As the days are getting darker and colder (ewww, I know) and the need for comfort food increases, you may have already noticed these popping up around Utrecht like autumn mushrooms: stands that sell oliebollen. Essentially, these sweets are sort of like spherical donuts (they translate to oil balls) with raisins, fruit or sometimes booze inside (or without, but in my opinion that’s your loss) that Dutch people traditionally eat on and around New Years’ eve. When I was little, we would always have them at my grandparents’ house (and I still very much believe that the taste of these OG oliebollen is unbeatable), and nowadays they remind me so much of the mandazi I miss from home (fun fact: many different places in the world have their own version of this pastry). In other words, I love oliebollen enough to dedicate multiple trains of thought a day to their existence :)
When walking through the city center the other day, I was suddenly struck by the overpowering whiff of deep-fried holiness, so I decided to follow my nose to a stand at the Neude, absolutely high on aromatic nostalgia. Unfortunately, I came across quite the opposite feeling soon enough.
Don’t get me wrong, this place was wonderful when it came to all the baked goods they sold: appelbeignets, chocolate-covered waffles, tiny pancakes (poffertjes), churros, deep fried cakes and the like. The only problem was that after placing my order with an English-speaking mate, the woman that fried our oliebollen started talking shit to her coworker about how “tOo MaNy PeOpLe ArE uNwiLliNg To LeArN tHe NaTivE tOnGuE aFtEr MoViNg To tHe NeThErLaNdS”. I pretended not to notice but was fuming inside. Seriously? It was bad enough to me that they were complaining about immigrants in 2021, but couldn’t this conversation wait until we left?
Coincidentally, I had just learned about assimilation theory in my Social Inequality class, so eventually decided to confront them about this, in Dutch (wow, plot twist alert; I bet she did not expect me to understand anything that was just said). After telling her that it’s rude to speak about customers while they are literally waiting right in front of the stall, she flushed red, half-threw the bag of treats my way, and mumbled something grumpy, then shouted “NEXT!” even though there was no-one else around… So much for associating the road to oliebollen with happy childhood memories.
No worries though, the family-owned stand at the Vredenburgplein has much kinder employees. Despite my run-in with slight discrimination, I hope all internationals at least try a fresh oliebol during your time in Utrecht, though I cannot guarantee they’ll be as lekker as the ones my opa and oma make. And in the end, I truly think the reward of biting into one of those steaming-hot, powdered-sugar-coated balls of frittered dough always outweighs the fleeting adversity of unsatisfactory customer service, and a bit of Dutch xenophobia is sadly just part of that holistic cultural experience.