Holland in herring season

Humble herrings made the Dutch rich, and today the first catch of the season is greeted with joy throughout the country. Sebastian Hope sets out to have his tastebuds tickled

Normally politicians do all they can to avoid being photographed in unflattering poses, but the Dutch finance minister, head thrown back to expose upper jaw dentistry and nasal hair to poised cameras, had no such concerns. It is the only way to eat Hollandse Nieuwe, the first herring of the season, and in Holland herring are part of the national psyche. This was an enactment of Dutchness.

It was the herring fishery that first made Holland rich. They say Amsterdam is built on herring bones. They also say herring made the Dutch free, financing their overthrow of Spanish rule. The fishery funded the trading voyages to the East and West Indies that led to empire. It is no wonder that the flag of Scheveningen, a popular seaside resort just outside The Hague, consists of three crowned herring on an azure field.

The mayor was on stage too, opening Scheveningen's Vlaagetjesdag, the Day of the Little Flags, when the arrival of the Hollandse Nieuwe is celebrated. In unison, the dignitaries grasped their herring by the tail and flopped the twin fillets in raw chopped onions. They raised the fish, tilting their heads back until the herring dangled over their open mouths, whereupon it was lowered as into a sea-lion's maw. A shot of fiery corenwyn completed the ritual.

A cheer went up and a call from the herring stalls: "Who wants a Hollandse Nieuwe?" Just about everybody. The fish are no bigger than pilchards at this time of the season, young and tender. The texture was buttery, the taste less fishy than expected, and, combined with the sharpness of the onion, it is a sensation for which the Dutch gladly risk their dignity. They eat 120 million herring a year.

Much as I love herring, however, the real reason for my visit to Holland was a nostalgia of my own, for Indonesia. I was once a frequent visitor to the Malay world, researching a book about the region's sea gypsies. I had not returned for a long time, and had begun to feel a growing need to revisit in some way, to eat the food, to have the language on my lips again. With no foreseeable opportunity of getting to Indonesia itself, I wondered if Holland could satisfy.

The Dutch have taken Indonesian food to their hearts. In the same way that chicken tikka masala is now Britain's national dish, so the rijsttafel has become a Dutch institution. And like tikka masala, it is also a fiction. It is a colonial-era adaptation of the West Sumatran nasi padang style of eating, where the diner is presented with a large bowl of rice and myriad curries in small portions. When you order a rijsttafel in Holland, you get the Javanese version and a mid-range rijsttafel, costing €25-35, usually has more than 20 dishes.

Unlike the British in India, the Dutch did not relinquish control of Indonesia voluntarily; this is certainly a key part of the enduring nostalgia for the Indies. But colony and colonial power were also deeply connected by blood. Intermarriage was far more commonplace than in British colonies. The resulting mixed-race "Indisch" offspring were not made to feel welcome in the newly independent Indonesia. Between 1945 and 1965, more than 300,000 emigrated to Holland. Most settled in The Hague.

In an attempt at preserving an Indisch cultural identity, an annual get-together was instituted, the Pasar Malam Besar, the Big Night Market. Now in its 47th year, it has grown to be the "biggest Eurasian festival in the world". Last year, 120,000 passed through the marquees on the Malieveld over its 10 days, but when I asked my Indonesian waitress at the Taman Sari whether she was going, she said: "Isn't that just a place for selling stuff?" At first sight, it seemed she might have been right. The main marquee was full of stalls selling south-east-Asian tourist tat, but there was more to it, a scent as evocative and immediate as that of the durian on the tropical fruit stand.

I wandered into the large food hall and my heart leapt to see a stand serving nasi padang, but sank on tasting the offering. At least there was real sate kambing with a peanut sauce. But I still didn't feel I had found what I had been looking for - good Sumatran food - until I came across the Dayang restaurant, on Prinsestraat, later that evening, almost too late to be served.

It is a simple unlicensed family run eatery, and the mother was from Sumatra's east coast. I promised her I would eat quickly - chicken curry and stewed nanka, unripe jackfruit - and we chatted in Indonesian. She sent me off with my appetite for Indonesian food slaked, but in satisfying one craving, I seem to have picked up another, and where in Britain will I find next season's Hollandse Nieuwe?

Sebastian Hope's book 'Outcasts of the Islands: the Sea Gypsies of South East Asia' is published by HarperCollins

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled as a guest of the Netherlands Board of Tourism (020-7539 7950; www.holland.com) and KLM (08705 074074; www.klm.com). Rail Europe (08708 371 371; www.raileurope.co.uk) offers routes from London Waterloo to the Netherlands.

STAYING THERE

Kurhaus Hotel, Gevers Deynootplein 30, Scheveningen (00 31 70 416 2630; www.kurhaus.nl). Doubles from €200 (£143), room only.

Park Hotel, Molenstraat 53, The Hague (00 31 70 3624371; www.parkhoteldenhaag.nl). Doubles from €145 (£104) including breakfast.

Hotel des Indes (00 31 70 361 2345; www.lemeridien.com). Doubles from €225 (£161), room only.

VISITING THERE

Panorama Mesdag, Zeestraat 65, The Hague (00 31 70 364 4544; www.panorama-mesdag.nl). Opens Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm and Sunday from noon; €5 (£3.50).

Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen (00 31 22 835 1111; www.zzm.nl). Opens daily 10am-5pm; €11.50 (£8.20). Enkhuizen is approximately one hour from Amsterdam by train.

The Visserijmuseum (Fishery Museum), Westhavenkade 53/54, Vlaardingen (00 31 10 434 8722; www.visserij-museum.nl). Opens Monday-Friday 10am-5pm, weekends from noon; €3.50 (£2.50).

Museums with Indonesian collections include: KIT Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam ( www.kit.nl), Museum Nusantara in Delft ( www.gemeente musea-delft.nl), the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden ( www.rmv.nl) and the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam ( www.wereldmuseum.rotterdam.nl).

General info: www.denhaag.com, www.scheveningen.nl/gb

EATING & DRINKING THERE

There are thousands of Indonesian restaurants in Holland. The website www.rijsttafelen.nl is invaluable as a restaurant finder - Dutch only. (Another good restaurant finder, more general, is www.iens.nl/english).

The Vlaggetjesdag in Scheveningen takes place on 3 June ( www.vlagget jesdag.com - Dutch only). The 48th Pasar Malam Besar: 25 May-5 June ( www.pasarmalambesar.nl).

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