by Luc O Cinnseala
The fifth-smallest country in the European Union, Belgium has carved a mouth-watering niche in the world of food, contributing some much-loved culinary treats from the sweet to the rich to the deliciously greasy.
You can pause whatever diet you’re on for your stay in its enchanting capital, Brussels, where indulging on local and imported foods isn’t something to feel guilty about so much as something you owe to yourself.
It might not need to be said but spending any amount of time in Brussels without tasting or stocking up on some local chocolate is nothing short of a national crime. It’s no secret that Belgium produces some of the best chocolate in the world, from nutty pralines to luscious truffles, all of which you’ll find in one of the many artisan chocolate shops throughout the city. If you’re looking for something more sumptuous, many chocolate shops (particularly on Grand Place) sell cups of hot milk with a hefty lump of chocolate on a stick for you to stir in and make a rich hot chocolate.
For a cheaper option or a last-minute gift, local supermarkets such as Carrefour and Delhaize sell quality brands like Cote d’Or for a fraction of what you’d pay at home. There’s a Carrefour Express on Rue au Beurre, a thirty second walk from Grand Place, which is fully stocked with the essential brands.
You’re unlikely to spend any amount of time in Brussels without encountering the irresistibly sweet scents of these sugary treats, known in French as gaufres. An unofficial symbol of the country, there are, in fact, two distinct types of waffle, neither of which look much like the ‘Belgian Waffles’ popular in North America. The Brussels waffle (Gaufre de Bruxelles) is a chunky rectangle with big holes, chewy dough and crispy edges while the Liège waffle (Gaufre liégeoise) is smaller, irregularly shaped and arguably tastier because it has solid lumps of sugar in it.
In true Belgian style, you’ll be given the choice to customise yours with icing sugar, whipped cream, fresh fruit and, of course, glistening melted chocolate.
French fries (frites) were invented in Belgium, a fact that any self-respecting Belgian will tell you, and the history books will back them up. Just how the Belgians lost the naming rights for the world’s favourite snack is unclear but they still make them better than anyone else, always frying them at least twice.
You’ll get your fix of fries in friteries, establishments selling chips that can range from sit-down restaurants to window hatches. Local favourite Friterie Tabora is located about two minutes from Grand Place. Further away from the centre, you’ll find Maison Antoine, housed in an understated hut; it’s been operating in a quiet square in Etterbeek since 1948, long before the buildings of the European Union sprung up nearby. This Belgian institution is a great choice if you get peckish exploring the ‘European Quarter’.
The only thing Belgians take as seriously as fries are the accompanying sauces—and debating over which sauce is the best is a national pastime. Among the eclectic selection of mayonnaise and ketchup-based sauces you’re likely be offered in any given friterie are ‘samurai’ for spice lovers, ‘Brasil’ for a pineapple kick and ‘andalouse’, a blend of mayo, tomato paste and peppers. Trial and error is the game here!
If there’s one thing Belgians love more than frying chips twice and covering them with loads of creatively-named sauces, it’s frying chips twice, covering them with loads of creatively-named sauces and throwing it in all in half a baguette with some meat. They call it a mitraillette, which translates directly from French as ‘sub-machine gun’. This meal in a sandwich, which can be made with sausage meat or steak and customised with fresh salad, is available in all good friteries. Replace the baguette with a flatbread and you’ve got a whole new creation called a dürüm.
Any seasoned traveller will tell you that the best way to ensure you get ripped off for sub-standard food while abroad is to eat at a restaurant with pictures of the food on the menu. While this is true for many of the restaurants immediately north of Grand Place selling ‘traditional’ food with hidden costs that will catch out even the most savvy traveller, cross the square to Rue du Marché Aux Fromages, and you’ll have your choice of neon-lit Greek eateries with seating on the street and inside.
Pitta Hellas is one such family-run restaurant, offering delicious kebab meat and veggie pittas, meat plates and salads for less than you thought possible in the centre of a European capital.
Finally, one to throw in your backpack to snack on when you’re exploring Brussels. Speculoos is considered the national biscuit of Belgium, a concept that would be completely weird in any other country, but seems totally normal here. These are small flat biscuits flavoured with cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom and nutmeg. Speculoos are popular with Belgian adults and children and any traveller that’s lucky enough to know about them. The biscuit is put in everything from chocolates to ice creams and milkshakes.
Spread the joy
For the hardcore fans, pick up a jar of speculoos spread from a supermarket. With all the flavour of the biscuits and the consistency of peanut butter, you can eat it on toast, off your fingers or as a filler between speculoos biscuits. Remember—spreads technically qualify as liquids and you won’t be able to take them on flights in your hand luggage. Take it from someone who’s witnessed a fellow traveller have their day ruined by having a jar confiscated by security at Brussels Airport.
It goes without saying all of the above should be washed down with healthy servings of domestic beer which are widely available in Brussels eateries.