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Go to any Dutch ‘borreltje’ (drinks), party or celebration and you’ll almost certainly be served ‘bitterballen’ along with your favourite tipple. Yet there is actually much more to these delicious and incredibly popular Dutch snacks than first meets the eye and the humble bitterbal enjoys a decidedly colourful history!
‘Bitterballen’ literally means ‘bitter balls’ in Dutch. The name refers not to the tasty titbit itself, but rather to a particularly tart drink that they were traditionally served with, known as ‘Bittertje’. Also known as ‘Dutch Dippers’, bitterballen are deep fried meatballs, made from minced meat (usually beef, but sometimes veal or chicken), beef broth, flour, butter, parsley, salt and pepper. The ingredients are first cooked together in a pan to form a rich ragout, which is then placed in the fridge until it becomes firm. Next, the ragout is rolled into round balls of approximately 3 to 4 cm in diameter and coated with a blend of egg, milk and breadcrumbs. Finally, the bitterballen are deep fried until a crisp, golden brown and served with a ramekin of Dutch mustard such as Groninger.
The dish is originally thought to have developed as an effective way to use up leftovers from typical Batavian meals as long ago as 200 years BC. Leftover meat, such as roast ox, was regularly mixed with broth and bread to form a filling stew that could be eaten at a later date or taken on hunting trips. During the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands, in the late 16th and early 17th century, Spanish soldiers are reputed to have transformed this dish into a type of tapas by breading and frying the mixture. The first bitterballen, as we know and love them today, were said to have been prepared by the wife of an Amsterdam pub landlord, Jan Barendz, during the Dutch Golden Age. She made the bitterballen according to a refined version of the Spanish adaptation and served them with bittertje, beer and jenever in an effort to prevent their patrons from leaving when they got hungry. Today bitterballen can be enjoyed in the Netherlands, Belgium and some of the former Dutch colonies including the Dutch Antilles, Indonesia and Surinam. And although the Spanish were credited with introducing the Dutch to tapas, they didn’t take their lovely bitterballen recipe with them back to Spain!
These days bitterballen are made in a variety of different ways and can include a whole host of additional or alternative ingredients, such as nutmeg or curry powder to give them a unique twist. The standard bitterballen recipe remains the most popular, however, and is extremely similar to that of ‘kroketten’, another favourite Dutch delicacy. In fact, the only noticeable difference is their shape and size – kroketten are generally much bigger and are long and rectangular, instead of round.