I’m at the home of long-time Dutch migrant Eveline Geerse who lives in Canberra’s southern suburb of Wanniassa.
She’s going to tell me – and more importantly – show me everything she knows about the Dutch street food “War Fries” . . . chips that come with a regular battlefield of toppings.
There are two streams of theory as to the origin of the intriguingly-named food – also known as “patat oorlog” in the north of Holland or “friet oorlog” in the south, close to the Belgian border (“oorlog” means war).
One of those is that World War One allied soldiers fighting in Belgium were introduced to a variety of chip and sauce combinations.
The French language spoken in restaurants and cafes is said to have given rise to the label “French Fries” for the deep-fried tin cut chips. More correctly, according to the probably apocryphal story, is they should probably have been called “Belgian Fries”.
Eveline says despite the origin stories for “French” fries (a subject of some debate), she believes “War Fries” have been more associated with northern Holland where her husband Martin comes from.
That’s all somewhat academic on this sunny winter’s day in Canberra as Eveline reveals the secrets behind War Fries.
“My father used to run a café in Hilvarenbeek near the Belgian border and we lived above it,” she says. “It was chips, chips, chips – all the time. In those days everything was done by hand. He was always peeling and cutting chips.”
Eveline says she started helping out as she got older and eventually moved into the hospitality industry.
“Every region and every café and restaurant have their own approach to serving chips, perhaps highlighting their own special sauce,” she says. “Peanut-based, satay sauces and curry sauces are very popular.”
Patat oorlog (also known as pataje oorlog) starts with hand-cut chips that are part cooked before a second deep fry gives them their golden colour and distinctive texture.
Two sauces are required for the dressing along with finely chopped onion.
Room-temperature mayonnaise is the first sauce; the second is a peanut sauce bulked out with peanut butter to provide the necessary stickiness that will cling to the chips. That is accented with chilli, olek sambal, sweet soy sauce and liquid seasoning.
The satay-style sauce has its origins in the former Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, whose influence on local cuisine has been as significant as India’s has on the British palate.
As befitting a street food, there isn’t much science to it. The chips are placed in a basket, bowl or paper cup; a dollop of mayonnaise is plopped on top; the peanut sauce lands with a “glop” and the chopped onions arrive alongside.
There is no etiquette to eating the chips.
“Just use your fingers,” Eveline encourages. “Try to get a bit of everything on your chip”.
I manage to daub the biggest chip I can find with mayonnaise and peanut sauce and pebble it with onion. And in it goes.
What’s neat is there is something going on other than just fat and fries.
There are the contrasting temperatures of the two sauces. One has a smooth texture, the other slightly sticky. Then there is the bitterness and the crunch of the raw onion before the skin of the chip is breeched. That’s the signal for the whole concoction to merge together for “mouth happiness”.
An on-hand beer provides the right liquid companion.
“Patat oorlog is a popular drinking dish – before, during and after,” says Eveline with a laugh.
I think the “war” name comes from the fact that pretty soon the whole plate looks like a battlefield with chips, sauces and onion all over the place.
I can’t argue with that – mine is now a swirl of sauces that could resemble the muddy battlefields of Flanders with the odd chip breaking through, like a bombed shard of tree stump, while sporting chunks of onion shrapnel.
It is compellingly addictive: a good conversation, a cold beer and a bowl of hot chips that you can dunk into tasty sauces. They might be “War Fries”, but I’m at peace with the world.
I take my leave. Three hours later, I’m still pleasantly full and thinking the Dutch have been fooling us into believing they were just good at cheese.
Around the world in a bowl of chips
Belgium: Just across the border, Belgians like their chips with a variety of sauces, but are most closely connected with mayonnaise.
France: Remoulade, a sauce with a mayonnaise base that can be flavoured with horseradish, curry, pickles, anchovies and other flavourings, is a very popular accompaniment.
United Kingdom: Once upon a time, the Brits loved their chips with salt and vinegar, but these days the multicultural influence has seen curry sauce become a contender for favourite pairing.
Canada: A delightful mix of gravy and cheese curds creates a mess called poutine that goes just right with fries.
Poutine is said to have originated in the French-Canadian province of Quebec in 1957 when restaurateur Fernand Lachance was asked by a customer to make a dish combining fries and cheese. He eventually put the well-received dish on his menu and now, with the addition of gravy to help melt the fresh cheese curds, it's an adored snack throughout the country with many variations and even has its own festival.
Japan: A dry seasoning mix is often offered for customers to shake over their fries. The mixture contains flavours made from dried soy, seeds, seaweed and spice mixtures.
Philippines: Perhaps the most unusual – a banana ketchup. It’s said to have developed during a tomato shortage when US soldiers were stationed in the region during World War 2. Banana was mashed with vinegar, sugar and spices created an excellent ketchup substitute that is still popular today.