Italy has pasta, Spain has tapas but the Netherlands is proving that its culinary scene is nothing to be sniffed at. Kate Ford takes a seat at Amsterdam's dining table.
Think of Amsterdam and I'll wager that food isn't the first thing that comes to mind.
As far as European cities go, the Dutch capital arguably doesn't have the reputation of Rome or Barcelona when it comes to cuisine. But perhaps it should. Amsterdam serves up a fondue of different cuisines, offering everything from traditional Dutch food, to Indonesian additions and even influences from Downunder, making it a destination to add to any foodie's wish list.
You may deem it counter-intuitive travelling to the other side of the world only to go to an Antipodean cafe but Lot Sixty One, run by Australians, makes damn good brews. Start the day off right with a strong coffee and a pastry, then take a bag of beans away to pack in the suitcase.
I'm a multiple-cup-of-coffee per day drinker so one just isn't enough. There are plenty of spots dotted around the city to continue your coffee fix. And, because this is Amsterdam, nothing is boring. CT Coffee & Coconuts, located in a former 1920s cinema, is now a trendy breakfast spot. The Art Deco building is spread across three levels featuring brick walls, pot plants (not that kind) and jumbo cushions. The menu is just as thoughtfully detailed, with dishes such as the egg and noodle carbon ra with parmesan, featuring 64C eggs, garlic soy and pork belly.
For a more traditional breakfast, order wentelteefjes — Dutch French toast, basically. This version normally uses leftover white bread and, along with the usual fried bread in a pan with egg, milk and cinnamon, the Dutch version is topped with jam or compote.
Cafe Georgette is smack in the middle of Amsterdam's hip shopping district. It's where you can see and be seen. We park up for an hour and sip wine and order small plates.
This cafe serves a mix of cuisines, including eggs Florentine, eggs Norwegian (with smoked salmon), four different styles of avocado on toast, grilled octopus, Arabic pita bread and bitterbalen. The latter,a Dutch take on meat balls, are a classic bar snack.
Typically made with beef, variations include chicken, veal, or mushrooms, should you want a vegetarian version. Bitterballen's best friend is a side of mustard, so don't forget to plunge a forkful into a tangy pool before taking a bite.
The Netherlands has a complex history with Indonesia, following its colonisation of the Southeast Asian nation, but one obvious vestige of the past is Indonesian cuisine.
One delicious choice is rijsttafel, which translates to "rice table", where many Indonesian dishes are served up tapas style. This is how Dutch spice traders would have experienced the local cuisine. It has carried across to the Netherlands and is now a firm fixture on most Indonesian restaurant menus.
At Puris Mas restaurant you can order a rijsttafel for €27.50 (NZ$48.50) per person. This includes a variety of sample Indonesian dishes from slow-cooked beef with herbs and spices, to coconut curries and vegetables cooked in peanut and Balinese sauces.
There are few things more enjoyable than a stroopwafel. These thin baked waffles with their adhesive caramel syrup and cinnamon hints are the ultimate sweet snack. Created in Gouda (the Dutch town known for its namesake cheese) between the late 18th and early 19th centuries, stroopwafels were invented by a baker who used leftovers, such as breadcrumbs, and stuck them together using a sweet syrup. Genius.
You can find stores selling stroopwafels dotted all over the city. We wandered into van Wonderen, which sells the classic stroopwafels and variations dipped in chocolate and nuts. We ordered two versions and gobbled them down almost before we had stepped back outside.
If you lack a sweet tooth, cheese is the obvious after-dinner (or any time of day) choice in Amsterdam. You'll find many stores with the finest fromage dotted along the canal-lined streets but Old Amsterdam Cheese is one of the most famous. They have a special room where you can book a one-hour cheese and wine tasting, or you can wander around the store and select a few (or a dozen) wedges for later.
For the really dedicated, there's even a Cheese Museum, open seven days a week, where you can learn about the history of cheese making, sample some of the best cheeses in the Netherlands, and dress up like a traditional Dutch cheese farmer. You know you want to ...
Beer lovers can enjoy a refreshing drop of Heineken straight from the source. Visit the factory and take one of the tours, which, depending on whether you book the "normal" or VIP tour, includes a behind the-scenes peek, beers paired with Dutch cheese and, the premium level includes a canal cruise with a Heineken Experience guide.
You needn't stroll more than a few paces to find a nice place near the canals to enjoy a refreshment. Our most memorable spot, however, was further out of the city at our hotel, QO. The hotel bar, Juniper & Kin, offered delicious cocktails and beautiful views of the city from the 21st floor. They also served an unforgettable bar snack: dehydrated vegetables. Tomatoes, peppers, broccoli and carrots were almost unrecognisable, both in sight and flavour. We enjoyed guessing what they were as much as we enjoyed eating them.
Get away from the well-trodden tourist trail, with these unusual attractions,
writes Grace Ellis.
1 Electric Ladyland: The First Museum of Fluorescent Art
This museum is unlike any other exhibition. Electric Ladyland is an underground museum of fluorescent art located in a basement below Amsterdam central. To make it even more intriguing, it is so private it's only available by appointment. Located a hop, skip and a jump away from the Anne Frank House, the artist behind the works is a former-geologist who was inspired by naturally occurring luminosity. With neon art pieces dating back as early as the 1950s, this enclosed space has an entire room illuminated by psychedelic luminous minerals as well as the chance to create your own illuminated artwork.
2 Museum Vrolik: The museum of human mutants
The Museum Vrolik is definitely not one for the faint-hearted. Although originally a private collection of teratological professors in 1869, for the studies of abnormal human developments and deformities, the now-public attraction at the University of Amsterdam exhibits human anatomical specimens such as skeletons, teeth, abnormally developed fetuses, limbs and organs. Originally used for research, each piece has been donated by medical professionals, with a total of 150 specimens over the years, including animals.
3 De Poezenboot: The Catboat
De Poezenboot is a non-profit organisation and also the world's only floating cat sanctuary, located in the northern banks of Signal Canal in Amsterdam central. Established in 1966 by Henriette van Weelde, De Poezenboot has cared for and rehomed stray and abandoned cats for more than four decades. With a mission to help as many cats as possible, the shelter welcomes any visitors wishing to cuddle with furry companions.
IN BETWEEN MOUTHFULS . . .
SEE: The best of Vincent van Gogh's art at the Van Gogh Museum. Go to Vondel Park and take some cheese and stroopwafels along for a mini picnic.
DO: Hire bicycles to explore the city like a local.
BUY: An I Amsterdam City Card to make use of discounts on attractions and free public transport.