Every country has its own form of fast food, food that you eat when you have no time or inclination to cook, when you are in a hurry, when you feel like nothing will do but a big helping of grease and meat and starchy foods. Britain has its fish and chips shops, Turkey has the döner kebab. Mexico has the taqueria and just in case the local cuisine had nothing to offer, the USA have exported their fast food restaurants all over the world. In the Netherlands, we have the snackbar.
Snackbars come in many shapes and sizes - and they may be called different names, as well. To be recognizable as a snackbar, an establishment should at the very least serve fries to take out - most of the rest is optional. In its most simple form, a snackbar might be just an old caravan with a hole in the side and some deep-frying facilities. A snackbar like that is very likely to be called a "snackkar", snack cart. On the other end of the spectrum, a snackbar might have actual places to sit down to eat and table service, serve soup and sandwiches and perhaps even have earthenware plates and actual knives and forks. A snackbar like that will most probably not be called a snackbar, but instead have a name like "brasserie" or "cafetaria". Do not be fooled though: if an establishment has a counter where you can buy fries to take out, it is still a snackbar, no matter what fancy name its owners thought up. (There is one exception to this rule: American-style fastfood restaurants. These are not known as snackbars, they are seen as a different category.) Your garden-variety snackbar will contain the following: a set of deep-fryers, a glass counter that also functions as a refrigerator and display case for the food items that are for sale, a tile floor and perhaps a few formica tables and plastic chairs.
As mentioned above, fries are the one thing that a snackbar can be counted upon to sell. Dutch fries are thicker than french fries but thinner than British chips, 1 centimeter thick is usual. Fries are called "patat" or "friet", both shortened dutchified versions of patates frites.
An alternative to normal fries is raspatat. Raspatat are fries made from pressed potato mash. A snackbar that sells this has a raspatat container hanging somewhere in the vicinity of their deep frier. Upon ordering, a lever will be pulled which expresses a bundle of potato mash "fries" from the underside of the container. These are cut off and deep fried just like normal fries. Raspatat is darker in color than normal fries and has a slightly different taste. The main difference is the structure: they are crisper on the outside and gooier on the inside.
Most people buy fries a portion at a time. To order fries for yourself, ask for "een patatje" (a small fry). Portions are served either in a square plastic dish that has a separate section for the sauce of your choice, or in a paper cone "puntzak"). You can eat the fries using your fingers or with a small plastic fork that is provided by the snackbar. Cones are easier to hold, but as they are deep and the sauce is put on top, messy fingers are guaranteed. On sunday evenings, many snackbars are busy with people getting food for their entire family. They tend to buy "patat voor vier" (fries for four) or they order a "zak patat" (bag of fries). Some snackbars sell buckets of fries ("emmer friet") for this reason, comparable to the buckets used for popcorn in cinemas.
Fries can be bought on their own, but usually you buy them with some kind of sauce. Common options are:
Mayonnaise. This is what the Dutch call "patat met", or fries with. The fact that this expression does not mention the actual sauce tells you enough about the popularity of the combination! Mayonnaise is the standard sauce to go with fries in the Netherlands. Yes, we actually do "drown them in that shit". Mayonnaise-for-fries is however not quite the same as the mayonnaise you would use on a sandwich or in a salad dressing, it is both a bit sweeter and a bit tangier.
Ketchup. Not nearly as popular as mayonnaise, but hey, whatever floats your boat.
Curry ketchup, also known as just "curry". (Yes, this does cause amusing misunderstandings when you try to talk about Indian food to the kind of Dutch person that thinks pizza is an exotic food). A vile concoction made of tomato ketchup and curry spices. Much loved by Germans and possibly even invented by them. Enough said.
Peanut sauce, "pindasaus" or "satésaus". In colonial times, the Dutch took over Indonesia. When Indonesia became independent, many people of mixed Dutch/Indonesian descent came to the Netherlands and they brought their cooking with them. From this a peculiar style of cooking emerged: Indonesian recipes made with Dutch ingredients and dried herbs and spices (because the fresh herbs could not be imported), and Dutch recipes made with an Indonesian twist. One of the things that still remind of this history is the fact that the Dutch eat lots of peanut sauce. The sauce is a blander version of an Indonesian sauce that was originally served with satay. The Dutch pour it over Indonesian-style dishes like satay and nasi goreng, but also on barbecue meat. And on fries. It is the only sauce in a snackbar that is served warm.
Apart from these standard options, a snackbar might have some other ones. You might find garlic sauce, for example. Once in a while a hype sauce comes along - at this moment many snackbars sell something they call "joppiesaus" (yoppee sauce). I've never tried this but it is a mixture of mayonnaise, curry spices and onion - in fact it's what you would get if you mixed up the sauces of a "patat speciaal". But we'll come to that.
You can of course order your fries with just one sauce, but for the adventurous-minded you could also combine two or more sauces. Many combinations have a name, but be careful when ordering because the names are different in different parts of the country. A "patat speciaal" (special fries) has mayonnaise, either ketchup or curry ketchup and chopped onions ("uitjes"). Fries with mayonnaise and peanut sauce are called "patat flip" in some parts of the country, "patat oorlog" (war fries) in other parts. If you replace the mayonnaise with garlic sauce, you get a "patat jihad". To add to the confusion, "patat oorlog" could also mean you get mayonnaise and curry ketchup and peanut sauce and chopped onions. Or the previous combination with ketchup added. (I wonder if you can still see the fries if you get all of that!) After World War II, some snackbars decided that "war fries" was not a good name for a snack, and renamed them "peace fries". Or "party fries". Freedom fries, anyone?
