Recipe Box: Bitterballen


Every year around the holiday season, my mother used to make bitterballen. These little morsels are a savoury Dutch meat snack that (in our household at least) disappeared faster than Mom could make them.

In the Netherlands, bitterballen are served as bar snacks alongside alcohol. (A direct translation of bitterballen would be “balls to eat with bitters.”) I’ve had tapas in Spain that look exactly like bitterballen but are made with fish. (Which makes me wonder if the Spanish introduced the snack to the Low Countries. You know, back when they were the boss of them between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries?)

Another version of the same Dutch snack in cylinder form are called kroketten (croquettes). These you can buy for a couple of euros in vending machines all over the Netherlands. You can imagine our delight when my brother and sisters and I saw kroketten so readily available on our first ever trip to Holland as kids. Christmas treats in a vending machine!?! How cool was that?

There’s a story behind the first time I made bitterballen myself. I was going to a party hosted by an Italian-Canadian friend of mine where there would be many other Italian-Canadians, and I wanted to bring something special. Now, I have to confess that, as a child of Dutch immigrants, I didn’t always like identifying myself as Dutch-Canadian. I would firmly tell my mother when she insisted I was Dutch that I was not. I was just a plain Canadian. No hyphens, please.

But back to the party. Hanging out with my Italian-Canadian friends had shown me a group of Canadians who completely and firmly embraced their heritage in a way that I had not been comfortable doing. Following their example, I decided it was time for me to embrace my heritage. And so, I brought a plate of bitterballen to the party and proudly placed them on the table beside the cannelloni and tiramisu.

The bitterballen were a hit and I’ve made them every Christmas since, sharing them with my friends of all ethnic origins. I find it ironic that it took a bunch of Italian-Canadians to help me appreciate my Dutchness, but there it is. I’m grateful to them for it.

Eet smakelijk!


2 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, chopped
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon curry powder
2 cups ground cooked meat*
1 1/2 cups grated Gouda cheese**
2 eggs***
2 tablespoons water
1 1/2 cups bread crumbs
vegetable oil

1. Melt butter in a saucepan.
2. Sauté onion in the butter until soft.
3. Add flour, blend well, and cook for 1 minute.
4. Slowly add the milk. Cook until thickened, stirring constantly.
5. Add parsley, salt, Worcestershire sauce, curry powder, cooked meat, and cheese. Cook for another 5 minutes, then allow mixture to cool.
6. Mix the eggs and water together in a small bowl, and pour the bread crumbs into a second small bowl.
7. Shape the cooled meat mixture into small bite-sized balls about an inch in diameter.
8. Roll the balls in bread crumbs, the egg-and-water mixture, and bread crumbs again. (If you intend to freeze them, use three coats of bread crumbs.) Chill balls for at least an hour.
9. Heat the vegetable oil in a small sauce pan, then fry the bitterballen until golden brown (about 2 minutes). Drain on paper towels, and serve with your favourite mustard for dipping.

*Ground roast beef is traditional, but use whatever type of meat or seafood you fancy. My mother used ground beef because there was rarely leftover roast beef in our home, and I do the same.
**Mom didn’t add Gouda cheese, but the recipe I use does and I like the flavour. The cheese also gives the meat mixture a firmer consistency for rolling.
***I find I usually need more than 2 eggs. Simply add another egg and tablespoon of water to the bowl as needed.

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