Amsterdam is a great city, and there’s not a lot to complain about living or visiting here–except perhaps the lack of diversity of the street food. However, with a few changes, the city is poised to become one of the world’s leading street-food destinations.
One of the unsung components of a healthy business and social ecosystem is a thriving street food scene–providing readily available, high-quality, affordable food. In the Netherlands, you can’t go far without bumping into a herring stand. In major cities in the western world, the hot dog/currywurst/sandwich stand has been a great urban asset for the past century. Whether you call it “street food” or “hawker food”, it’s hard to imagine a thriving metropolis without it.
In Southeast Asia, street food is everywhere and has been for centuries. It often takes the form of independently-owned stalls clustered together. Sometimes called “hawker centers”, these are permanent halls or covered plazas, with food stalls around the edge and a single seating area in the middle.
The Singaporean hawker center pictured above is centrally located in an urban setting, with independent chefs in each stall preparing their own signature dishes. In Singapore and Malaysia, these food courts are central to their communities. This is in stark contrast to the “food courts” that North America knows so well–usually in suburban shopping malls, populated with chains like Cinnabon and Sbarro.
CNN TV host, chef, and author Anthony Bourdain says hawker centers are one of the most important ingredients for a robust culture. They have energy, vibrancy, and a lack of pretentiousness, with people from all walks of life gathering to eat together, creating an environment conducive for business, networking, and casual socializing.
Recently, food trucks have taken off in the US, diversifying the food options and allowing for impromptu food court formations by “circling the wagons”. In the Netherlands, the annual Weekend of the Rolling Kitchens festival started 6 years ago, which brings 75 food truck vendors to Amsterdam in the spring for a weekend festival. And this past summer, every week you could find multiple food courts featuring new trucks and types of food.
On Wednesdays this summer, just across the River Ij from Amsterdam Central Station, a collective of food trucks gathered in front of the former Shell Oil office tower. The trucks drew a big crowd each week, using the outdoor tables and chairs already set up for the cafe in the bottom of the tower. Hungry people came out to lounge in the sun together while they enjoyed their food.
The food truck trend has even spread to more traditional places like Haarlem, just outside of Amsterdam. In August, the city hosted the first edition of ProefPark Haarlem, sort of a trial food festival featuring only food trucks. The weekend pilot was a success, with easily more than 10,000 people coming through to try out the different foods.
This is great in the summer, but given the cold and wet Dutch winter weather, getting under a common roof in a food hawker center setting would make it possible to have this style of street food year-round. It would also provide a permanent location and anchor for community and other related development around it.
At the large indoor street-market in the nearby industrial city of Beverwijk, there is a Singaporean-style food court. Its popularity, along with the recent success of the food trucks in Amsterdam, suggests that developing a Dutch-adapted, city-center indoor food court would find enthusiastic support.
The city of Rotterdam is already building a large indoor market hall in its central square, with offices and apartments on top. Using this building as a model, we could imagine what a modern light-filled Dutch food court could be like.
Along Amsterdam’s riverfront on the north side of the Ij, the former industrial docklands are slowly being transformed into a high-density city-center hub, and would be a perfect place for a permanent food court. And like the Singaporean food courts, it could be open late into the night, providing much-needed food options for the large-scale nightlife scene planned for the area.
The Netherlands is a hotbed of expat activity, and is famous around the world for its international orientation. These potential food courts would add to the appeal of Amsterdam as a top location for technology, design, and innovative companies, as well as entice the younger skilled expat workers that the city is trying so hard to attract. While we can’t change the Dutch weather to make al-fresco street food dining a year-round possibility, we can give it an indoor home.
Next up in this series: A more in-depth look at the details of a successful southeast asian food court.
Many thanks to John Giusto and Alex Pineda for contributing photos.