There's at least one food truck on every street corner these days, but driving around with a cart full of edible items is hardly a new concept. Being a food vendor in the Netherlands has been an occupation here since 1850. Roasted chestnuts, fish, and pastries used to be sold on the street. Pickled items such as onions and cucumbers were sold from traditional Amsterdam pickle carts. Jewish vendors from five different families sold the pickled vegetables with their signature sweet-and-sour tastes in their neighborhoods, traveling rain or shine to supply the entire city.
And yet one of those founding families, De Leeuw, is still going strong today.
Things have dramatically changed though since the family began their business, as they swapped hawking their pickles on the street for a storefront in Rivierenbuurt, an Amsterdam neighborhood. "Starting in the 60s, the roads became too busy from there on out. Cars honked behind the carts, so we wanted to find a brick-and-mortar location. The times simply caught up with us," says Fred de Leeuw, the fourth-generation pickle seller.
Fred tells me that the pickle carts were born out of need in a time of great poverty. To make sure that seasonal produce was available year-round, many types of fruits and vegetables were pickled.
The fruit and vegetables—pearl onions, shallots, and cucumbers, for example–are put on salt until they can't absorb anymore. At this point, they are considered "afgeflauwd," the process of getting the right level of saltiness. Then, the "opgiet" follows, the critical moment when wine vinegar and a secret blend of spice are added, which will determine the signature taste. Depending on the size of the fruit or vegetable, this process takes at least six weeks.
According to Fred, the combination of sweet and sour is what makes their product so unique. "The Jewish kitchen leans towards sweetness because of things like the fruit sugars in wine. That is our trademark: a sweet treat with a sour note."
The cooking process hasn't changed in 165 years, so much so that everything is sold exactly as it was back in the day when the De Leeuw's were still operating their carts. "We run the store with old merchants permits which means that we don't have to weigh anything. We sell everything per scoop or per unit," Fred explains.
In recent years, the family has added some experimental items to the menu, such as pesto, mustard pickles, pickled grapes, and olives.
In Dutch Jewish homes, at dinnertime, there is always something pickled on the table. "It's not the main dish, but something to go with the rest of the food," says Fred. "The sour neutralizes and resets your taste buds in a way," Monique continues. The onions and pickles that were made during times of famine and food shortages have moved outside of the traditional Yiddish kitchen. At restaurants like Rijks in the famous Rijksmuseum, chef Joris Bijdendijk adds sour notes to some of his dishes, while chef Dennis Kuipers of Vinkeles in the Dylan Hotel likes to cook with pickled grapes.
Is the love for sweet-and-sour foods typically Jewish or really just an Amsterdam thing? "The unique, sweet taste makes it Jewish, but Judaism and Amsterdam go hand in hand," says Fred, as he proudly looks onto his pickled products.