A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
The Netherlands is famed for its tolerance, openness and multiculturalism. A rich, if not always proud, imperial history has resulted in a wide range of influences on Dutch life, and, very noticeably, on Dutch cuisine. Traditionally, there’s been a predominance of cheese and ham, and the general rule was that if it’s not sweet and cant be fried, its not worth eating. But this isn’t modern Dutch food – nowadays, chips and mayonnaise is rivalled by satay croquettes, steamed meat dumplings and crunchy little loempias (Vietnamese Spring Rolls) on the snack-time menu. And I can see where each of these tastes have been imported from – the area of the world that was once the Dutch East Indies, in the main. More refined dishes from these far-flung lands are served in plenty of restaurants all over Leiden, which has plenty of places serving classically Dutch fare as well. This is all understandable; culture and history mixing to provide a broad range of eating options in Leiden, and the wider Randstad.
But I’ve got to say, I was a little surprised when, with my folks, I stumbled across a low-lit corner joint in the shadow of the imposing Morspoort (about five minutes from Centraal), proudly advertising its origin – the Deep South of the USA. Aside from the obvious Dutch influence on New York, I’d never linked the two countries. But here was De La Soul, with its copper-burnished lamp-shades, dark woods and gatorskin sofa benches, and themed menu, pushing just one thing – soul food, soul food, soul food. And this USP was almost perfectly executed. The waiters explain with a laugh how the food is prepared, why the portion sizes are small (they’re incredibly filling), and what the Deep South theme of the restaurant means for the evening entertainment (in our case, some live soul music with our coffee). And the theme is not just in the food and the music, but also in the furnishings – Johnny Lee Hooker captured in shadowy acrylic on the wall, large menus hidden in sharply-designed LP covers, complete with original LPs. I did sneak a peek at the records in my menu, and had the soulful illusion shattered ever so briefly by the sight of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas and Dutch folk songs.
Not to worry, the menu itself brought back the soul theme behind this place. It more than reinforced this image, with all sorts of southern classics, from a steaming pumpkin soup and a fiery gumbo through to a gutsy meat-filled jambalaya and an expertly slow-cooked belly pork, all lovingly partnered by sides of rice and beans, barbecue wedges, sweet potato bake and golden butter-smothered corn, still on the cob. Sweet options were equally coronary-inducing, with more sweet potatoes, this time in a pie, hot spiced cobbler, lime pie with sweet whipped cream and even a deep-fried Mars bar (elevated to the level of restaurant standard by the addition of a raspberry jus, and, of course, the ubiquitous sprig of mint and dusting of icing sugar). All of this could be washed down with suitably strong beers or robust reds, and finished with the compulsory ‘moment of soul’, when the waiter drops off a (complimentary) yoghurt and banana smoothie, sweetened and flavoured with a ton of cinnamon and cocoa powder. Heart-stoppingly good stuff.
Sure, you lose a bit of the ambience if you choose to take terrace seats out under the Morspoort, and you do run the risk of displeasing the Dutch weather-gods, capricious deities that they most definitely are, but on a balmy summer evening it would be worth foregoing. And as for the music that came with our after-dinner coffee – take it or leave it, it wasn’t the kind of performance you’d be raving about for hours afterwards, with singer and saxophonist stumbling from well-known riff to less-recognisable-but-still-well-known riff, downing strong Belgian beers at an alarming rate. But with different bands playing on various weekday evenings, I’d be more than happy to go back to see another group, perhaps one that focused less on looking like Lionel Richie and more on singing like him. And if I had to take another dose of soul food before trying out the new music, I don’t think I’d be complaining!