Even after a week of tasting her way through Belgium, associate
editor Caroline Scutt wasn't able to find an answer to the question
"What exactly is Belgian cuisine?" What she did discover -- several
pounds later -- is that Belgians have a unique way of combining
ingredients to create colorful and hearty meals. Her report
BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Ask eight people to describe Belgian
cuisine and you'll get eight answers -- each one slightly
The definition I found most appropriate was that Belgian cooking
is a combination of French quality and German quantity. And let's
not forget the two staples Belgium is famous for perfecting:
chocolate and beer.
Belgium has two regions, each with a distinct culture and
The regions are Flemish-speaking Flanders in the north and and
the Ardennes region in the south, where the population speaks a
French dialect called Walloon.
Belgium's cultural complexity is also reflected in its cuisine,
which is influenced by the flavors of neighboring countries and
varies slightly depending upon what region -- or town -- you are
Jean Goire, chef and owner of Hotel du Moulin in Ligneuville,
explained that because of its proximity to the ocean, Flanders
cooking historically relied on seafood, while in the Ardennes, beef
and river fish were more plentiful.
Goire noted what most people familiar with the cuisine already
know: Belgian cuisine is heavily influenced by French dishes. In
fact, all of the chefs I spoke with were trained in classical
French cooking and used that knowledge as the basis for creating
their own signature dishes.
The following menu of suggestions is a guide to some of the most
traditional and delicious culinary indulgences found throughout
Belgium. Many of the dishes listed below aren't found on the menus
of restaurants specializing in haute cuisine.
Mussels and fries
An ideal introduction to a culinary odyssey here is Belgium's
national dish, mussels and fries. Although mussels are available
year-round, the season is September through March. Mussels are
served in a number of ways, the most popular being steamed in a
white wine sauce. A dish of mussels, which are served in a black
cooking pot and usually accompanied by a heaping plate of fried
potatoes, is probably enough for two people.
In the U.S., we might refer to fried potatoes as French fries,
but the Belgians are quick to insist that these fries originated in
their country and have nothing to do with the French at all.
Belgian fries aren't anything like their American counterparts
served in fast food joints. Belgian fries are thicker and aren't
greasy or salty.
Bevy of brews
A great way to wash down mussels and fries is with a Belgian
beer. The only problem is choosing from the overwhelming selection.
The Belgian Tourist Office boasts that there are about 400
different types of beers brewed in Belgium, but some people claim
that if you throw in all the variations and small breweries, that
number is closer to 1,000. Some of the most popular beers
include:Fruit beers such as Kriek cherry beer and peach flavored St.
Louis Peche are light and sweet brews, perfect for people who
ordinarily find beer on the bitter side.A popular light beer is referred to simply as a blanche. This
wheat beer is slightly sweet. Add a slice of lemon for a tasty
twist.Gueuze is a blend of young and aged Lambic (yeasty) beers that
have more of a bite than those above.Trappiste are rich, dark, creamy ales produced according to
centuries-old methods by monks in five monasteries.Red beers are produced in west Flanders from red barley, aged
in oak. They can be fruity, sweet or sour.
Waterzooi and whatnot
The name may sound strange but waterzooi (pronounced
va-ter-zoo-e) is the perfect comfort food. This "peasant dish" is a
soup-stew combination made with fish or chicken and boiled
vegetables and potatoes in a cream sauce. The dish varies from
restaurant to restaurant, but is a must try for culinary explorers
Another "simple food" that leaves a lasting impression is
Croquettes aux Crevettes Grises, shrimp croquettes made with tiny
gray shrimp and cheese. Belgians claim gray shrimp are more
flavorful than their pink counterparts.
When I'm given the choice between sweets or cheese for dessert,
the cheese usually wins. Belgian chocolate is hard to pass up (that
discussion will come later), but Belgian cheeses are similarly a
treat among treats. I managed to sample several and recommend the
following: vieux chimiey; passendale; orval; herve, and vieux
I always wondered if Belgians really ate the fluffy, doughy
treats that are named after their country. It turns out that yes,
Belgian waffles are indeed popular with Belgians and can be found
just about everywhere. I was informed that waffles also vary
depending on the region. In the Ardennes they are dense, sweetened
with sugar and eaten warm with jam and honey or plain. In Flanders,
especially in the eateries catering to tourists, waffles are
lighter and eaten with cream, ice cream or fruit.
When Frank Duval, the owner of Planete Chocolate on Rue du Midi
Zuidstraat in Brussels, offered me hot chocolate, I expected
something similar to Nestle's -- without the tiny marshmallows.
>What I got was a cup of chocolate that had the consistency of
pea soup: a chocoholic's fantasy come true.
I shouldn't have expected anything less: Belgium is home to
world-renowned chocolate makers, Godiva and Neuhaus.
Planete Chocolate might be a smudge on the chocolate map in
comparison to the popular brands, but it is unique because here
visitors can actually watch chocolate being set into molds on the
First timers to Brussels are quickly drawn to the Neuhaus and
Godiva shops, strategically placed in and around the Grand'Place to
ensure that they don't forget to stock up. Although these two
chocolatiers are top of the line, with prices to match, there are
other lesser-known chocolate shops worth visiting.
One that was recommended by our guide is Galler Chocolate, a
family-run business. A kilogram of chocolate from Belgium's more
famous chocolatiers costs about $30, while Galler sells its
chocolates for about $25 per kilogram. Two particularly tempting
flavors are Extreme, rich and dark and made with 70% cocoa; and
Turque, made with fresh cream, whisky and coffee.
A guide also pointed out that those who are serious about their
chocolate should beware of the lower-grade brands such as Leonidas,
which runs about $12 per kilogram. These chocolates are made mainly
of fat and sugar instead of cocoa.