Fries, Mussels, Waffles and Chocolate. These are the foods people associate Belgium with. And unlike french onion soup, believed by visitors to be the definitive French dish yet surprisingly difficult to find in Paris, the 4 food items are everywhere in and around Brussels. Of course there are plenty of other delicious edibles to try, but it is almost impossible to not succumb to the visual and olfactory cues, all those friteries, chocolateries and waffle trucks emitting tempting scents of fried potatoes, butter or cacao. And then there are those dratted cocottes of mussels and empty shells piled up on cafe tables. In any case, there is no escape.
Other than chocolate, the type of food Ying and I were most excited about was fries. The Belgians are supremely proud of their fried spuds, to the extent there is a fry museum in Bruges that showcase everything from the origins of the potatoes to the gigantic friers that cut fries go into.
And they have a reason to be proud, because Belgian fries are truly exceptional. The hand cut fries are nice and thick, and more importantly, twice-fried so that each fry is golden crisp on the outside, and fluffy, almost creamy inside. No hard over-fried specimens here, nor any stale oily aftertaste. And for those who find eating unadorned fries a tad monotonous, there is always more than a dozen of sauces to choose from, ketchup included.
In Belgium, you could eat fries with anything, including inside sandwiches and alongside pizzas. However, they are traditionally paired with mussels, and although the fry specimens at Chez Leon were not as good as the ones we tried at a random fry stand, the mussels were plump and juicy with nary a grain of sand in the entire pot. Chez Leon certainly had lots of practice cooking mussels, for the broth of celery, butter and shallots with fresh mussel juice was difficult to improve on. Ying opted for the Sunday special, an all-you-can-eat offer should one so desire. While we admitted defeat after the first round, our neighbors happily tucked into their second pots of mussels (with second order of fries, drinking a second bottle of rosé), as though their first cocottes were just a practice round.
Besides mussels, we also enjoyed fantastic seafood at Nordzee (or Mer du Nord in French) at the corner of Place St Catherine. The fish store operates a take-out and lunch stand, where you can order from a short list or just peek at what your neighbors at the bar counter are eating and copy along. There are no seats, but in return, one gets cheap and fresh seafood.
Croquettes aux crevettes grises (tiny brown shrimp) are Belgian specialties, so naturally we had to order some. Unfortunately, we were disappointed by the fried cylinders presented to us, barely registering the measly bits of shrimp that had been whipped into a pinkish bechamel-based filler. At 7 Euros for two, it was also the most expensive of our 4 tapas sized plates. In comparison, the 4 Euro fried calamari was excellent, with a very light batter coating the ultra sweet, just chewy flesh.
And if the calamari was good the grilled items were even better. We shared a sole for 4 Euro, a steal as the fish was both fleshy and very fresh. The quality of the razor clams were also pristine, and the sweet meat, simply grilled till just cooked, then topped with bright green pesto sauce, spurted saline juices, full of sea flavor. We could not believe that it cost us a mere 6 Euros for 8 for these plump babies! If we had bread, we would have mopped up the leftover sauce.
And of course, one cannot resist the tempting smells of waffle trucks traversing the streets of Brussels. We found out that there were at least 2 types of waffles available, the thinner, yeast-leavened Brussels waffles and the chewier, eggier Liege waffles.
A Brussels waffle looks like this…
… and tastes like the regular waffles we find everywhere else in the world, square, light and crisp.
We found the Liege waffles more intriguing and better tasting, likening the thick eggy consistency to the best kind of Hong Kong egg cakes. The caramelized sugar on top adds a golden glaze on the waffle, bringing the sin (and taste) level over the top. They were also exceptionally easy to find, since that’s the type hawked by waffle shops and trucks.
Nothing bonds a pair of food loving sisters like good chow, and I was certainly thankful to have Ying be my partner-in-crime in Belgium!
For fries: We ate at Frietkot Pitta de la Chapelle near Sablon. A comprehensive list of best friteries here: http://www.togethermag.eu/articles/best-friteries-brussels
For mussels: Chez Leon, rue de Bouchers 18, Brussels, Belgium
For seafood: Nordzee (aka Mer du Nord in French), Rue Ste Catherine 45 , Brussels, Belgium
For waffles: We found a waffle truck near Mont des Arts. For a more reliable location, check out the locations for waffle chain Belgaufra