Any Dutch person can explain the preferred style of eating maatjesharing, or soused herring. They will instruct you to hold the small fish by its tail, coat it in chopped onions, lift the fish high in the air, tilt your head back, and lower the whole lot into your mouth. This gesture is as important to maatjesharing as the flavor itself.
Fish have been pickled, brined, smoked, and otherwise preserved all around the world for centuries. Initially, it was out of necessity. Fresh fish spoils easily, and it can be kept longer if coated in salt or suspended in vinegar. (While soused herring is never cooked with heat, the salt makes the fish an inhospitable environment for worrisome microbes.) But curing (preserving) fish also enhances its flavor, making cured fish an ideal snack. In the Netherlands, where soused (or mildly brined) herring is the fish of choice, people have developed a curious ritual around eating them.
While it is unclear where the the technique originated, it’s now commonly considered the proper way of eating maatjesharing. While uncooked fish may be an acquired taste, the herring does not actually have a strong flavor. Rather than pungent and fishy, it should smell fresh and taste lightly salty, with most of its flavor coming from its coating of onions. Nonetheless, slurping down a whole, silvery-gray, pickled fish is not for the squeamish. Perhaps that’s why the Dutch decided it was best consumed in one go.
Need to Know
Herring season starts in May or June and lasts several months. The season's commencement is celebrated on Vlaggetjesdag (Flag Day), a celebration that features fresh herring, traditional music and dress, and more. If you don't want to lower herring into your mouth from the skies, you can also enjoy herring in sandwiches.