Belgium is unique. A land defined by its similarities, its differences, its multiculturalism and strict ethnic borders. It is a place that embodies all the cultures around it yet giving each tradition pure Belgian nuance. I came to Belgium with an open mind and a thrist for discovering the real Belgium, the Belgium that goes deeper than what we see on the surface. This is what I found.
I have been Belgium nearly three weeks at this point. I have been living and working in a hostel in Antwerp that serves as both a regular hostel for travelers on a tight budeget and student housing for local people attending universities and hogeschools. Belgium is utterly divided by a strict ethnic border. There are Belgians, but most importantly there are Wallons and Flemish. The Flemish region is in the northern part of Belgium. They speak Flemish, a dialect of Dutch, have traditions that are very similar to their northern neighbor yet have traditions all their own. Then there are the Wallons that hail from the southern portion of Belgium. They speak French and have strong ties to their southern neighbor. Never before have I been able to travel about 30 minutes by train and go from one strong and proud culture to another, all functioning within the same country. Belgium in my opinion is a land of contrasts, in ideologies, in languages and in lifestyles. Everything functions here in sets of two, trying to incorporate all the intricacies of these powerful cultures into one Belgian culture. This comes up in general Belgian society, in politics, and most importantly for me, in the food.
The cultural dichotomy of Belgium has left an interesting impression on the food culture here, a perfect mix of Dutch traditional cooking with a French flair. I have to be biased in this article having not tried many of Belgiums traditional dishes that can be found in restaurants, simply because Belgium is not cheap. A good meal in a restaurant here that serves traditional Belgian fare is gonna cost you upwards of 30 Euros. Being on the backpackers budget, I simply dont have the means to do so. Plus who could turn down that 5 Euro Doner!
Belgian food clearly is also a home-cooking culture. Many of the dishes you find that make up classic Belgian menus are stews, hearty meat dishes and sweets that easily could be made best by someone’s grandmother. It seems that the two most important dishes to Belgian culture are Stoofvlees, a stew made of beef in a thick and rich gravy and Waterzooi, another stew made of various meats cooked down with vegetables in stock. The stews make sense for Belgians because it gets damn cold here in the winter and you need some stick to your ribs fare to get you through the night.
My time in Belgium has led me to become a street food junkie, because of the prices and the simple deliciousness of what you can find. The streets are defined in food culture by the Frituur. A Frituur in its essence is a fry shop, a place that sells those delightful Belgian fries that are all the rage in the US but also many little fried snacks such as currywurst, frikadellen and this dangerous breaded cheese item called a Mexicano. The Frituur are omnipresent in the cobblestoned streets of Belgiums largest cities and comprise the largest amount of small food shops you can find, other than Moroccan and Turkish Kebab places.
Fries themselves are a holy ordeal in Belgium. Belgium actually the created of the French fry, only with American confusing their origin and misnaming them. A mistake as we known, that lasts until this day. Fries here are double fried to order, making for a crispy yet non-greasy eating experience. The go-to topping for fries both here and in the Netherlands is Mayonnaise and they glob that stuff on top of your fries like its no ones business. I have never seen any culture so obsessed with mayonnaise like the Belgians. They serve them up in small or large cones for an ample eating-while-walking experience. The fries here are good, really good. Definitely something not to be missed.
Belgium is a waffle country, simple as that. For whatever reason it has become the national dish, a staple around the world and a cult classic. While Belgium loves their waffles, there are in fact no such thing as belgian waffles. There are three types of waffles you can find here. The first is the Liege waffle, a delicacy that hails from the city of Liege in Wallonia on the eastern side of the country. These delightful creations are asymmetrical, dark brown with a luscious caramel outside. They are crisp on the outside and incredibly doughy on the inside. Its almost like eating a mini donut from the state fair but with more texture. The Liege waffles is the most classic waffles you can find here and for around 2 Euros, the price is certainly right.
The second kind of waffle you can find is the Brussels waffle, named lovingly after the capital city of Belgium. They are very different from Liege Waffles in almost every way. The brussels waffle is characterized by its light and flaky exterior, its lighter cream color and its uniform rectangular shape. The brussels waffles seems to be a better vessel for toppings, chocolate and whipped cream please, and cost around 3 Euros seemingly anywhere. I would say these are closer to the standard American waffle yet that would be giving us too much credit.
The last waffle that you can find and not nearly as often as the first two is the Gallette, an ode to the traditional waffled French cookie. It’s thin and crisp, can be served warm or not. They are similar to stroopwaffles, tiny galletes filled with a layer of molasses, and in my opinion the best thing to come out of the Dutch dessert scene.
As far as the food culture goes in Belgium it is hard not to notice the massive diversity in food and people that live in this small nation. I have never before walked on a street with people from all around the world, from all different religions and lifestyles sharing one place as seamlessly as here in Belgium. The food scene takes on this diversity by bolstering large numbers of Middle Eastern and Arab influenced eateries, Indonesian places and a number of African restaurants as well. Its really cool to see the cultural exchanges and food adaptation in a large city that has exposed itself to so much.
It is well known to the international world that Belgium has gone through tough times in the past few years. From a government shutdown to terrorist attacks, Belgium has seen its fair share of hard days. Although they still have a lot of work to do in the future, I am hopeful. Belgians are strong and prideful people, people that represent themselves to the fullest and try their best to make it work.