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Due to Dutch history, there is a large segment of the population with roots in Suriname. I wanted to do something different here as a way of introducing my readers to Surinamese food, its history, the best Surinamese dishes to try, and most importantly where to find good Surinamese food in the Netherlands. However, I’m not from Suriname and it is important to let others’ voices be heard, so I’ve interviewed an expert.
During my first weeks in the Netherlands, I ended up at a Surinamese cafe in the Indische Buurt. I was fascinated by the complex flavors although I knew little about the history behind the food. Since then, I’ve become quite taken with Surinamese food and I hope that you can learn about its origins and what to order. For those who know little about Suriname, Suriname is a former Dutch colony in South America that is now an independent country that sits above Brazil and east of Guyana.
Recently, I sat down with Pernell and a mutual friend, Wendy. Pernell was born in Suriname and has spent his life living between the two countries. He returned to the Netherlands in the 2000s, however he still goes back to Suriname to see family and friends. A mutual friend helped us meet over a lovely meal. I’ve condensed this interview that we held over a delicious meal at Warung Mini.
How would you describe Surinamese food?
That’s a hard question! A lot of people assume that Suriname has one culture, but this is far from being the case due to Suriname’s history and the mix of people who live in Suriname. As a result, you don’t have a single dish that best represents Suriname.
The best way to try Surinamese food is to have a small taste of each culture in Suriname. You have multiple cultures within Suriname that coexist, including Creole, Chinese, Javanese, Indian, and the native population.
In the Netherlands, restaurants typically only serve one type of Surinamese cuisine, so ideally you could get something from each restaurant….then enjoy it all together with a group. In Suriname, you are seeing more of the younger generation fusing these traditions together in an innovative way, but this isn’t the case in the Netherlands yet.
Editor’s note: A brief explanation of Surinamese history
Suriname was first inhabited by the native Americans. The first European explorers to come to the Guianas were Dutch and Spanish, however the first colonization attempt was made by the English. As early as 1663, there were plantations with forced labor. In 1667, the Dutch had a very brief battle with the English and took over Suriname in the Treaty of Breda, which gave the British New Amsterdam (now New York).
At this point, Suriname was set up as a corporation where profits went to the city of Amsterdam, a wealthy Dutch family, and the Dutch West India Company. During this time, African slaves were brought to work in the plantations. This arrangement lasted almost one hundred years, however trade as well as the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom (and next the Netherlands) in the early 1800s changed Suriname.
In order to supply labor to plantations, slaves were not released until after ten years of work following the abolition of slavery in Suriname almost fifty years after the slave trade stopped in the Netherlands. At this time, Javanese workers from Indonesia (a Dutch colony at the time) as well as indentured labourers from India were brought to Suriname.
Suriname remained a Dutch colony until the Netherlands promised to provide autonomy for its former colonies in the post-war period. In 1975, Suriname became an independent country, however the Netherlands still has a large population of Surinamese descent with over 350,000 residents!
What are typical dishes from each group in Suriname?
There are so many cultures in Suriname. As I mentioned, there’s not a single Surinamese dish, but multiple ones. (Editor’s note: Pom, a root vegetable that is sweet and tastes similar to a sweet potato is a popular side with Surinamese dishes along with cassava, which is baked or fried similar to frites.)
In the Javanese Surinamese tradition, you have popular dishes like telo, saoto (chicken soup with noodles and vegetables that often can be made with a plant-based broth), nasi, and bami.
Nasi is delicious fried rice that is made with ketjap (a typical Indonesian condiment), ginger, pepper, and onions. Bami is a spicy, delicious noodle that is made with soy sauce, garlic, and peppers that comes from the Javanese tradition. A common ingredients in Surinamese Javanese food is shrimp paste as well as ketjap (sweet soy sauce).
Editor’s note: At our meal at a Javanese restaurant, we ordered telo terie (described below), saoto soup (a savory chicken soup with noodles and vegetables, telo bakkeljauw (cod that is fried and sugared with cassava), bakabana (fried bananas with peanut sauce), and petjel (a mix of vegetables with a peanut sauce [the Surinamese take on gado gado in Indonesian food]).
