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Now reading A Beginner’s Guide to Belgian Food

A Beginner’s Guide to Belgian Food

You love their waffles and probably know that they eat their French fries with mayonnaise—now it’s time to round out your Belgian food knowledge.

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Belgium is home to three distinct regions—Dutch-speaking Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia, and the capital city of Brussels. All these groups are squeezed into about a tiny area—11,780 square miles, just smaller than the size of the state of Maryland. “Belgium has been occupied by the French, the Spanish, the Austrians, the Germans,” according to Erik Verdonck, co-author of The Belgian Beer Book. “They all left their marks on our cuisine. It’s a melting pot. We tend to say that Belgian cuisine has the same quality as French and is served in the same quantity as German.”

Several French dishes like chicken vol-au-vent, steak tartare, and all manner of croquettes are popular in Belgium. But the country’s cuisine still differs from that of its neighbors in a few important ways. “The German kitchen is more meat, more fat, and they like more sweetness in their food,” says Guy Vantoortelboom, chef and owner of Kokoon, a popular restaurant in the city of Leuven. And unlike France, Belgium has a major beer culture. Chef Robert Wiedmaier, who owns several Belgian restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area, adds that “seafood and root vegetables play a strong role. That area along the North Sea produces a lot of seafood like oysters, eel, and mussels.”

Some of the country’s most beloved foods—beer, fries, and chocolate—might seem pedestrian, but Belgians have elevated them with pride and attention to detail to national symbols. Other specialties are less well-known internationally, but still stand out from neighboring countries and remain distinctly Belgian.

Chocolate

Belgium is renowned for chocolate, which was first introduced from the New World in the seventeenth century when the country was under Spanish rule. But it’s only been an important industry since the nineteenth century, when Belgium brutally colonized the Congo, in part for its cocoa. The most important development in establishing its chocolate’s reputation was likely the invention of the praline, a hard chocolate shell with a soft filling (rather than the American candied nuts) which was first created by chocolatier Jean Neuhaus Jr. in Brussels in 1912.

Eel with Green Sauce

This Flemish seafood dish comes from the area around Antwerp, where wild eels were once pulled from the Scheldt River. After gutting and skinning them, the meat is sliced into small strips and simmered in a sauce of white wine, butter, and several green herbs, including sorrel. Due to overfishing, the dish is now commonly made with imported, farm-raised eel, but it remains a cold weather dish because the eels take on a musty flavor when it’s warm. “When it’s too hot it’s not as good because they hide in the mud,” Vantoortelboom explained.

Endive and Ham Gratin

In Belgian grocery stores, endive is almost as common as carrots or bagged salad greens. According to legend, the vegetable, whose name in Dutch literally means “white leaf,” was discovered during the 1830 revolution when Belgium gained its independence from the Netherlands. A farmer named Jan Lammers returned from the war and discovered that white leaves had grown from the chicory roots he had left in his basement covered under a layer of soil. The truth of the story is up for debate, but it’s true that endives weren’t eaten widely until the mid-nineteenth century. They remain a favorite vegetable today, especially when served in a gratin: whole cooked endives are wrapped in sliced ham, smothered in béchamel sauce, topped with grated white cheese, and then baked—basically, Belgium’s take on enchiladas.

Flamiche

Hailing from the Walloon town of Dinant, this rich quiche-like tart is made with boulette de Romedenne, a cow’s milk cheese from the nearby town of Namur. Legend has it that the tart came into existence when a farmer’s wife was on her way to market in Dinant and the butter, eggs, and cheese fell out of her basket and mixed together. She ran into a friend who was baking some bread, and she formed a base with some dough and baked the mess of ingredients in the oven. The tart is typically cut into small slices and ideally eaten hot.

Fries

All of Belgium, from Wallonia to Flanders, is united in their exaltation of fries. “You know, they call them french fries, but they really should be called Belgian fries,” says Wiedmaier. They first appeared in Belgium in the 1840s as street food served at fairs, but soon fry stands began appearing at every train station, commercial center, and sporting event in the country. Proper stands turn out thick-cut potatoes fried twice for optimum crispness and served in a paper cone. The shape is ideal for scooping up globs of mayonnaise, and you can usually choose from a huge variety of flavors, like black pepper, béarnaise, Samurai (with sambal), Andalouse (with tomato), Brasil (with tropical fruit flavors), and tartare.

