Belgium is a trilingual country with France, Germany and the Netherlands as its neighbors. In some regions, the cuisine is influenced by classic French cooking, while in other areas, hearty German-style food dominates. Many of the savory and sweet delicacies have a distinct Dutch influence too. Belgium’s culinary offerings are rich and satisfying, and there are a number of unique national dishes. You can also find internationally popular fare such as western fast food or Italian dishes.Belgian cuisine, therefore, includes dishes that are Belgian origin or those that are perceived as typically Belgian.
Much of the food in Belgium relies on regional and seasonal ingredients, such as potatoes, white asparagus, leeks, Belgian endives and grey shrimp. Belgians also consume European staples such as meat, butter and cheese. Usually there are three meals a day, consisting of a light breakfast, a big lunch and a small dinner. Belgian cuisine has many dishes that are local to certain areas of the country, such as the couque biscuit from Dinant and the tarte au riz from Verviers.
Belgium is famed for its chocolate, the origins of which date back to 1880s when the country brought back cocoa beans from Africa to Europe. Thus Belgium had access to chocolate before many other nations, and this along with their understanding of the best way to process the cocoa beans, enabled them to produce high quality chocolate before most countries in the world. Even the Swiss, who are known for their chocolate, learned a great deal from the Belgians. Expats in Belgium are likely to be introduced to a variety of Belgian chocolates and dishes with chocolate as a prime ingredient. But since there’s a lot more to Belgian cuisine than chocolate, here are eleven chocolate-free dishes that expats really must try when living in Belgium.
Potjesvlees & Hennepot
Made with chicken, rabbit, veal and herbs, Potjesvlees, is a dish that is typical of the Westhoek region, the area around Ypres and Poperinge. The uniqueness of the dish lies in the gelatinous sauce that covers it, which has a hint of acid arising from either lemon or vinegar. White wine may also be used. This dish is today a recognized regional Belgian product as many butchers from the Westhoek region united and formed the Orde van het Potjesvlees. This order now plans to extend into Europe and by co-operating with France, they intend to request that the dish be recognized and protected by the European Union. Hennepot is also a traditional regional recipe of Westhoek. It is cooked with veal, rabbit and chicken, which are traditionally roasted together before baking in an earthenware pot. Bread is also placed alongside the pot and the dish cooks as the bread loaves rise in the oven. Hennepot is eaten cold and usually along with a salad.
This is one of the most popular fish dishes in the country. The fish that is typically used in making this dish is sole, also known as Dover Sole. The fish has a light, moist texture once cooked and the flavor is mild. Sole being a flat fish, a single fish produces about four fillets. The whole fish is sautéed in butter and the sole is boned and plated. Meunière refers to the cooking method used by locals in preparing this dish. Translated as ‘in the way of the miller’s wife’, it is a method used in French cuisine and implies that the fish is coated in flour and pan-fried in butter. This results in a delicious brown butter sauce to which a hint of lemon and freshly chopped parsley is added. Sole Meunière is served with frites (Belgian fries) or boiled or mashed potatoes, with an accompaniment of a wheat beer or geuze, a type of Belgian beer.
White asparagus is grown around the city of Mechelen, and is considered a delicacy. It is softer in texture and sweeter in taste than the green variety. Mechelen is considered to be the asparagus capital of the country, and the locals there refer to white asparagus as white gold. The season for white asparagus is from the end of April to mid-June, during which asparagus can be found on every menu. It is used to make appetizers, main course dishes and even desserts. Asparagus, Flemish-style is the traditional way to prepare asparagus. It is either boiled or steamed until cooked and served with hardboiled eggs and parsley. It is served with a clarified butter sauce. The recipe is simple, but still rich and flavorful. In Belgium, and especially in Flanders, asparagus is used to make pates, quiches and even ice cream.
There are also some variations of this simple traditional dish. Some recipes add ham, smoked salmon, grey shrimp or poached eggs. The richer varieties also use truffle in the recipe. Some home-style dishes are served with an accompaniment of a melted butter sauce and separate small dishes of soft-cooked eggs. It is meant to be eaten with the fingers by first dipping the asparagus into the sauce and then into the creamy eggs.
Eel (Paling in 't groen)
Eel or Paling in ‘t groen is a Flemish specialty of the region along the River Scheldt, between Dendermonde and Antwerp. The name translates to ‘eel in the green’ as freshwater eel is served in a green herb sauce. Eel is considered a delicacy in Flanders and is usually served pan fried in a cream sauce. Many restaurants serve eel with fries or bread. But the classic way to prepare the dish is in a green sauce. The sauce is made with a combination of herbs such as sorrel, parsley, chervil, watercress, chives, pimpernel, thyme and basil. The key ingredients are sorrel and chervin, and are added when the cooking process ends, to lend a vibrant green color to the dish. The dish is sometimes eaten cold, but is usually served hot with fries or bread, with lemon squeezed over the eel.
