French fries have nothing to do with France – as many Belgians will attest – so why we do mistakenly refer to them as ‘French fries’? Where did French fries come from?
Fries form half of one of the top Belgian foods along with a pot of mussels – known as moules frites – and are a national Belgian symbol with political punch.
If you say the word potato, the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 and the origination of tubers in South America come to mind. But chop them up, drop them in a vat of simmering oil, add a touch of salt and you’ve got a whole new ball-game of Belgian fries. So where exactly is the French fries origin?
Indeed, you will make no mistake about the French fries origin once you visit Belgium: Fries have permeated into every pore of Belgian culture from pop art and comic strips to music and advertising. You will find frites stalls (frietkot) across Belgium, which are certain to ensure the economic return on Belgian potatoes (bintjes) for eons to come.
Where did French fries come from?
The ‘chip’ or ‘French fry’ has gone a long way in putting the Kingdom of Belgium on the map – culinary or otherwise – even if they are called ‘freedom fries’ in-flight on Air Force One, ‘patates kizartmasi‘ in an Istanbul Café, ‘gamza teekim‘ on the streets of Seoul or ranskalaiset perunat sitting on a bench in Helsinki.
Often mistaken as French in origin, the word ‘french’ became synonymous with frites due to the fact that, in old English, to ‘french’ was to ‘cut lengthwise’. Hence, the French fry.
“We modest Belgians don’t mind the French claim because we know that fries are God’s gift to our people,” exclaims a website completely dedicated to the art form of Belgian fries making.
You wouldn’t be the only one to mistake the French fries origin. ‘Fry ban targets wrong country’ went a Reuters headline at the height of the French product boycott in the US following its stance against the Iraqi conflict.
“The chip is essentially regarded in Belgium as a culture, social strata and gender bridge: soul food,” says Paul Ilegems, curator of the Belgium Chip Museum on the second floor of Frietkot Max on Antwerp’s Groenplaats.
“What would Belgium be without chips?” he asks in the pages of “Het Belgisch Frietenbook, “Just a grayish zone, an insignificant stain on the globe, deprived of any personality.”
A bit harsh perhaps but it’s obviously clear that frites are serious stuff in Belgium.
“Belgium is beer, cartoons, mussels, chips and the Royal family,” a frietkot (frite stall) owner sums up.
The real history of French fries
What we recognise today as Belgian ‘frites‘ or ‘friets‘ is thought to have originated in the Meuse region in the year 1680. The poor inhabitants of the Meuse valley area subsisted mainly on fish, but when the river Meuse froze in 1680, potatoes were cut into the shape of fish, fried and used as a substitute to their main staple – or so the story of Belgian fries goes.
The Belgian tourism board says that Belgian fries – ‘les frites’ – were incorrectly named ‘French fries’ by American servicemen when they came to Belgium at the end of World War I. The French fries mislabel was reportedly the result of naming the fries after the French language spoken in Wallonia.
There has been much disagreement over the origin of frites as the region lies in the heart of French-speaking Wallonia, forcing Flanders to desperately seek a Flemish origin to the food. But, as in most countries, food can define culture and in frites are generally accepted as a unifying force and thoroughly ‘Belgian’ – francophone or not.
French fries (or rather Belgian fries) are thought to have arrived in the US in the late 1700s when Thomas Jefferson brought the method back to the colonies. We can guess it’s the method he brought back and not a soggy bag of chips.
In the UK, the first chip is believed to have materialised at Dundee Market in the 1870s, traded by a Belgian immigrant named Edward De Gernier.
As for the frites add-on essential, mayonnaise, its origin is cloudy. One theory connects it to the harbour town of Mahon, liberated by Cardinal Richelieux from the English. The towns of Bayonne and Mayon, however, also claim the golden morsels as their own.
Finding the perfect frites
Frites have essentially become a national Belgian symbol sold out of caravans and shacks and chalets, fried twice (trade secret), dash of salt, glob of mayonnaise, a little plastic fork and presto: perfect fries.
The idea has been exported to New York and, as the song goes, if a chip can make it there it can make it anywhere.
Lest we forget though that there are many levels of Belgian chip-eatery – not all of them are handed over a greasy counter in an off-white paper cone by a burley chip-van owner in Anderlecht. On restaurant menus you can find filet mignon served with a chiffoné of pommes frites, if you please.
Fries have come a long way since their fishy origins and have mutated to fit each culture that has adopted them – newspaper-stained and doused in salt and vinegar in Birmingham, or cooked in peanut oil and served in a basket of palm leaves in Borneo, to name a few.
But they remain Belgian through and through while encouraging Breughel-belly across the globe.
Although the US may not have known it, they were killing two birds with one stone when they boycotted French fries – they made a point to the French and rejected a Belgian product at the same time.
Who would have guessed the political power of potatoes?
French fries recipe
The best potatoes for French fries are fresh, never frozen, and with a medium-firm consistency that is not too firm nor too soft. In the best French fries recipe, frites are cut rectangular around 1cm square. The secret to the Belgian fries recipe is that the potato is fried twice. The Belgian tourism board recommends that the first fry should be done at 150°C and the second fry at 175 °C.
The result are golden perfect French fries that have a soft inside once your crunch through a crispy outside. You then just have to choose your frite topping or speciality fries sauces in Belgium, such as:
- mayonnaise, curry mayonnaise, curry ketchup
- andalouse sauce – a mix of peppers, mayonnaise and tomato paste, pickles
- samurai sauce – mayonnaise with Tunisian chili, spices, tomatoes and bell peppers
- pickel sauce – a yellow, vinegar-based sauce with turmeric, mustard and chunks of crunchy vegetable.
- sauce americaine – mayonnaise with tomato, chervil (French parsley), onions, capers, seafood stock and celery.
- sauce riche – pink, tartar-based sauce
- fromage – cheese.
Read tips on how to get perfect French fries in this not-no-secret French fries recipe.