Meatballs

Meatballs, made from pork and beef or veal, are beloved throughout the country. Their size and preparation varies by region: the Flemish love pairing them with tomatoes, either smothered in a thick sauce with onions or dropped into soup for lunch. In Liège, they’re typically larger in size and smothered in a sweet and sour brown sauce flavored with onion, brown sugar, vinegar, juniper berries, and sirop de Liège, a jelly-like spread containing apple and pear juices.

Mattentaart

This small, dome-shaped tart from the region of Geraardsbergen has been made since the sixteenth century. The pastry is filled with sweet cheese curd that has been flavored with fresh ground almonds and either rum or almond extract.

Speculoos

These spice cookies are as omnipresent in Belgium as Oreos are in the United States. The city of Hasselt is known for a local variety of speculoos where the dough is shaped into round balls and baked until the cookies are still slightly soft in the middle. Lotus—whose cookies are branded Biscoff on airplanes and elsewhere in the United States—leads among the pre-packaged varieties. This crisp shortbread cookie is flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom, and white pepper. You’ll also find speculoos ice cream, tiramisu, and a Nutella-like spread.

Mussels

Traditionally eaten in the winter when no other fresh food was available, signs advertising mussels start appearing at restaurants at the beginning of their season in September. Perhaps the most common preparation is à la marinière, in which the black mollusks are steamed in a mixture of white wine, shallots, parsley, and butter, but they can also be steamed in beer, or, these days, cooked in a curry sauce.

Stoemp

A mess of puréed root vegetables, usually potatoes, that can include cream, bacon, and onions. Wortelstoemp contains carrots and other interpretations might have leeks, green cabbage, spinach, or green peas. Stoemp is traditionally served alongside sausage, bacon, fried eggs, or even horse meat, and upscale Belgian restaurants are finding ways to make it more refined—Wiedmaier forms quenelles to serve alongside venison at Marcel’s in Washington, D.C.

Stoofvlees

Think of this stew as the Belgian answer to France’s beef bourguignonne. “They’re going to use red wine and mushrooms,” says Vantoortelboom. “We use onions and beer.” Cubes of beef are braised in a mixture of dark, abbey-style beer, along with brown sugar, cider vinegar, caramelized onions, and mustard, and carrots, mushrooms, bacon, or shallots are often tossed in. The result is a robust, sweet-and-sour stew with a similar consistency to goulash.

Rice tart

This dessert is available at bakeries across Belgium, including the bakery chain Panos, but it hails specifically from the Wallonian town of Verviers near Liège. The handheld tarts consist of a flaky crust with a filling that is essentially a thick rice pudding. It’s said the tart appeared in the seventeenth century as the textile industry grew around the Vesdre river, when merchants who moved there introduced rice to the region. Long considered a luxury item, the rice pudding is typically flavored with vanilla bean or citrus peel, but it can also contain saffron or apricots.

Waffles

The English word for the treat comes directly from the Dutch, and the waffle in its current form was established as early as the sixteenth century. The rectangular Brussels-style waffle made with a thin batter can be spotted in the paintings Flemish and Dutch artists like Joachim Beuckelaer, Pieter Aertsen, and Pieter Bruegel. Today this variety is topped with Nutella, chocolate sauce, or fruit, while brioche-like Liège waffles from Wallonia are dotted with chunks of pearl sugar that caramelize when cooked, creating a pleasantly crunchy exterior.

Waterzooi

This milky, chowder-like dish hails from the medieval town of Ghent. It was originally a stew made with freshwater seafood, but today it’s usually made with chicken instead of fish. When making the original version, Wiedmaier makes an intense fish stock out of Dover sole and John Dory. He then adds a bit of cream, potatoes, carrots, and parsley, poaches the fish in it, and adds more fresh parsley at the last second. Common ingredients in other renditions include leeks, onions, celery, or celeriac.