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Just as the country is divided linguistically, it's also divided food-wise. Flemish cuisine has a strong Dutch influence, while Wallonian cooking is very similar to French with lots of rich sauces. Most dishes are based around meat or fish, and desserts are often rich pastries or chocolate – and it's usually all washed down with wine or, the national drink, beer.
This sweet-sour steak and ale stew has a great many variations, with families handing down their own recipes from generation to generation. Most include beef, a rich dark beer, bread, onions, salt, pepper, herbs (like bay and thyme) and spices. Other ingredients are carrots, mushrooms, bacon, red wine, shallots – and even dark chocolate! A long marinade and slow cooking are crucial for flavour and tender meat. It's usually served with frites, boiled potatoes, noodles, salad or green veggies – and of course, more beer.
Belgium's classic fish dish is sole meunière, the latter part of the name translates as ‘in the way of the miller's wife' – that is, dipped in seasoned flour and then pan-fried in a small amount of butter. Lemon juice and some chopped parsley are added to make a rich brown butter sauce. The fish is served with potatoes: as frites, boiled or mashed.
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You might not find this on the menu of a Michelin-starred restaurant but it's a popular, comfort dish served up in many Belgian homes. A Flemish speciality, endive (which the Belgians call wifloof, chicon or ‘white gold', and what Americans know as chicory), has a distinctive, tangy flavour and is used in appetizers/starters, soups, salads and main courses alike. Ham and endive gratin is a dish that combines this leafy vegetable with a regional cheese and prime boiled ham, traditionally served with mashed potato. Interestingly, all the endives sold in mainstream shops in the US are imported from Belgium.
Don't order this and expect a juicy steak to arrive on your plate. Filet Americain is seasoned raw minced beef served cold, rather like the French steak tartare. Various seasonings are added to the beef (which must be very lean) to give it flavour: raw or pickled onion, egg yolk, Worcestershire or Tabasco sauce, ketchup, mustard, parsley, capers, salt, pepper and oil. You can eat it in two ways: spread on bread or toast (when it's called toast kannibaal or ‘cannibal toast'), or as a main meal, accompanied by frites and pickles. If you order it as a main course in a restaurant, it may be prepared at your table so you can have it just how you like it.
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Belgian waffles (gauffres) are made from a yeast-leavened batter using special waffle irons. There are two different types: the Brussels waffle and the Liège waffle. The Brussels waffle is rectangular, golden brown on the outside, dusted with powdered/icing sugar and then sometimes covered with syrup, slices of fruit, chocolate spread and whipped cream – all of which is deemed a mite inauthentic by waffle connoisseurs! The denser textured Liege waffle is square and has burnt sugar on the outside. They are sold by street vendors and gourmet restaurants alike.
About 30 million tons of moules frites are eaten every year in Belgium (that's 3kg a person), in a season that runs from September to February. The most common way to cook them is in white wine, shallots, parsley and butter (la marinere) although other recipes replace the wine with Belgian beer, add cream (la crème), or use a vegetable stock. Dispense with cutlery and eat as the Belgians do – use an empty shell like a pair of tweezers to scoop out the mussels.
The traditional accompaniment to mussels is frites (what Brits call chips and Americans call French fries). According to historian Jo Gerard, the Belgians invented frites, way back in 1781. Frites are thicker than French fries and very crisp because, like traditional English chips, they're fried twice. You can pick up a cornet de frites (frites in a cone-shaped card container) from a mobile food stand known as frietkot (or fry shack). Frites special come with fried onions, otherwise try them with mayonnaise, tartar or béarnaise sauce or samourai, a spicy chilli mayonnaise.
La Dame Blanche
This classic Belgian dessert may be simplicity itself but it's extremely delicious: vanilla ice cream topped with melted chocolate sauce (and remember, the Belgian's make the world's best), fresh whipped cream and maybe a cherry. It's the Belgian equivalent of a hot fudge sundae and you'll find it on menus all over the country. Order a Belgian Cherish Raspberry Lambic beer to sip while you indulge.
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This is comfort food, pure and simple. Stoemp is a typical Brussels dish made from mashed potatoes mixed up with... other mashed vegetables. These traditionally include endive, kale, onions, carrots, turnips, Brussels sprouts, spinach and greens. Sometimes cream or milk is added to the mix. It's a bit like the English ‘bubble and squeak' or American ‘hash'. Eat it on a grey winter's evening with bacon, sausage, beef or some boudinblanc (fried sausage made of pork without the blood) or noir (black sausage), and you'll soon feel all is well with the world.
This traditional Flemish dish can be translated as ‘eels in the green' and that's exactly what it is: eels in a very, very green sauce. Fishermen used to catch the eels in the river Scheldt, between Dendermonde and Antwerp, and then prepared the dish with whatever fresh herbs they found along the river banks. Today, the sauce is made from a mix of herbs, which may include chervil, sorrel, parsley, mint, watercress, basil and thyme, which must be added at the very last minute in order to preserve their vibrant colour. Enjoy this dish served up with frites or bread.
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Gentzewaterzooi is a soup-like stew. Waterzooi comes from the old Flemish word zooien, meaning ‘to boil' and gentze shows that the soup originates from the city of Ghent. It's traditionally made from fish such as carp, pike, eel and bass – but these days more commonly these made with chicken – as well as vegetables like carrots, leeks, potatoes, and then thickened with eggs, cream and butter. It's usually served with toasted French bread to mop up the soup.
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Read more on local and traditional foods around Europe:
Photo credit: Francisco Antunes (Belgiam beef and beer stew), Ralph Daily (Belgian waffle), Takeaway (filet Americain on rye, sole meunière, Paling in'tgroen), kochtopf (ice-cream sundae), visitflanders.us (Gentzewaterzooi), libelle-lekker.be (Stoemp).
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