Far further back than I care to admit, the large newspaper I worked for sent me to Amsterdam to attend a trade show. In among the many adventures I had on that trip, I discovered the incredible variety of cuisines that make Amsterdam such a pleasure to visit. The glories of a spread of rijsttafel dishes, gouda cheeses, crisp Dutch beers, and so many others. One of my favourite discoveries was bitterballen the crunchy bar snack with a savory creamy filling that were served alongside beers.
It got me thinking about culture and how food transcends boundaries. Rijstaffel (rice table) is the Dutch version of Indonesian cookery. It dates back to the glory days of the Dutch East India Company, where creaking wooden barques made the perilous journey around the Cape of Storms to venture to the far east colony of Batavia (present day Indonesia). The ships would return laden with exotic spices like nutmeg, mace, and cloves dried and sometimes ground to powder to survive the long journey back to Holland. At a time when the Dutch Republic was entering its golden age, cooks could not get enough of these new flavours and sought out exotic flavours and colours to impress their guest with a dazzling array of dishes.
The sailors also brought recipes back with them, curries, nasi goreng, gado gado sambals,fried bananas and others. Back in Amsterdam people tried to make these recipes, but lacking the fresh ingredients, they substituted dried spices.
While the colonial excesses of the rijsttafel banquets have long since fallen out of favour in Indonesia, they remain a staple of Dutch restaurant fare, as former colonials returned following independence.
What’s in a name? Bitterballen are part of the larger tradition of bittergarnituur, or savoury snacks to serve with beer. Ballen being the Dutch plural for ball. So, essentially, savoury balls to have with beer.
Bitterballen are one such incarnation of the mixture of cultures permeating Dutch food. The basic recipe was probably taken from a French croquette filled with ragout, a traditional way of using leftover meat. The filling is shredded cooked meat mixed with a thick roux, to which with the addition of nutmeg brings an exotic flavour.
In my latest science fiction novel, Plato Crater, Holly a young thief is sentenced to community service in one of the only antique rijsttafel restaurants still licensed to burn hydrocarbons. One of the first dishes she learns to cook is bitterballen. This is how I imagined the recipe to be:
- For the filling:
- 1 stick of butter
- 1 cup of flour
- 2 cups of shredded cooked beef or veal (usually taken from last night’s leftovers)
- 3 cups beef broth
- 1 small onion, chopped
- ¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- ¼ tsp powdered nutmeg
- ¼ cup finely grated parmesan cheese
- For the breading:
- All-purpose flour
- 2 eggs whisked
- Vegetable oil for frying
- In a large pan, sauté the onions in olive oil until translucent.
- Add the butter and once melted, add the flour slowly to make a roux.
- Gradually add the broth, while stirring continuously to ensure that the roux absorbs the liquid.
- Continue stirring until the mixture thickens.
- Add meat and parsley. Cook for around two minutes until the mixture resembles a thick gravy. Stir in the salt, pepper, parmesan and nutmeg.
- Transfer the filling mixture to a shallow container and refrigerate for 2 hours or until is has a solid consistency.
- Take a spoonful of mixture and roll it into a ball the size of a golf ball.
- Dredge the bitterballen in the all-purpose flour, then the egg wash and finally roll it the breadcrumbs. This should make around 20 bitterballen.
- Place the bitterballen on a shallow tray in the to the freezer for 30 minutes before frying.
- Prepare oil for deepfrying, either using a small saucepan or a deep fryer.
- Fry the bitterballen, a few at a time, until golden brown, remove and set on a plate covered in paper towels to absorb excess oil.
- Now open a crisp Amstel or pale lager, and serve the bitterballen hot, with a side of Dijon or grainy mustard.
About the Author
CARLETON CHINNER is an Australian born writer who grew up on a remote farm in South Africa, where the trip to the town library was the highlight of his week. He devoured anything science fiction, fantasy and horror. And, when that wasn’t enough, turned to urban legend and traditional tribal histories which combined to provide a heady brew of stories.
He has settled in Australia as an adult but not before turning up unarmed at a gunfight, discovering dead bodies and fighting off sharks while spearfishing. When not writing, he works as a project manager on large corporate programs. Follow him on Twitter @sunfishau
The CITIES OF THE MOON series is Chinner’s debut series, now available as POD and in ebook form from good online stores everywhere. Book 2 Plato Crater is available from 31 October.
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