Before I left to go to Holland, I looked up some of the many different quirks from Dutch culture that are typical to life in the Netherlands. Everything from cheap beer to a high population of bicycles found me through Google. One that was mentioned a few times, although unfamiliar to me, was “haring”. When I ventured out to Volendam in Northern Holland, a historic fishing village north of Amsterdam, I decided to be adventurous and give it a shot.
What is “haring”?
“Haring” (or in English, herring) is a small silvery fish that is very popular among the Dutch people. It is caught in the North and East Seas, near Denmark and Scandinavia. The Dutch have been eating “haring” for the past 1000 years, but its popularity really kicked off in the 1300’s when the idea of using salt to preserve the fish came to be. Today, the fish is most often soaked in a salt water brine, but it can also be smoked or pickled for eating all year round. The high season for fishing it is typically during the early summer.
Is it cooked?
Not in the traditional sense of cooking using heat. Technically, pickling is a method of “cooking” food, but the fish you eat is not the kind you get when you order fish and chips – all breaded and flaky. This is more like the fish you might find in your sushi. Personally, I would consider it raw rather than cooked.
How do you order it?
I ordered mine from a “haringhandel”, (a type of fish stand) at the harbour. The woman behind the counter was going through a huge pile of the small fish, deboning them with the tiniest of knives, and working as fast as I have ever seen in my life. The man with her was preparing the various seafood for the customers to eat. There was calamari, shrimp, mussels, eel and herring.
The herring can come soused (preserved with salt), smoked, or “broodje haring” (on a roll). I went for a soused piece of “Hollandse Nieuwe”, which is the first catch of the season. Apparently that is when the fish are fattest, since the legal fishing season for herring is very short and they have had all winter to fatten up.
What my “haring” looked like
My herring was served headless, with all the innards and most of the bones gone but the tail still in tact. Most of the scales were still present as well, though some had been scraped off for me. The meat itself was a light grayish pink that become faintly raspberry coloured deeper into the fish. It was served to me covered in finely chopped raw onion, which apparently helps with the strong, salty taste. You can also have it with pickles, but this is less traditional outside of the Amsterdam region.
How on earth do you eat it?
I had to take a look around for some cues from the locals before I figured it out. Apparently, you hold onto your little fishie by the tail, cock your head back, dangle it over your mouth and take a bite! Keeping a good grip on the tail can be tricky – mine was really slippery!
What does it taste like?
The fish, being practically raw, is very, very soft. There is a buttery, oily consistency to it, probably courtesy of the high quantity of fat (about 15% or more). The texture is soft and similar to raw salmon if you have ever eaten salmon tartare. If not, it is neither flaky like cooked fish, nor fibrous like cooked red or white meats. It is more spongy, like scallops or calamari, or escargot if you’ve tried those. It does have a strong “haring” taste, but not particularly fishy. It is very salty, partially to the popular preservation process of using salt brine. The raw onions suit it very well and are a great compliment.
Is this raw fish eating practice really that popular?
Yes! Today, the Dutch eat about 12,000,000 kilograms of this little fish every year! That’s about a pound and a half of herring for every single Dutch person each year. But the locals never, ever cut up into little pieces and eat it with a knife and fork. No, the display of the art of eating “haring” is enjoyed as much as the “haring” itself.
What did I think of it?
I personally liked it a lot better than I though I would. I had mentally prepared myself in case I really disliked it, but the whole experience was completely a mind over matter thing. The taste is very unique and very powerful, so not for someone who does not appreciate strong flavours. The onions really do help with the taste. If you are someone who is really adventurous with their food and willing to give it a shot, I’d say, go for it!