When in Amsterdam, you must try haring
The Dutch eat herring all year long. Yes, the so-called ‘New Herring’ that arrives in June (see below) is a big deal. But herring is a delicacy that is enjoyed in all seasons. Don’t skip this experience!
Without a doubt, the Dutch street food most frowned upon by tourists, expats, and immigrants, is herring — a popular and healthy snack. (Among other things, herring lowers your bad cholesterol1).
Traditionally, herring is eaten by grabbing it by the tail, throwing one’s head back, and — while gently lowering the fish — biting off tasty morsels.
Herring is not raw fish
This pose has caused many tourists to assume that the fish is eaten raw, but that is not the case. Herring is partially gutted on board of the fishing vessel (or sometimes upon arrival at the port). Then it is salted, and next it is frozen for a minimum of two days. This process affects the fish’s taste and tenderness.2
The fish is further cleaned and prepared at stalls (Haringkar) or fish stores — usually at the time a customer orders one. It is at its absolute best when it is prepared right then and there, which is one reason why you usually can watch your order being prepared.
You’ll note that in most cities the fish is not eaten the traditional way. Rather, many people prefer to have the herring served cut in bite-sized piece on a piece of silver-backed paper, along with finely diced onions and some sliced pickles. A toothpick serves as a utensil.
By the way, herring may taste saltier the further you travel east in the Netherlands. This hails back to the time when supplies took longer to travel from the harbors to the customers. Salted and frozen for a longer time, it came out tasting differently — and through the years customers have gotten used to their local flavors.
What herring tastes like
And the taste? Hard to describe. Suffice it to say that for most people herring is love at first bite. If you like sushi, you’ll love this delicacy.
It’s not easy to find a Dutch person who doesn’t like herring — and even harder to find one who doesn’t enjoy talking a tourist into trying one.
Hollandse Nieuwe: ‘New Dutch Herring’
Herring fishing occurs year-round, but the fat content (and thus the taste) of the fish varies with the season.
The best herring is called Hollandse nieuwe (Holland new), indicating that it has been caught between the middle of May and the end of June. Earlier the fish is too thin, and later it is too fat.
Throughout the Netherlands, the 2021 Hollandse Nieuwe: ‘New Dutch Herring’ season starts on June 16.
The day before, Tuesday June 15, the Nederlands Visbureau (Dutch Fish Agency) celebrates the arrival of the Hollandse Nieuwe, catch 2021.
Highlight of this yearly celebration is the traditional auction of the first barrel of herring. This barrel, which contains about 45 herrings, in recent years has sold for anything between €53.000 and €95.500 | $63,660 and $114,709.
The proceeds are donated to a good cause. In 2021, that was to be Stichting Ambulance Wens. This Dutch foundation’s voluntary workers fulfill last wishes of terminally ill patients who are immobile and dependent on transport by ambulances.
However, for the second year in a row the traditional auction of the first barrel of herring was canceled due to Corona-related restrictions.
Instead, the first barrel was ceremoniously handed to the vaccination staff of the GGD (Municipal Health Service, the decentralized public health agencies in the Netherlands). Stichting Ambulance Wens will benefit from the next available auction.
By law, Hollandse Nieuwe must have at least 16% fat. There are several other requirements — including the fact that the herring must have been frozen for at least 2 days in order to kill possible parasites.
On the last Saturday in May, herring boats sail out from the harbors of Scheveningen and IJmuiden to start the hunt for the year’s new herring catch. The first vessel to return with the much-praised Hollandse Nieuwe wins this prestigious contest. The first barrel of new herring is auctioned, usually fetching a handsome price.– Source: Dutch Delight: Typically Dutch Food
Herring may be sold as “Hollandse Nieuwe” if and when the herring has a fat percentage of at least 16%, and has been gutted, salted, and filleted according to traditional Dutch custom. It also must have been caught between the start of the season at the beginning of May and the end of August.
Herring may only be called Hollandse Nieuwe between an officially sanctioned day at the start of June (a different day each year) and the end of September. During the rest of the year, the fish is known as maatjesharing (matje herring).
Any fishmonger (or anyone else, for that matter) who sells herring as Hollandse Nieuwe outside of the official season can be fined €10.800 and/or be subjected to sanctions.By the way, Hollandse Nieuwe has TSG (Traditional Specialty Guaranteed) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) certification from the European Commission. 3
Herring is a treat any time, but Hollandse Nieuwe ensures that the fish is at its tastiest.
That said, ask herring lovers were to find the best suppliers. Several newspapers — the Dutch Algemeen Dagblad (AD) in particular — publish yearly taste tests, and not all herring carts (or shops) are as impressive as the top ones.
The price of haring can be anything from about € 3,00 to about € 4,00 — slightly more for new herring.
Look for a fishmonger cart that is busy, and where you can see the the fish being prepared upon ordering.
Amsterdam Food Tours
A fun way to get to know Amsterdam is by discovering what the locals eat.
Show up hungry for the Amsterdam Private Food Walking Tour in downtown Amsterdam.
- Due in part to a high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids ↩
- The herring is gutted except for its pancreas. The enzymes in the pancreas cause the herring to mature and develop the great taste it is known and loved for. The gutted herring is salted and placed in a barrel. The salt withdraws moisture, and the herring become salty. The subsequent 24-hour freezing process prevents parasites. ↩
- EU TSG Certification and EU PGI Certification ↩