The Dutch don't fuss over breakfast. As complicated variations on avocado toast take over American breakfast tables, people in the Netherlands start each day with a simple, open-faced sandwich made with butter and one other topping. Sometimes that topping is cheese or ham. But just as often it's candy sprinkles called hagelslag. It isn't junk food—it's European, which means hagelslag may even be a counterintuitive path to weight loss and well-behaved children. Hagelslag comes in an assortment of flavors and colors that essentially boil down to chocolate, fruit, or anise. Though it looks like something you'd find on a kid's birthday cake or Homer Simpson's doughnut, hagelslag isn't as waxy or sweet as the jimmies in the baking aisle of an American market. Usually, hagelslag is sprinkled on top of bread or a twice-baked biscuit, with butter to make it stick.
Chocolate is the most popular—and best—type of hagelslag. By Dutch law, it must be a minimum of 35 percent cacao, so it has the flavor and heft of tiny pieces of real chocolate. (A Hershey bar, for comparison, is 11 percent cacao. If the percentage is below 35 percent, it must be called “cacao fantasy hagelslag.”) Chocolate hagelslag on buttered bread is less sweet than Nutella, with a satisfying crunch. Have it on peanut butter or add banana slices, and chocolate hagelslag is a downright sensible breakfast. On the other hand, the anise and fruit flavors of hagelslag are brittle and sugary, despite being made with real anise seeds or fruit juice. If crushing Lucky Charms or black licorice on top of toast sounds good to you, then this could be your new thing.
To an American palate, the anise flavor may be the least appealing of the bunch—but it's the most culturally significant. Hagelslag wouldn't exist if it weren't for the importance of anise seed in 15th-century Holland. The Dutch sprinkled sugared anise seeds on rusk bread in the 1400s to celebrate a baby's baptism and ward off famine. The sugar was often dyed pink using beets. Anise was a symbol of fertility believed to stimulate lactation. It was also cheap and plentiful.
In the 1800s, confectioners turned the homespun custom into a commercial product. Candy-covered anise seeds, called muisjes or "little mice," are still a traditional way to welcome a baby: white and pink for a girl, or white and blue for a boy. To honor a royal birth, special-edition muisjes are issued in white and orange, the color of Dutch royalty.
A crazy hail storm in 1919 inspired the Venco licorice factory to transform this tradition into an everyday bread topping. Hagelslag means "hail storm" in Dutch. Soon after Venco began shipping the product to bakeries and grocery stores, the crunchy, white anise sprinkles became a popular breakfast staple. Soon chocolatiers DeRuijter and Venz followed suit with fruit and chocolate flavors.
I grew up eating hagelslag. My mom's family moved to Southern California in the late 1960s, along with an influx of other Dutch-Indonesian immigrants. Dutch markets filled the area and a delivery van with Dutch products would visit our homes weekly. They all closed shop by the time I was a teenager. Aside from European specialty stores and Dutch relatives, Cost Plus and Amazon are the only reliable ways to find hagelslag. In a pinch, I've seen people chop up a chocolate bar and sprinkle it on toast. Hagelslag is that important to Dutch kids and adults alike.
When I introduced hagelslag to my friends at a sleepover for my 10th birthday, they couldn't believe my mom let us eat candy for breakfast. That was how I felt at their houses when I'd get a big bowl of Froot Loops or Cocoa Puffs. I still can't stand sugary cereal, but hagelslag tastes like home.