Both moules (mussels) and frites (French fries) are popular dishes in Belgium. // © 2016 Melissa Karlin
Feature image (above): Neuhaus in the Galerie de la Reine in Brussels is where the first praline was created. // © 2016 Melissa Karlin
Be prepared to say “so long” to your diet when visiting Belgium. The destination’s food is rich and comforting, perfect on a rainy Belgian day — or any day, for that matter. The cuisine is an interesting mash-up of other European cultures, including French, Dutch, German and Spanish, and infused with a history of invasion, devastation and resilience, making this small nation a super-condensed European eating experience. Here are nine foods to indulge in when visiting Belgium.
Boulettes a la Liegeoise
These soul-warming large meatballs are served in sweet brown gravy made from dried fruit. Originating in Liege, the dish can be found all over the Wallonia region of Belgium. To experience it in the city it is named for, head to restaurant As Ouhes in the city center on Place du Marche to fuel up for the trek up the Stairs of Mount Bueren.
Flemish “carbonade” is a perfect intersection of cultures. It is hearty and warming like a central or eastern European goulash, with a strong, slightly sweet flavor more reminiscent of a French stew. Try it at historic L’Estrille Du Vieux Bruxelles, a former horse stable turned pub and restaurant in the Sablon neighborhood of Brussels.
Chicons au Gratin
In this traditional dish, endive is wrapped in ham and strong cheese before being placed in a creamy bechamel sauce and baked in the oven. What comes out is comfort food at its best, though it a bit lighter than one would expect due to the lack of heavy starch. Try it at Bruges’ oldest inn, Cafe Vlissinghe, the perfect escape in a sudden rainstorm.
There is one food that will magically appear next to nearly every dish in Belgium: “frites” (fries). The crispy-yet-still-soft-on-the-inside fried potato is served with a mayonnaise that is richer and creamier than the American iteration. And don’t ask for ketchup — most Belgians will give you a funny look.
“Moules” (mussels) are such a definitive part of Belgian cuisine that they are actually the country’s national dish. The delicacy is seasonal and can be enjoyed at peak perfection from September to February. They are cooked in many ways but the most common method is “la mariniere,” where the shellfish is steamed in white wine, shallots, parsley and butter. Belgians also have a secret to eating them properly; to go it like a local, find a nice, flexible shell and use it to pick out other mussels. Try this technique at eateries Au Vieux Bruxelles and Le Pre Sale in Brussels.
In Belgium, the term “praline” refers to a hard-shell chocolate filled with an oozing center of ganache or cream. The historic Neuhaus in the Galerie de la Reine in Brussels is where this decadent delight was first created, back when the shop was a pharmacy. Visiting Neuhaus is a bit like walking back into 1912, when it began serving the praline alongside chocolate-covered pills (a method to make them more palatable).
This ginger-spiced short-crust biscuit is perfect when paired with coffee or tea. One of the original “speculoos” bakeries in Brussels is Maison Dandoy. With locations across the city, the classic cookie purveyor offers the original ginger iterations, along with many other short-crust biscuits.
There are two varieties of Belgian waffles: Brussels and Liege. The Brussels version is fluffier and lighter, topped with spreads or sauces such as speculoos butter. The Liege iteration is dense and rolled with a crunchy sugar known specifically to the Wallonian city. Experience the dense delight in Liege at Une Gaufrette Saperlipopette, a small bakery that is popular with visitors and locals alike.
Also something to try at L’Estrille du Vieux Bruxelles: “waterzooi.” The cream-based fish stew is an old-school dish that is well worth a go. The shock of a creamy and briny combination might be a little off-putting at first, but give it a try: It becomes a wonderful, interesting and lighter-than-expected food experience.