From Surinamese Indian food, you have bara (often found on the snack portion of the menu). Bara is like a Surinamese doughnut, however you can cut it open to eat it with fillings or spices inside or just by itself. Roti is the most famous Surinamese Indian dish, which is often served with potatoes, vegetables, and/or meat inside. Similarly, you have samosas. The use of masala spices is typical.
From Chinese Surinamese food, you have a lot of Cantonese influence. One famous dish is moksi meti, a dish made with pork that is sliced. Similarly, nasi and bami are popular.
From the Surinamese Creole tradition, you’ll find dishes like herie herie (described below), moksi alesi, and the use of root vegetables.
Although I’ve never found either of these in the Netherlands, the native population of Suriname has their own recipes as well. A popular drink that is an alcohol is made with cassava with a sour flavor. Similarly, you can also make a cake from ground cassava that is served with coconut.
My top 5 Surinamese dishes that I recommend
One of my favorite dishes of all time is herie herie. It’s of Portuguese descent, but it is part of the Surinamese Creole tradition. (My mom’s is the best!) It’s made with cooked cassava, banana, and potatoes. It’s basically pure carbs, but it’s so good….
I love Telo Terie, which is made of small salted fish that is fried with all kinds of spices and sugar. It’s served with cassava, so you want to eat them together. Not everyone likes it as it’s an “acquired taste”, but it’s my favorite. (Editor’s note: I was really surprised by how much I loved this dish!)
Roti doksah is one of my favorites. It’s roti made with duck.
Moki Alesi is mixed Surinamese rice dish with beans and vegetables.
There’s this soup called cassavae bravoe that is made with Surinamese dried fish, cassava, peppers, online, garlic, tannia spinach, bouillon cubes (Maggie brand), and other ingredients.
Where can you find the best Surinamese food in the Netherlands?
In the Hague, you can find great Javanese, Chinese, and Indian Surinamese food. (We ended up visiting Warung Mini, a popular Javanese Surinamese restaurant that always has a line.) A great place to buy ingredients for Surinamese food is at the Haagse Markt (the Hague market).
For Creole Surinamese food, I usually go to Amsterdam or Rotterdam, where you have many options. In Amsterdam, my favorite restaurant is Draver (New Draver Restaurant).
Are there vegetarian and vegan options with Surinamese food?
Yes, there are many options for vegetarian and vegans! Petjel, roti, tempeh, bami, nasi, and telo (only with cassava; it can be cut like fries) are great vegetarian options.
If you’re vegan, you need to be careful when it comes to shrimp paste, which is a common ingredient with Javanese Surinamese food. Just ask and it should be possible at most Surinamese restaurants. For saoto, it is possible to get this as a vegan dish if it is made with a plant-based broth.
What do you feel like people miss out on when it comes to Surinamese food and culture?
We love to share. Surinamese food is about your surroundings, the way that it’s served, who you’re with, and shared dining. In Suriname, we love to eat outside with friends. Food is typically served shared.
Of course, you can get Surinamese ingredients in the Netherlands, but it’s the way that you do it. The best way to experience Surinamese culture is go out with a group of friends and order a lot of snacks/dishes to share.
One of the first questions that my mother always asks me about my birthday is “How was the food?” In Suriname, we want our guests to eat well. At a birthday party, you typically have a food spread, like a buffet. The host typically has takeaway containers ready, so that their guests can bring home the food with them to enjoy after the party.
What is a typical Surinamese dessert?
(We enjoyed some delicious bananas with peanut sauce, so I asked Pernell about whether he’d consider this dessert. He noted that a fried banana doesn’t necessarily count as dessert, no matter how indulgent it feels)
Something sweet is usually enough. If you want something typically Surinamese for dessert, try flensje. This is something like a pancake with sweet coconut.
Editor’s note: I hope that this little guide inspired you to try Surinamese food (or a new dish!). You can commonly stop off at Surinamese restaurant for a delicious and affordable dinner for take-out to enjoy outside or to bring back to your accommodations.
Similarly, you can often stop off around lunch at many Surinamese restaurants and tokos for delicious sandwiches (translation: broodje)! I recommend carrying cash as many restaurants do not accept foreign credit cards. (Dutch Maestro is often the only card accepted.)