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Belgium - Food and Drink
Coffee is likely to be enjoyed midmorning and in the afternoon; in cafes it can be accompanied by a piece of Belgian chocolate, waffles or cookies. In a small country supporting more than 2,000 chocolatiers, the quality of the product is exemplary and Belgian chocolate has a well deserved global reputation.
The term ‘Belgian waffle’ was coined in the US to describe a hybrid between the breakfast American waffles and the sweet European waffle, but in fact there are three types of waffle widely available in Belgium.
• Liege Waffles are the ones most commonly eaten in Belgium. Containing pearl sugars, they are sweeter, denser and chewier. They are usually available as plain, vanilla or cinnamon waffles, and are often topped with cream, ice cream or fruits.
• Brussels Waffles are rectangular; they are lighter and crispier, with bigger pockets and a bigger overall shape.
• Galettes Campinoises, not to be confused with the pancake-like French galettes, are thinner buttery waffles which are crunchy but soft and crumbly to eat.
Liege syrup is a sticky brown jam made from evaporated fruit juices. It can be used as a topping for waffles or to enhance the flavour of a meat dish, but is mostly used to spread on bread accompanying cheese. The spiced biscuit Speculoos is also frequently dipped in hot drinks and then spread across bread, although mostly they are enjoyed as biscuits.
Rice tarts are also a sweet treat to enjoy at a cafe, being a pastry filled with a cream and rice mix, glazed and then cooked in the oven. Large versions can be purchased in most bakeries, to take home and share with the family.
Traditionally the main meal of the day would be taken at lunchtime, with all schoolchildren and many working men coming home for lunch, although this is a tradition which is dying out especially with the significant commuting distances some workers cover each day. The starter would be soup, hors d’oeuvres, or possibly the Belgian dish of “waterzooi” which is a very thick broth of fish or chicken thickened with eggs and cream accompanied with potatoes or buttered bread. Following this would be a main course of meat or fish with potatoes, with wine or beer to drink. A separate course of salad or cooked vegetables, seen as high status items, might then be served. The final course of a pudding or fruit and cheese would end the meal.
Although the long leisurely lunch at home is becoming a thing of the past, many people will enjoy biftek - a well-trimmed piece of beef, veal, pork or horsemeat - with frites and salad. Mayonnaise in some form will be served for the frites, with maybe pickles or pickled onions.
More commonly today, lunch will consist of a sandwich filled with a spread or some form of sliced or breaded meat, topped with a couple of salad items. The Martino sandwich contains a belgian steak tartare, which is raw minced beef steak with onions, pickles, salad and a touch of tabasco sauce.
The evening meal, normally served between 7 and 8 in the evening, traditionally would have been a lighter affair; simpler dishes of egg, cheese or fish are a popular choice.
Sundays is traditionally the day for families and friends to eat together, although increasingly this is at a local restaurant instead of the family home. Fish, seafood and game dominate traditional menus, always accompanied by potatoes. In Brussels, some hotels offer lavish buffets which are not cheap but represent good value because of the quality of food provided.
During the week many restaurants will offer fixed price menus or a plat du jour at lunchtime and in the evening, which often provides a good meal with excellent value for money.
Tap water is safe to drink in Belgium but cafes and restaurants will not be happy to serve free water. In many parts of Europe a table of diners ordering a bottle of wine will also be given a jug of iced water, but this is not normal in Belgium and establishments with fewer international visitors may find the request puzzling or unacceptable. Bottles of mineral water will almost always be available for purchase.
When eating in public it is important to be polite. Talking loudly, getting very drunk or speaking rudely to the staff are not acceptable.
Giving a tip in a restaurant for exemplary service is appreciated by the staff, but it is not expected as the Belgian easting industry does not generally operate a system based on low wages topped up with tips.
Frites are freely available in most shopping areas, served with a dollop of mayonnaise. If eating frites at a restaurant or bar, they will often be accompanied with lightly cooked mussels. Frites are twice fried, giving a well cooked, crispy texture.
McDonalds does have a presence in Belgium but the fast food market is dominated by the Belgian chain Quick. They serve frites (with mayonnaise) and items from the frituur, which offers a wide choice of fried meats with different seasonings, and a good selection of dips.
Belgians have welcomed international cuisine and, in the same way past influences were readily adopted from France, Germany and The Netherlands, the population today eats a wide range of dishes from around the world as part of a normal varied diet.
With its status as an internationally important political and economic centre, Brussels attracts a large number of politicians, policy makers, bankers and entrepreneurs with significant personal and corporate budgets. Therefore it is no surprise that Brussels boasts a record number of Michelin starred restaurants per resident, and offers plenty of choice to those looking for quality meals. A full meal with dessert and wine can cost up to 200 Euro per head in a top Brussels restaurant, but it is possible to enjoy a more affordable haute cuisine meal. Free copies of Gourmet are available at tourist information offices, and many of the eateries along the popular tourist areas of rue des Bouchers and nearby Petite rue des Bouchers will accept diners without reservations; this area provides a wide selection of traditional and ethnic eateries, and most offer their own specialities, although some residents feel the area is a tourist trap. If you prefer to eat seafood and fish dishes, a number of good restaurants are located at the Marché-aux-Poissons.
Politeness is a valued trait in Belgium, so if you are invited to someone’s home for a meal you must be on time and bring a gift of a bunch of flowers or a box of chocolates. An aperitif would normally be enjoyed before the meal, wine would accompany the food courses and coffee would be served afterwards, perhaps with a liqueur.
Liqueurs enjoyed in belgium include walzin and elixir d’Anvers, both of which have flavour similarities to the liqueur prepared by French Benedictine monks called Benedictine, and the pine-flavoured elixir de spa.
Alcohol is very much part of the Belgian culture. Licensing laws regulate the hours at which bars, restaurants and other venues can serve alcohol, but usually it can be purchased well into the early hours of the morning. It is illegal for anyone to sell, serve or offer alcohol of any sort to children under the age of 16; spirits may only be provided to those aged 18 and over. The Belgian population does not have a popular binge drinking culture present in many cities across the UK for example, and being drunk in public is socially unacceptable. Do not drink beer directly from a larger bottle, and absolutely do not wander round the streets with a bottle of beer in your hand; some areas may even have signs stipulating no alcohol in the area. It is estimated that approximately 6% of the workforce in Belgium does have a drink dependency, but it is a common belief across the population that the flavours of an alcoholic drink are to be savoured and enjoyed at length in the same way good food would be enjoyed.
During the week shops will usually close between 6pm and 8pm, and they do not usually open on Sundays or public holidays. It can therefore be difficult to purchase groceries if you run out of anything, so it is best to stock up on a Saturday. This will come as a shock to anyone used to US and UK opening hours, as will finding the museums closed on Mondays.
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