Eating well in Brussels isn't known for being cheap but counting on Belgian beer binges for your caloric needs isn't going to cut it on an empty stomach. Luckily, you don't have to be sitting in a an art nouveau palace to try some traditional Brussels treats. Whether you like it hot and greasy, or just plain weird, the streets of Brussels have something to give your gut a little cultural and culinary satisfaction.
Fries, Chips, Pommes Frites, Whatever...
Photo by: David Huan
We might assume that if our fast food nation can get anything right, it's fries but any thick cut, waffle, or curly variety from the USA can't hold a greasy candle to a crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, twice fried pile of Belgian pommes frites. Belgians are heart-attack serious about fries. So much so that they insist that only one type of potato (the Bintje) is worthy enough to be sliced up, fried, and stuffed in a big paper cone. But the right potato is only half the game, because behind every great fry is a rich dipping sauce. Don't be shocked to see locals covering their cones in thick gobs of mayo, the most popular condiment. While you can always get ketchup if straight-up mayo is too thick for your blood, but why not be adventurous? Some frituers (fryers) offer up to 40 different sauces. Some popular choices include Andalouse (mayo, tomato, and peppers), Samurai (harissa mayo), and curry sauce.
Photo by: Smabs Sputzer
The name of this traditional Brussels soup literally means, "boil," and probably originated from locals tossing anything they could find into a pot of hot water and eating whatever came of it. Because its ingredients are so loosely defined, you can find this soup in many varieties. Some contain fish, some eel, and some are made with a seafood mix. Others ditch the fish all together and opt for chicken. The meat shares the bowl with a mix of typical Belgian veggies, like potatoes, leeks, and carrots, and they all swim around in a hearty broth made with egg, butter, and cream. This is no watery cup of Campbell's. The winters get cold in Brussels and the Belgians don't fuck around when it comes to filling your bowl with something that'll not only warm you up, but give you enough calories to survive the frigid walk home from the pub.
Paling In't Groen
Photo by: David.Monniaux
When visiting Brussels, you'll hear French as the spoken language almost everywhere, but the traditional Belgian tongue is Flemish. Flemish culture often gets pushed aside in the metropolitan streets of Brussels, but going to the Belgian capital without taking in a little of its true cuisine would be a damn shame. "Paling in't groen" is a dish that looks as strange as it sounds. Prepared with eel, vegetables, and a variety of herbs, it looks, well, about as appealing as something fishy, green, and chunky can look. However, your inhibitions will disappear as soon as you chomp down on a tender piece of eel and remember that strange food is often strangely delicious.
Photo by: Massimo Barbieri
One thing you absolutely must try in Brussels, if only just for fun, is street escargot. Old men set up shop in the busy streets with their rolling carts and giant pots of steaming stew, and if you peek inside, you'll see big, slimy, snails bubbling up and down in brown broth. A few euros are all it takes to entice the snail slinger to fill your little bowl to the brim with the creepy crawlers. The little guys have already been de-shelled, so there's nothing between you and some salty snail action. The first squishy bite can be a little unnerving, but if you can get over the texture you might become another escargot addict roaming the streets for your slippery fix.
Photo by: Taiwai Yun
The one thing Americans associate with Belgium (beside Jean-Claude) is waffles and getting your hands on them in Brussels will change your mouth's life forever. Whether it's a soft, pillowy treat made by an old lady, or a thick, sugar-crusted creation cooked in the back of a waffle van, you're bound to be in a powdered sugar dusted heaven. The traditional Brussels waffle is made to order and comes out soft, light, and ready for whatever toppings you can pile on (although the locals insist that a true Brussels waffle comes crowned ONLY with powdered sugar). The other street-friendly variety is the Liege waffle. This one starts as a ball of thick cookie dough-esque batter, which is then smashed into a waffle press. The Liege is a dense, caramelized slice of goodness and a perfect companion for cold walks through the cobblestone streets. Get some chocolate drizzled on that bitch and go.
Photo by: Adam Dachis
If waffles aren't doing it for you, you can switch over to a real champion's confectionary fix, the lard ball. No dickin' around about it, these are crafted from real deal lard. The big balls of fatty dough are fried up in hot oil and then sit for about an hour as they puff up into scrumptious artery grenades. Then they are coated in powdered sugar and are ready to become your next guilty pleasure. Smoutebollen are a typical Brussels festival food, and if you visit around New Year's, you'll see everyone gorging themselves on these little devilish delights.
Keeping your meals strictly street will save you some cash. Make a mussels bank and treat yourself to a traditional hot pot of these classic crustaceans. They should run you about 20 euro; the cheaper tourist kind will just give you the runs.
Written by: Ben Gorman