    A good informative bit about the herring and the medical centre is correct , herring is an extremely healthy option in anyone´s diet.. Try to consume at least twice a week omega -3 fish and you´ll stay healthier so much longer. Herring is from the sardine family, equally beneficial to your health…keep downing them folk, do cut the heads off,though.

  39. OrangePinda says:

    With Pickels?? And eat the whole thing at once…. Noooooo…. Who says that??
    I’m from Rotterdam, but raised in Vlaardingen, where we have an annual herring and beerfest. Yes you do eat the herring standing up, holding it by the tail, and they should be covered in cut up white onions.
    We also don’t swallow it whole… That would be gross.
    And for the pickles…. someone got his facts wrong…. We have “Zure Bommen”…. They are big pickles, sold separately, but they have nothing to do with herring.
    We also eat herring on bread…. But I’m not sure I have ever seen anyone eating herring with knife and fork…. Would be similar to eating sushi with knife and fork to me….

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  41. cloggy says:

    I have to be in-to-it, but i never am.
    After reading this blog I must have one !

  42. Max Iglesias says:

    Me too. I’m waiting for the Herring seasons to try Herring in the Dutch way. I have already started eating Herring: I buy them salted, then to remove the salt, I soak them in cold water and leave them all the night in the refrigerator. Then, the following day I prepare them with challots, potatoes and olive oil.. This is the French way to do it.
    If you guys have better ways to eat herring, or places of interest to buy them, or restaurants please let me know.

    Regards

  43. Max Iglesias says:

    Oh I forgot to precise. I live in NewYork and I’m South American.

  44. chrissieeeee says:

    ik hou van haring:D zo lekker
    i can eat 10000 haringen a day :P

  45. Lars Tigchelaar says:

    Little comment on your Herring story, Queen Beatrix is no longer Queen. Her son has crowned King a few months ago. So its now King Willem Alexander and his qife Queen Maxima. To be honest i dont know if Willem Alexander is still recieving the (new) herring every time now but just so you know.

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  51. Haagsche Hans says:

    Scheveningen is not a city, its a district of The Hague (Den Haag)

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