I was born into a Dutch family so you’d assume that I was genetically and culturally predisposed to consider certain Dutch traditions and cuisines as “normal” fare.
Way back in the nineteen eighties on one of my visits to the Netherlands with my parents, my father tried to introduce me to the Dutch speciality of “haring” (herring).
These small fish are filleted (the tail is left on) and the whole fillets emerged in finely chopped raw onion and some lemon.
This semi-cures the raw fish, which is then most popularly eaten in two ways: the first involves picking up the fillet by the tail with two fingers, raising your arm high in the air, tipping your head back, opening your mouth and disposing of the fillet of fish more or less in one go. The other most popular scenario is to have the fillet of “haring” served sandwich style in a small soft white bread roll, along with a dollop of the onions it has been perviously sitting in. As with the pervious method usually the tails of the haring have been left attached to the filet so the tail traditionally sticks out of one end of the bread roll.
By now, having read so far you are probably feeling one of two things: delight because this sounds like a delectable treat or revulsion because this all sounds more than a little disgusting.
I’m a foodie and even in my younger days I was not averse to trying a few new culinary dishes at least once (OK to be fair I have always drawn the line at offal, insects and anything that sounded more than a little wierd) and I also discovered that “trying new things” was sometimes the less than easy way to discover my multiple food allergies, after reactions and subsequent hospital visits. Some things apparently you have to learn the hard way and I lived to tell the tale.
So, harking back to my eighties Dutch visit, the haring season has just opened and my father has gleefully been down to the local fishmonger’s kiosk for a treat that has been absent from his diet since he emigrated to New Zealand. He has been looking forward to this a lot and so have his brothers and sisters that we are visiting and a handful of my cousins who have all gathered.
My Aunt’s and Uncles are busy me telling how they consider the first haring of the season the best so I am in for a treat.
The haring is unwrapped, I’m confronted with a rather strong smell of fish… now I like fish a lot, but this is raw and packed full of raw onion and a tad overwhelming. I tactfully negotiate that I take a small bite-sized piece rather than an entire fillet to try first.
Pinching one corner of the piece between two fingers I close my head back…. My father, mother, aunt’s, uncles and cousins do the same but with bigger pieces. I hear noises of culinary appreciation all around me. I haven’t joined them. Instead I’m standing there in panic thinking that this is the most disgusting, vile, awful thing I have ever tried to eat in my entire life, it’s smelly, slippery, I hate the taste and the texture and I’m now wondering how far I could spit it to get rid of it. I closed my eyes, ew, that just intensified the panic, I opened them again, my father is looking at me, telling me how good it is and holding out a bigger piece for me to take. I still don’t know how I can physically swallow the first piece.
In the end, since more of my relatives were now looking at me and it’s become clear that any attempt to sneakily eject the offending mouthful would be doomed to failure I did what I have never done before or since: I made one huge gulp and swallowed the piece of fish whole. Choking and gasping and trying not to wretch in the presence of company is never done with dignity, so my mother ended up thumping my back and handing me a glass of water.
“You need some practice” laughed my father, and offered me some more. I politely declined and admitted it “really wasn’t my thing“. He looked shocked and jokingly asked me if I was really his daughter? Certainly the rest of the family were also surprised and rather shocked that I didn’t adore this treat like they did.
Fast forward to the early 1990’s… I’ve met my Dutch husband to be and discovered that he’s a “haring” lover. He invites me to join him in a haring treat and I tell him about the nightmare taste experience etched into my memory. We make a pact: we have no secrets in our marriage with one exception: he’s most welcome to eat haring but please don’t do it around me, he has to brush his teeth five times before he kisses me next, I don’t want any sign that this slippery fish has passed his lips. We are both happy.
Now during the summer of 2012 I’m with my visiting Singaporean friend “Velvetine” in central Delft… there’s a fishmonger’ stall on the corner and haring to be tried. You can guess which delicacy she is excited about trying. I steel myself to take the photographs and look away as soon as I can. She’s more than delighted with the taste, …more power to her, but at least I won’t be kissing her later!