Editor’s Note: As a pilot for Northwest Airlines, Mark has
the opportunity to sell his hot sauces all over the world.
Far from my usual stomping grounds in the Orient, I had an opportunity to visit one of the most picturesque cities in Europe. Amsterdam sits on the North Sea with most of the city actually below sea level. This of course reminds us of the story of the boy who place his finger in the dyke to save the city. But, unless you really go looking, you won’t find many people wearing wooden shoes. You can still find the occasional windmill and the flower market is jammed with tulips in season. In a place where coffee houses offer blends much more potent than roasted beans, and where window shopping takes on a whole new meaning, I came to discover what appetite the Dutch had for hot sauces.
Chiles in Amsterdam market.
My first stop is always the local food store and in Amsterdam I happened into one of the largest grocery retailers in the country. Directly behind the Dam (one of the Dutch palaces) in the center of Amsterdam, I found one of approximately 250 Albert Heijin Food Stores in Holland. The building in which this store was housed was probably a hundred years old but the interior was modern, airy, and well-lit. Unfortunately, during my first visit I found many of the shelves bare in the specialty food section. The exception to this was a fairly broad selection of Indonesian foods that I will explain later.
The manager told me they were making room for new, American-style foods and among those would be some hot sauces. Robijn, the manager, and I discussed Dutch and American tastes when it came to spicy foods, and I seized on the opportunity to educate some of the stock boys about my hot sauces which I just happened to have brought along. Soon, every store employee that could take a short break was lining up to have their mouths thrilled by some Gator Squeezins and Gator Vertigo. To most it was their first experience with anything hotter than Tabasco Sauce, and they listed a number of traditional Dutch meals that could be enhanced by the hot sauces. I especially liked the idea of putting some Squeezins on pickled herring.
Robijn, the store manager,
tastes Gator Squeezins.
Luckily, I remembered a spot where the “Herring-Man” had his little booth set up along the canal. It may have been the long way around to get there, but I seem to navigate best when I have to traverse the Red Light District. While generally not included in travel brochures along with the Anne Frank House and the VanGogh Museum, the Red Light District still attracts a great number of tourists. In fact, senior citizen groups make single-filed treks through the streets and alleys fo the “seedy” side of town during the daylight hours. They giggle and gawk at the windows in the sex shops and try to take a quick photograph of the working girls before they can draw the curtains in their small-windowed rooms.
When the sun goes down, the character and clientele of this area change radically (or so I hear). Aromas roll out of the hash bars, as marijuana is legal to smoke in “coffee houses” in the district) and mix with the scents of backwater canals, spilled beer, and the occasional fast food restaurant. The most serious threat to the visitor are pickpockets and collisions with disorderly patrons forcibly ejected from bars. There are several Bulldog Bards in the Red Light District and one in particular had a very enthusiastic bouncer whose goal it was to propel overly intoxicated patrons from the door all the way into the canal. I would have lingered longer but the Herring-Man didn’t stay open late.
I arrived at the Herring-Man just as he was closing for the evening and was pleased that he agreed to serve me before he drew the shutters down on his trailer. He placed a nice slice of herring on a hard roll and watched as I slathered it with my Gator Squeezins. In his broken English, we talked about herring and hot sauce, and I did my best to communicate that the green stuff was hot by fanning my hand in front of my open mouth and qualifying it by measuring “a little” between my thumb and forefinger. The Herring-Man tried some and smiled at me as he fanned his open mouth with his hand and then signaled “a lot” by moving open palms away from each other. I left the bottle with him and he gave me another slab of herring that I ate with pleasure. If you’re in Amsterdam and happen across a bottle of Gator Squeezins at a herring stand, you’ve found my Herring-Man.
When I returned to Amsterdam six weeks later, I discovered that my English-speaking manager at the grocery store had been transferred, but now the shelves were filled with a brand new assortment of imported foods. Much of what had been added was canned soups and packaged pasta. There were a couple of hot sauce additions as well. Located next to the Mexican foods were some small bottles of Louisiana-style hot sauces, and the only habanero sauce was Walker’s Wood from Jamaica. Further investigation revealed that Walker’s Wood was sold through their distributor in England.
Amsterdam street scene.
On this second trip to Amsterdam in two months, I still hadn’t found any real hot and spicy food beyond a fabulous Thai restaurant (on the fringes of the Red Light District) where the waitresses were really men in drag). There were, however, dozens of Indonesian restaurants all over the city. This, along with the extensive selection of Indonesian foods in the grocery store, inspired me to find out why. Like so many other instances in history, the path of spices and hot chiles were indentical to the routes and discoveries of the European explorers. The Dutch began exploiting Indonesia for its spices with the Dutch East India Company in 1602. They operated with the aid of warships to protect their trading routes and subjugated the Indonesian farmers to control all they produced. There were several unsuccessful uprisings in the 1600s, and the Dutch retaliated by instituting the notorious Hongi expeditions, whereby they burned down the clove gardens of the people to eliminate overproduction. The Dutch resisted granting independence to Indonesia halfway into the twentieth century. The Republic of Indonesia proclaimed independence on August 17, 1945, just days after the Japanese surrendered to the Allies. Five years later, with the help of the United Nations in The Hague, Netherlands, the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia was restored.
With all this history in mind, I managed to try three Indonesian restaurants in two days. The highlight was lunch on my last day at the Sukarsi Restaurant near the palace (and not far from the Red Light District). I ordered a Rice Table for one and was presented with a partitioned metal tray loaded with beef, chicken, and vegetables. The rice arrived in a separate metal dish along with some house hot sauce and ground pepper that I had requested. The owner explained to me that the traditional Indonesian recipes are toned down for the Dutch, who don’t have as high a threshold for hot spices. He was pleased to heat up my food in a fashion he enjoyed himself. The chiles he used were reminiscent of Thai peppers but not quite as hot. However, they did add a very full-bodied heat and flavor to the meal. The owner explained to me that he was one of the few who still made their own chile sauce. Many of the other restaurants served a Vietnamese hot sauce with the familiar rooster on the label as their house hot sauce.
Mark prepares to dine on his Rice Table feast.
So the question still remains: is Amsterdam ready for hot sauces. I believe the answer is a qualified yes. The trick is to make the sauces available and counter the notion that there is no flavor if you add heat. The reaction I received from the store employees, the Herring-Man, and the restaurant owners all led me to believe that there is a strong potential market for American hot sauce products in the Netherlands. The manager at the Albert Hein Food Plaza took the National show issue of Fiery-Foods & Barbecue Business Magazine I gave him and paged through it, smiling broadly as he saw the vast array and assortment of the hot sauce products available. Based on the success they see with the limited selection of hot sauces they offer, he will decided if any more American-style hot sauces deserve shelf space.
My last piece of advice about finding spicy food at restaurants is to ask questions before sitting down at the table. If they do not offer traditional Indonesian heat levels and do not serve a homemade chile sauce, it might be a good idea to try another establishment. There is no shortage of great restaurants in Amsterdam and the walk, except in the winter, is a fabulous way to see the city as long as you keep an eye out for speeding bicycles and electric trams–and the overzealous bouncers in the Red Light District.