This week, on April 27, the Dutch celebrate their King’s birthday — a national holiday which, in the capital city of Amsterdam, consists of like a million people partying in the streets. During the celebration, they will drink many beers and probably consume untold quantities of the country’s favorite street food: Flemish fries. Which are pretty much what we’d call “French” fries, but named after the Flanders region of Belgium… and served with some rather unusual condiments.
When Rico was in Amsterdam last week, he met with Vicky Hampton, who for eight years has written the blog “Amsterdam Foodie.” They bought some fries from a popular stand called “Vleminckx,” and Rico kicked off the interview by asking about the etymology of “Flemish Fries.”
Vicky Hampton: The name came about, or at least the rumor is that the name came about, because the Americans, in fact — your countrymen — soldiers who were over in Europe during the first World War, had these amazing chips (as I would call them being a British person), and heard the language spoken by the people who were making them, and it was French. So they started calling them “French fries.” But in fact, those people were Belgian, where they also speak French. And so they’re actually Belgian fries.
Rico Gagliano: So, the Dutch have it right.
Vicky Hampton: Yes.
Rico Gagliano: So, the rest of us are idiots. That’s what we learned today.
Vicky Hampton: Basically what I’m saying, yes. [Ed. note – there is, not surprisingly, much dispute as to whether fries originated in Belgium or France, and when/how the term “French Fries” first appeared]
Rico Gagliano: But I will say that when I think of… say I get steak frites at a French restaurant, they’re always thin fries. These are thicker.
Vicky Hampton: Yeah, these type of fries are much heartier, and I believe they’re at least twice or maybe triple-cooked, so that’s why they’re kind of fluffier in the middle and still crispy around the outside. Whereas french fries like you get at McDonald’s and stuff — the really thin ones that go cold all the time — we don’t really eat them much here.
Rico Gagliano: How did they become so popular in, specifically, the Netherlands? I feel like this is one of the most fry-happy cultures I’ve ever seen.
Vicky Hampton: I’d take a guess that in the Netherlands, the Belgians have a reputation for being the bon viveurs. There’s an expression, bourgondisch, [which] sort of stands for “enjoyers of life.” And so, the people from Belgium and the south of the Netherlands are known for eating the good food, drinking the good wine, having a good time. And I think that’s probably why we love eating Belgian fries, because we think they’re kind of the best — the most enjoyment you can get out of fries.
Rico Gagliano: So, the topping choices and varieties are insane. Take us through some of the ones that we might not know. I think most people know about mayo…
Vicky Hampton: Yeah. I mean, a lot of them are kind of mayonnaise-based, sort of curry sauces that are quite mayonnaise-heavy. There’s also peanut sauce. Kapsalon, which literally means “hairdressers,” which is basically the contents of a kebab dumped on top of fries. So, like, shawarma meat. And then — well, they sometimes put sambal on top of fries as well. Which is a super-spicy red pepper sauce. It comes from Indonesia, and it’s commonly eaten with Indonesian food, which obviously we have a lot of here in the Netherlands.
Rico Gagliano: Now, it’s not obvious to a whole lot of people that Indonesian food would go with the Netherlands, but it is super-popular here.
Vicky Hampton: Yeah, it was a colony, and then there’s been tons of Indonesian immigration to Holland since then.
Rico Gagliano: Tons of Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam and around the Netherlands. It’s kind of like, as Indian food is to London, I would say, Indonesian food is to Amsterdam.
Vicky Hampton: Yeah, precisely.
Rico Gagliano: And then, something called — I hope I’m pronouncing it right — oorlog topping.
Vicky Hampton: Yes, oorlog literally means “war,” apparently because it looks a huge mess. It’s basically mayonnaise, peanut sauce, and chopped up raw onions. So, it’s quite a combination, and if you could see our fries now sitting in front of us, they do look like a huge battle of toppings.
Rico Gagliano: It’s total carnage on top of these fries. Because you have the dark squirt of peanut sauce and then a squirt of white mayo next to it, and then there’s just onions all over the top of it. Where did this concept come from?
Vicky Hampton: So, the peanut sauce, I believe, is also the Indonesian connection. We’ll have satay sauce with everything. I don’t think even people really realize now it’s not natively Dutch.
Rico Gagliano: It’s not peanut butter. It’s more like — it’s more savory. The kind of thing you dip chicken in at a Thai restaurant.
Vicky Hampton: Yeah, so precisely, a satay sauce.
Rico Gagliano: All right, and then the mayo, I guess, is there because everybody loves mayo over here.
Vicky Hampton: Yeah. I mean, obviously, France is close by and that influence just came from there over the years.
Rico Gagliano: And then the onion comes on top, and I’ve noticed the Dutch love putting onions on everything, including like, you get a piece of herring that will be otherwise raw, but you put onion on it. Why?
Vicky Hampton: The Dutch usually like quite big flavors, I’ve noticed. It’s not my favorite, to be honest. Sometimes I ask for oorlog without the onions because I find the raw tang a bit too much.
Rico Gagliano: Well, I’m about to experience it, regardless of what you think, for journalism. And I’ve got a piece… Oh, look!
Vicky Hampton: Got all the sauce on there!
Rico Gagliano: Yeah, I picked up the perfect piece. It’s got just the right amount of all those three ingredients, and we’ll see what happens when I put it in my mouth. Here we go…
You know, it’s not as insane as I thought it would be. The peanut part just adds a little bit of extra savoriness to the mayo part. They have similar consistencies, really, and it just adds a little bit… makes the mayo less bland, I find. Do you ever order it this way?
Vicky Hampton: Yeah, I do. Yeah. Usually it’s three in the morning and not at five in the afternoon, but yeah, I do.
Rico Gagliano: I guess this is… is this kind of drunk food in the Netherlands?
Vicky Hampton: Yeah. I mean, obviously, the fry stand that we just went to, because it’s one of the most famous ones in the city and it’s really really good, people go there at all times of the day. But for, I think, the majority of Amsterdammers who are working and living here, it’s more of a late-night drunk food indeed.
Rico Gagliano: I have a feeling that’s maybe where the oorlog topping came from.
Vicky Hampton: Maybe!
Rico Gagliano: “You know what, just put some peanut sauce… You know what, also put some mayo on it! And you know what, also put some onion on that!”
Vicky Hampton: “Just keep going. Just keep throwing it all on!”
Rico Gagliano: “And some cookies!”