When I first decided to come to Belgium, it was hardly because I heard the food was great. I was initially pulled by the sense of international vibrancy, diversity in languages, ideal location, and its “off-the-beaten-path” nature. Come to find out, Belgium has quite the distinguishable food scene. Although most people have heard that Belgium has delightful waffles, they may not have heard about the tiny pyramid-shaped purple candies of Ghent or the multiplicity of sauces used to enhance the “Frites” eating experience. At least, I certainly hadn’t. If you’re planning on visiting this tiny little country (the size of Maryland, believe it or not), learn how to eat like a local and try these ten tasting experiences of Belgium!
- Not Your Typical “Belgian Waffle”
Surprise, surprise. The first thing that you probably hear about Belgium is that the waffles (or “gaufres”) are really, really, really good. You might be flabbergasted to discover that no single type of waffle in Belgium is identified by the popularly Americanized term “Belgian waffle”. In fact, Belgians very rarely eat waffles for breakfast (crazy, right?). Regardless, it seems as though Belgium has begrudgingly embraced selling the North American version of the waffle to tourists who are still convinced they are eating a traditional “Belgian Waffle”. These waffles look coma-inducing, covered in bananas, strawberries, Nutella, sprinkles, or pounds of whipped cream. Nonetheless, they are delicious. If you really want the Belgian Tasting Experience, you should try one of the local varieties of waffles.
The Brussels Waffles are lighter, crisper, and have rectangle sides. They will usually be served warm by street vendors lightly coated with confectioner’s sugar; but these are the waffles you will also find in tourist areas covered in the sweets mentioned above.
The Liege Waffle is a denser, richer, and chewier waffle that usually has pearl sugar caramelized on the outside of the waffle from being baked. It is the most popular type of waffle in Belgium and can be served in vanilla, plain, or cinnamon varieties. This one is my favorite, and is usually eaten more frequently by locals.
- Frites (Warning: Addictive)
Come to find out, it is asserted that fries actually originated in Belgium. Hold up… then why are they called French fries? Both France and Belgium combatively claim ownership over the origin; and the popularity of the term “French Fries” is often defended by the argument that Belgian cuisine was assimilated into the “hegemony” of French society. Regardless of the political angst, this treat is an absolute must-try. As probably one of the most inexpensive and accessible treats of Belgian cuisine, you can’t turn a corner without spotting a familiar sign beckoning the hungry tourist and local alike. Belgian frites are found abundantly throughout Brussels at “friteries”, and are apparently only considered authentic if they are: Freshly cut, fried TWICE, fluffy on the inside, crispy on the outside, at least 10 mm thick, and served in a paper cone. Oh, and don’t forget the sauce. If your beloved topping is not the classic Mayonnaise, I can guarantee there is a special sauce for you. My favorite is Samurai Sauce; simply mayonnaise mixed with Sambal Oelek. You can also sample the Andalouse sauce consisting of mayonnaise, tomato paste, and peppers. Are you convinced yet?
- Mussels in Brussels
Sometimes considered the national dish of Belgium, “Moules” can be found in nearly every Belgian restaurant. In fact, approximately 25 to 30 tons of moules are consumed each year in Belgium, particularly in the fashion of moules-frites, the flawless combination of mussels and fries. Although this savory dish is typically more on the pricey side, there is nothing quite as “Bruxellois” as the experience of eating a dish of moules-frites at a curb-side café observing the local passerby. One of my favorite ISA Excursions of this semester was the Belgian Food Tasting, where the ISA family sat around a large dining table in an atmospheric candle-lit home and sampled a variety of Belgian foods (a 7-course meal). Course number 4 was moules. There are no words.
- Craving Chocolate?
For more than a hundred years, Belgium has been a pioneer in the chocolate-making industry. Each year, the country exports more than 100,000 tons of chocolate, and is recognized worldwide for its luxury and unique recipes. Certain brands, like Leonidas and Godiva, have made a name for themselves in the global market. Sure, you might enjoy your convenience store candy bar, the chocolate chunk cookie, or the death-by-chocolate ice cream. Belgian chocolate is on an entirely different galaxy. Fun fact: even the Swiss, known for their high quality chocolate, imported their recipes from Belgian chocolatiers. Why is it so unique? Well, Belgian chocolate makers are known for sticking steadfastly to old-fashioned manufacturing techniques, especially staying loyal to the traditional hand-making strategy. This technique has fortunately been preserved by the appeal to purchasing hand-made Belgian chocolates, and I’m not complaining. Thanks to ISA, we also had the opportunity to make our own chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate. AND eat it. Jealous?
