An exotic stroll through the colonial history of Amsterdam

In the 17th century, the Golden Era of the Netherlands when it controlled world markets, sailors would often anchor and stay onshore only for a few hours. In order not to lose their precious loot, they would carry their acquired treasures with them to the pubs of Amsterdam. Here, however, frequently after a few shots of Jenever, a typical Dutch gin, they fell asleep in the bar. When they did not have enough money to pay the bill, they would often give the bar owner a parrot or an ape, says the bartender in Int Aepjen at Zeedijk 1 street, right across from the main train station. This pub has a specific atmosphere that will immediately take you to that time of overseas expeditions and the conquering of new lands, or in other words, to the colonial era. “We still say “I was At the Ape’s”, having spent the whole night out looking through the bottom of a glass”, adds the bartender.

Although the Golden Era is now just another chapter in its long history, even today we can trace the colonial influence in Amsterdam. Reminders of the Dutch colonies abound beyond the ivory frames on Rembrandt paintings and the blue and white Dutch porcelain; massive dock depots full of coconuts, citrus fruit, spiced teas and a variety of herbs, century-old shops that have been selling exotic fruits since time immemorial as well as oriental restaurants lining the streets along the famous Grachten. And last but not least, there is this passion with which the Dutch grow their tulips a passion that they fell into way back in the early 17th century when the first bulbs of this beautiful flower were imported from Asia.

A fusion of nations on the streets

However this colonial influence is the most visible on the streets of Amsterdam: people whose ancestors came from Surinam, Indonesia or the Dutch Antilles, create typical street scenes in this “Venice of the North”. Its rich marine history has led to a remarkable cultural variety. The thriftiness of the Dutch and the sense of home intertwine with the colonial abundance and the richness of colours, which, to a considerable extent, contributes to the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the capital city. “Amsterdam is a multicultural municipal village”, says our guide Bregtje Viergever-Michels about her capital city. Amsterdam’s centre does really have a village feel, but its residents are tolerant towards otherness and are open to variety. “This we owe to the 17th century merchants”, adds Bregtje. “If they wanted to do business with the Far East countries, they had to be open to them”.

Spicy smells and sweet and sour tastes

You can feel the colonial influence the most when you taste local dishes. The Kjantil en de Tyger restaurant (at Spuistraat 291-293), furnished in rare tropical wood, charms with its friendly staff and tasty spicy meals influenced by Indonesian cuisine. Dutch conquerors also brought a festive Indonesian dish to Europe, the Rijsttafel (rice table). It consists of 15 to 30 smaller portions of foods, all served with rice. Every visitor to the Netherlands should taste Rijsttafel without hesitation.

For several years now a new type of mixed Asian cuisine has been making its way into Amsterdam. Some fine colonial foods are on the menu at Avi’s Roti Shop (Kloveniersburgwal), where you can try Roti, a specialty from Surinam it is a variation of the pancake, which is filled with strongly spiced meat. The colonial taste definitely also comes in the Speculaas, biscuits with Asian spices such as cinnamon, and nutmeg. Speculaas is available at nearly every good bakery.

Amsterdam is currently the world’s biggest cocoa port. A thought you will definitely remember when you try a piece of Puccini (Staalstraat 17) 70% cocoa content chocolate. Simply a divine treat!

However should you prefer the delicious taste of tea, go to Geel’s (Warmoesstraat) where there is an amazingly wide selection: from Assam through to Earl Grey, the aroma and tastes of the colonial classics filling the air.

The Jacob Hooy pharmacy (Nieuwmarkt) with its antique trading room with original furniture dating from 1743 today still sells aromatic spices and other colonial items. You may be forgiven that something was amiss standing in a pharmacy selling spices. However the explanation: At that time spices were taken onboard ships as medicine, given by the chatty pharmacist whilst standing in a room saturated with the smell of nutmeg, ginger, curry, and cloves settles the matter.

The renowned P.G.C. Hajenius (Rokin 92-96) is a special shop devoted to tobacco. The Art-deco styled cigar house is a heaven on earth for cigar smokers. In one air-conditioned room you can find a wide selection from the prettiest cigarillos to Grand Finales on display, while in the private VIP section even the former boss of the European Central Bank Wim Duisenberg has established his personal storage of Hajenius cigars.

Clearly, Amsterdam’s colonial history is hidden in many other places as well. The past exotic discoveries from abroad still burn more or less intensely today and it is up to the individual visitor as to whether they follow the exotic traces of the Dutch ancestors. This is just the beginning of the discovery of the long list of attractions that day after day continues to grow bigger with new influences from throughout the world.

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