Friday, December 11, 2009

The Dutch Black Menace

Regan, in response to your question in your last, I cannot think of one particular taste or ingredient that would define Dutch cooking.  Lots of ingredients come to mind: the ever present potato, various pork products, basically any food item made from milk, but not one specific taste that would define Dutch cuisine.

On a related note, though, I would like to take this moment to talk about the most disgusting taste in the world. Can you guess what it is? I'm thinking most of my friends can, because I have commented before on the Dutch love for this particular flavor.

Conversation Niek and I had two weeks ago at a party:

D: Ooh, this looks interesting. What is it?
N: That? That's [enter in some Dutch word I can't remember]
D: Oh, okay. But what is it?
N: It's a Christmas thing.
D: Well, what does it taste like?
N: I can't explain it. You should just try it.
D: But, what...
N: Just try it. It's good.
[pause in conversation while I take a piece]
D: NIEK! This is anise flavored. Oh, gross, yuck. Why would you do that to me?
N: Oh my gosh! I'm so sorry I forgot. I didn't know it would taste like that.
[I discreetly run to the nearest trash can to deposit the remnants of my half-chewed piece]

Licorice...the word that Americans use to describe how anise tastes.

Eww, just writing it down makes me want to gag a little bit. I'm talking about the strangely sweet smell yet repulsive taste black licorice possesses. This is the stuff my dad would occasionally try to give me as a child, and to which I would respond, "No, Dad. I want the licorice (i.e. Twizzlers) that actually tastes good." Some of my friends have admitted to liking “good” Dutch licorice, known here as drop, but I am not convinced that they are not lying.

I bet the Dutch might even consider licorice a national treasure. It comes in many forms here and many flavors, ranging from sweet and soft to salty and tough. It sits proudly next to the candy bars in the check-out line at the supermarket, and the specialty sweets shops usually have whole walls dedicated to its many forms. I see people eating it here like it was...well..candy. I once sat across from a woman on a train and watched her devour an entire bag of it. It was like I was watching a car accident or the out-takes from American Idol; I couldn't look away but I was horrified by what I was seeing. She ate those little black suckers sort of like the way I would eat a bag of Lay's potato chips or a pound of gummi bears. (And yes, in case you're wondering, I have eaten an entire Cost-co bag of gummi bears in one go. Just you try driving from Milwaukee to the Florida Keys without stopping and see if you can make it without high-fructose corn syrup.)

I am not anti-anise flavoring nor am I opposed to its cousin in crime, fennel. I have been known to use both in my baking and cooking. However, anise isn't like some flavors, say maple or vanilla, that can be tossed around willy-nilly with a little bit extra thrown in for good measure. No, it's one of those ingredients that is best when it teases you just a little bit, almost as if you weren't sure it was there at all. It shouldn't come barreling out of your sweets, filling your nose and mouth like smoke.

If it were only the licorice, maybe I could deal, but I find the flavors of anise in unexpected places, like at parties where my husband suggests holiday goodies. When a baby is born in the Netherlands, it’s customary to eat hard biscuits topped with butter and candy-coated anise seeds . The seeds are apparently good for the new mother’s milk supply, so why everyone is eating them I don't know. I tried it when our friends had a new baby, but their older son ended up eating most of mine. My half-hearted attempts to assimilate into Dutch society via anise-flavored food product consumption regularly end in failure.

This post obviously has a lot to do with cultural taste preferences. My husband thinks licorice is delicious, because he grew up eating it. He also thinks the idea of putting peanut butter and jelly on the same sandwich is appalling. Needless to say his parents did not pack those in his lunchbox as a child. I am sometimes surprised that anise has such an appeal here, among other places in Northern Europe. If I ever get bored or just really tired of writing the dissertation, I might look into the development of taste for this flavor. Maybe I should be asking myself instead why the general American population does not care for it. Why has America turned away from the licorice? I think I know why, though. It’s pretty gross.


  1. I have to agree. Perhaps it is due to our southeastern European genes. I, too, cannot stand the stuff.

  2. OMG, folks, licorice is one of the main food groups in my diet. Although that salty Dutch stuff takes some balls to swallow!