Belgium - Food Diaries

Sunday, March 13, 2016 Books And Trips

From historical riches to architectural gems, Belgium has it all - but if you're not interested in any of them, the foods & drinks will make you change your mind about this destination. It is said that Belgian food is served in the quantity of German dishes (true), but with the quality of French cuisine (also true).

Be warned though, food in Belgium is the nemesis of all diets - think fries, fresh seafood, puffy waffles, velvety chocolate goodness and probably the best beer in the world. Typical Belgian dishes include lots of potatoes, leeks, shrimp, white asparagus, Belgian endives, in addition to international staples like meat, cheese and butter.

On my most recent trip to Brussels and Bruges I made it a point to sample everything Belgium is famous for. Luckily, it was winter, so I didn't feel too guilty about it, knowing I have until summer to sweat off all the beer and chocolate. Not kidding! 

What were my favorite bites of Belgian goodness?

1. Fries - they're called French Fries everywhere in the world, but Belgians insist they were the ones who invented them. There are historical sources claiming that residents of this part of the world fried their potatoes ever since the 1680s, but the misconception about their name stems from the fact that American World War I soldiers thought they were being served fried potato chips in France, and not in Belgium. Here, fries are all over town, sold at fast food stands or in special restaurants called "friteries". Traditionally, they are served in a cone shaped white piece of cardboard, then wrapped in a piece of paper with the sauce on the top. Favorite sauces: mayo, ketchup, bearnaise. What makes these fries so special? Probably the fact that they are cooked in animal fat, giving them a distinct flavor. We've enjoyed them almost with every meal and we could not get tired of them - totally unhealthy, but who cares when you're on vacation?

2. Moules Frites - also known as cooked mussels. If you've been following me for a while, you know I have a thing for seafood, so it's no surprise that this was one of my go to dishes in Belgium. The mussels are steamed or cooked with onions and celery and they are served with fries, of course. This is said to be the national food of Belgium, but it's also popular in the neighboring France, and everywhere in Northern Europe. The portions are huge - it took two persons to finish the feast below. There are different varieties all over Belgium, my personal favorites being moules mariniers, cooked with white wine, shallots, parsley and butter and moules a l'ail, cooked with sliced or minced garlic. My favorite restaurant serving this dish was Chez Leon, in Brussels, but you can definitely find them everywhere.

3. Carbonade Flamande - the Belgian version of Beef Bourguignon, a savory beef stew, with vegetables, cooked with beer, instead of wine and served with bread or fries and mustard. It goes down best accompanied by a dark beer, and it is considered one of their national dishes, along with the moules frites.

4. Chicons au gratin - was my favorite side dish, aside from the fries. This is made with Belgian endives, topped with a cheesy crust and smothered in bechamel sauce. Sometimes the endives are wrapped with ham, mine weren't but they tasted very good. Belgian endives have a slight bitterness to them, but combined with the cheese and sauce they were actually delicious!

5. Waffles - if you go to Belgium, you have to try their waffles. I like waffles in general, I used to buy them from the store, or have my mom make them for me when I was younger, but the ones I had in Belgium win by any comparison. They are so fluffy and airy, that it feels like you're eating a cloud. Waffles are available on every street corner and you can top them with chocolate, fresh fruit, chantilly (cream) or caramel sauce. The best known varieties are Brussels waffles (light, crisp and of rectangular form) and Liege waffles (richer, denser, sweeter and chewier). The best ones we had were at the Waffle Factory, but Brussels & Bruges were full of street vendors, so you will not find yourself on a shortage of snacks.

6. Chocolate - you cannot say you went to Belgium and did not engorge yourself with chocolate, that just can't be true. This country is famous for the high quality chocolate, with over 2000 manufacturers competing to make the best chocolate in the world. Belgium's love affair with chocolate goes back as far as 1635, when the country was under Spanish occupation. By the 1750s, chocolate became very popular in upper and middle class circles, where it was consumed in the form of hot chocolate. From the early 20th century, Belgium started to import large quantities of cocoa from Congo, it's African colony, which led to a booming industry, and the invention of the chocolate bar and the praline. Chocolate is now one of the country's most lucrative industries, with 175.000 tonnes produced yearly, most of which for export purposes. One of my favorite things in Belgium was window shopping for chocolate, but if you are looking for the best brands, go for Godiva or Leonidas.

7. Beer - together with fries, waffles and chocolate, beer is one of the things that literally puts Belgium on the map of food lovers. The Belgians are fond of their beers, producing many different styles and this is not a surprise since their brewing tradition goes way back, to the Middle Ages, when monasteries used to produce beer to fund their upkeep. Most beers are served in bottles, not cans, and almost every style of beer has its specific glass, meant to improve your drinking experience. Belgian beers are supposed to be associated with food, just like wine. For example, if you eat seafood or fish you should pair it with Wheat beer, Blonde or Tripel beers work best with eel, chicken or white meat, Dubbel and other dark beers go with beef and dark meets and Fruit Lambics are most suitable for desert. We did not care about these rules, and I can say my favorite beer was the Morte Subite, a fruity beer, made of raspberry, cherry or even peach. The masculine side of the trip enjoyed Zinnebir, a golden blonde, malty, with a fine bitterness and a long aftertaste.

Over to you! 

Have you ever been to Belgium? 

And if you did, what was your favorite food?