Croquettes are another Belgian specialty and are different from the ones with a potato filling that are usually served as a side dish in many restaurants. In Belgium croquettes are served with a thick, creamy béchamel filling with grey shrimps. These often feature as a starter or a main course dish in most menus. Croquettes are served almost everywhere in the country and the quality of the dish is judged by its creamy filling. When croquettes are served as the main dish, there are accompanied by a salad, fries and fried parsley. Some variants of the dish include adding asparagus, endives, goat’s cheese and even beer to the fillings. The classic filling of grey shrimp is perhaps the most popular way of serving croquettes in Belgium. These are sweet shrimps with a delicate flavor and are an important part of the cultural heritage of Belgium. The traditional way of harvesting the shrimps is done on horseback.
One of the most popular Belgian dishes is stoofvlees, which translates to ‘stew meat’. Made from beef that is slowly simmered in Belgian beer and thickened with slices of bread coated in mustard, with onion and seasonings, this dish is a humble, but rich meal. There are variants of this recipe that make use of garlic or mushrooms. However, the traditional recipe has beef and Belgian beer as its key ingredients. The dark, deep flavored beer lends it a slightly tart taste. This is in contrast to the French style of cooking which uses wine. Flemish stew is ideal for winter days and serves as great comfort food. It is usually served over Belgian fries or mashed potatoes. The dish also gets its distinct taste from the addition of brown sugar and cider vinegar, which works well with the rich beer and caramelized onions.
No trip to Belgium can be complete without trying out traditional Belgian frites that are equivalent to French fries in North America. There may be some confusion as to who invented fries, but the Belgians have no doubt perfected them. Belgian fries get their deliciousness from the variety of potato used, which is a soft variety. The potatoes are freshly cut and first fried at a lower temperature to cook the insides, and then fried again at a higher temperature to give the outsides its characteristic crispness. Frites are available at nearly every restaurant in the country, but the best versions are usually served up at friteries or fry shops. Some of these shops still serve frites in traditional paper cones. There are a wide variety of sauces to choose from, most of which are mayonnaise-based. Some flavors that work well with fries include the garlickly aioli sauce or the more traditional andalouse sauce made with mayonnaise, peppers and tomato paste.
Moules-frites or mussels and fries is a popular main dish originating in Belgium, and also well known in northern Europe. This classic Belgian dish is served in most cafés or brasseries. The most common way to serve mussels is to steam them in white wine in special mussel pots. Other ingredients include shallots, parsley and butter. Other recipes may even call for mustard sauce, cream or beer. Mussels served on their own make for a great appetizer, but adding them to fries serves as a wholesome meal. In France, this dish is called moules et frites. Moules-frites get their scrumptious flavor from the freshness of the mussels and the quality of the potatoes, which are the high-starch type called bintjes. The best mussels in Belgium come from the shallow river, Scheldt, which links the western region of the country to the Netherlands and the North Sea.
Every region in Belgium has its own specialty. The Walloon city of Dinant’s specialty is a rich, wholesome tart known as Flamiche. At first sight, it may look like a giant quiche, but it is actually a treat you shouldn’t miss. There’s even an interesting story about its origins. The wife of a farmer was once carrying some goods to the market, when she tripped and fell on top of them. She found that the eggs, cheese and butter had mixed together. Rushing to her friend’s house was the best thing she could so, because the friend happened to be preparing bread dough. They came up with the solution of combining their ingredients and the flamiche was thus born. The story may be just a story, but the same simple ingredients are used to make flamiche. A traditional Dinant flamiche is made with large eggs, cheese and butter, and is baked in dough with a seasoning of salt and pepper.
Named after the city of Ghent in the Flemish region of Belgium, this dish is a soup-like stew. Zooien is translated as ‘to boil’, and this is how the dish is essentially made. It is vegetable stock broth with leeks, carrots, potatoes, celery and onions, and is thickened with eggs and cream. It once used to be fresh water fish dish, and was originally made with burbot until the fish disappeared from the rivers. Today is it made with eel, bass, carp and pike. It is also common to find this dish made with chicken nowadays.
Apart from chocolate and chocolate-inspired dishes, Belgium also has some traditional delectable sweet treats. One such treat is the cone-shaped candy called cuberdon. The candy has a hard exterior and a jelly-like inside. The name comes from Flanders, and ‘kuper’ means cone in Dutch. It is also sometimes called neus or neuzeke in Dutch as the candy resembles a human nose. In the French areas of Belgium, the dish is called called chapeau-de-curé or chapeau-de-prêtre, which translates to priest’s hat, as it is believed to have been first discovered by a 19th century Belgian priest. The classic flavor of cuberdon is made from raspberry, and is purple in color. Today they are available in a variety of flavors such as ice cream, cookies and even dessert sauce. Cuberdon only remains for about three weeks, after which the insides start crystallizing.
What’s your favourite Belgian dish? Let us know in the comments!