Other deep-fried items
Although the combinations of topping can get quite extreme, fries are of course nothing extraordinary. They are certainly not specifically Dutch. The thing that puts apart the Dutch snackbar from similar places in other countries is the selection of meat-based snacks that are available. In the counter-cum-showcase you will find displayed many mysteriously shaped items sporting different colours of breading, that will be deep fried for you on request. Some of the regularly found ones are:
Kroket. This is a sausage-shaped item, filled with a thick meaty sauce on the inside and a crunchy crust of breadcrumbs on the outside. The kroket exists in many types and qualities. The cheaper kind might contain hardly any meat at all, the really good ones have recognizable chuncks of meat inside. The most common kroket is made with beef. There are also varieties with veal or chicken, or with goulash or satay (yes! this does indeed mean a kroket filled with peanut sauce!). A kroket can be eaten on its own, with some mustard, or in a bun ("broodje kroket"). The inside stays hot for a long time and is rather fluid, so be careful when eating this.
Frikandel. A skinless sausage-type thing, made from ground meat, usually pork. When I was in primary school, many stories were told about the awful stuff that was used to make frikandellen: cows' eyes, udders, you name it. As it's in fact illegal to use these animal products in food for humans in the Netherlands, I suppose that the stories were untrue, but I've never eaten a frikandel nonetheless. They don't smell too good either, in my opinion. Many people enjoy a frikandel though, so I'm probably just a wimp. Frikandellen can be made from finely ground or more coarsely ground meat. They are usually served cut open along the length (some snackbars have a special tool for this) with mayonnaise or (curry) ketchup put inside the cut. A "frikandel speciaal" comes with mayonnaise, ketchup and chopped onion. A frikandel can also be ordered in a bun.
Kaassoufflé, or cheese soufflé. Why this is called a soufflé is something of a mystery, because there is nothing airy about it. A kaassoufflé as found in a snackbar is a thick slice of cheese in a layer of pastry. Breaded and deep-fried, of course. This is one of the few items suitable for vegetarians in a snackbar. It is also one of the most dangerous items, as the cheese inside is molten, very hot and prone to stick to your lips. Ouch.
- Berenklauw, bear claw. Also known as "berehap", bear bite. This is a largish meatball, sliced and put on a stick with slices of onion between the slices of meat. Usually served with peanut sauce.
Nasischijf, nasi slice. "Nasi" is short for nasi goreng, Indonesian fried rice. A nasischijf is an amount of nasi, shaped into a patty, breaded and deep-fried. The nasi that is used for a nasischijf is not very Indonesian in taste. Like peanut sauce it is a dutchified, more bland version of the original.
Bamibal, bami ball. Similar to the nasischijf, only made with fried noodles (bami) in stead of fried rice, and shaped like a ball.
Sitostick or kikastick. These consist of a skewer, on which chunks of chicken (sitostick) or turkey (kikastick) alternate with chunks of onion. The whole is dipped into a spicy batter. And then deep fried.
Mexicano. Similar to a frikandel, but more spicy and in a different shape: a rectangular slice of spicy ground meat.
There are many more items and variations on the ones mentioned above that can be found in a snackbar. The thing they have in common is that they're breaded, deep-fried and usually meat-based. There is one exception:
- Saté. Also known as sateh or satay. Neither breaded nor deep-fried, saté consists of marinated chunks of pork or chicken, threaded onto a skewer and cooked on a grill. Served with peanut sauce, what else? Saté can come with a white bun or with fries.
Food from the wall
Food from a snackbar really is the Dutch version of fast food, it is made to order and usually ready in a few minutes. Fries especially are often cooked in large batches, so that upon orderning all that needs to happen is for somebody to scoop some into a container and put some sauce on top. When it's quiet in a snackbar this is not feasible, as the fries will go cold and soggy before someone buys them. Even then fries are put into the fat as soon as you order and will be ready in five minutes or so. The same goes for any other product in a snackbar. For some people however, this is not fast enough. For those people the Dutch created the "automatiek", or automatic snack wall. This is the one part about a snackbar that's most mystifying to foreigners.
The snack wall is found mostly on train stations and in busy streets, where large quantities of people pass by and lines in front of the snackbar counter can grow very long. The snack wall is essentially a large collection of compartments in a wall, arranged in columns, with glass doors on both the inside and the outside. Snacks are put into the compartments and kept warm there. The doors on the outside (where the customers are) can be opened by inserting money into a slot above the column in which the snack of your choice lives. The procedure is then: choose snack, insert money, open door, take snack, eat. Much quicker than waiting for somebody to serve you. Generally though, snacks from the wall are not very fresh and therefore not as good as the ones made at your order. Also, fries are never sold from a wall as they don't keep long enough. (To see what a snack wall looks like, do an image search for "automatiek".)
You now know the basics to recognize a snackbar and find your way around the menu. Happy snacking!
Several people have pointed out that an automatiek is very similar to an American automat, and they do look very much the same. Two points of difference: an automatiek is usually part of a snackbar, not a thing by itself, and an automatiek is usually outside, not inside.