WhatisBelgian food, anyway?

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 follows:

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Ask eight people to describe Belgian cuisine and you'll get eight answers -- each one slightly different.

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 language.

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 visiting.

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 of Belgium.

    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 Brugges.

    Waffling about

    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.

    Chocolate overdose

    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 premises.

    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.

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