- Bet You Haven’t Heard of Cuberdons
You might be wondering what on earth this peculiar looking candy is. Introducing the notorious Cuberdons: a sweet treat from the medieval city of Ghent, located in the Flanders region of Belgium. Cuberdons are raspberry-flavored goodness, a recipe “discovered” by chance in 1873 by a Ghent pharmacist. Funnily enough, drugs were packaged in the form of syrup in order to increase their shelf life. The pharmacist discovered that a failed preparation had formed a crust on the outside while maintaining a liquid inside. This ultimately led to the idea to manufacture candy. Although not for everyone, they are definitely worth indulging in. However, Cuberdons can only be preserved for about three weeks; hence why they are not exported outside of Belgium. Look– Another reason to come visit!
- Speculoos Here, Speculoos There
Everyone adores Speculoos. No, really. If you don’t fall in love with this cookie, you’re not doing Belgium right. Or you have yet to find the right kind of Speculoos for you. Yes, there are indeed Speculoos in every shape, size, and form. Speculoos is a spiced shortcut biscuit traditionally baked to be consumed on or before St. Nicholas’ feast in Belgium. If you don’t like the conventional and simple Speculoos biscuit, try the spread. Or the macaroon. Or the cake. Or the bread. Or the butter. Or the lollipop. Or this delicious Speculoos ice cream that my host father prepares for us with fresh fruit. Must I go on?
- Marchés de Bruxelles
The moment I fell for Brussels was the moment I stumbled into my first market. The vivacity, the smells, the soundtrack, the contagious atmosphere. It was instantly addicting. I was captivated by the feeling of wandering aimlessly through the colors, a multitude of languages pounding my eardrums, my senses on alert. Although I have grown fond of the vibrant antique and crafts markets, there is nothing that compares to walking through the food markets. It is an entirely new tasting experience, with vendors encouraging you to taste this slice of juicy mango, or this fresh olive, or this homemade macaroon, or this sensational strawberry. Although the food is not always from Belgium, the market-going experience feels acutely Belgian to me. If you’re willing to go on this adventure, make sure you bring cash and a willingness to bargain!
- Tarte au Riz
Known in Dutch as Rijstevlaai, Tarte au Riz is a flat, quiche-like pie with a filling of rice pudding. It’s origins lie in the region around Verviers, Belgium. This rice tart is rich and decadent, so a few bites will have you satisfied.
- A Slice of Belgian Cheese
Perhaps you’ve heard that France or Italy have the best cheese in the world. Or maybe you’re a sucker for Wisconsin Cheddar, like my Wisconsin-native roommate. Do not fret, cheese-lovers! Belgium has a long tradition of cheese-making dating back to the Middle Ages. Many of the cheeses are still named after the abbeys where they are manufactured; such as Chimay, Maredsous, and Westmalle. In fact, many of these monasteries still use cheese-making and beer-brewing as their main source of income. Despite Belgium’s small size, it makes more than 300 distinct varieties of cheese, the same number as France. Because Belgian cheeses are made in small quantities and rarely exported out of the country, they have not received the same fame as French cheeses. Yet another reason to come to Belgium, eh?
- Carbonade Flamande
Last but certainly not least is a traditional Belgian sweet-sour beef and onion stew made with a particular kind of Belgium beer. Thanks to my friend’s homework assignment, she made Carbonade Flamande by scratch! Although I have not tried this (not the most vegetarian-friendly dish), I have been told that it actually tastes even better a day or two after it’s made; a perfect dish to make at home.
When you are given the chance to live in a foreign land for a portion of your life, there are unlimited idiosyncrasies of that culture to be discovered. Experimenting with the local food is an open door to further understanding your temporary home, and an opportunity to have a shared experience with a community of like-minded travelers. In the nightly words of my host father before we get to dig in, “Bon Appétit!”
Want to see more facets of Brussels? Check out “10 Photos of the Comic Book Streets of Brussels”