With an endless variety of world flavors and cutting-edge modern cuisine, Brussels, Belgium may just be the best place in the world for foodies. However, Belgium is only just starting to be recognzsed as a gastronomic destination. Beyond Belgian chocolate, beer, and waffles, most people couldn’t name a traditional Belgian dish, let alone know where to eat it.
I’m so passionate about the foodie scene in Belgium I wrote a whole book about it. Today, I’m sharing six classic Belgian foods you need to try and telling you where you can eat the very best of these dishes in Brussels.
Moules-frites, in French, Mosselen-Friet, in Flemish, or mussels with fries, is a classic Belgian dish you can find at just about any café or brasserie in Brussels. The most common way mussels are served in Belgium is steamed in white wine, in big black mussel pots. In addition to wine, moules marinières also contain shallots, parsley, and butter. Other cooking methods include cream, beer, or even mustard sauce.
Mussels, on their own, can be served as an appetizer, especially shared among friends, or you can enjoy them with fries as a main course.
Like most things, not all mussels are created equal. You may be tempted by the picturesque Rue des Bouchers and the heaped platters of seafood but steer clear (unless you like being overcharged for bad service and substandard food.)
Eat them in Brussels at:
La Bonne Humeur – This unassuming looking restaurant has been serving mussels to Bruxellois since 1954, so they know their stuff. They also offer a variety of styles, in addition to the traditional moules marinières, including cream, garlic, green pepper, and even curry. (Read a full review of La Bonne Humeur)
Chaussée de Louvain 244, Brussels
NOTE Apparently, Le Bonne Humeur has closed down since the publication of this post. Another local recommended me to try Zinneke instead for great mussels.
Place de la Patrie 26, 1030 Schaerbeek
Speaking of fries, (frites in French or frieten in Flemish) they are another must try in Brussels. We may call them French fries in North America, but don’t say that to a Belgian. There’s a lot of controversy around who invented fried potatoes, but I promise you – Belgians perfected them. Once you eat fries in Belgium, they’ll never taste as good anywhere else.
The secret to the perfect Belgian fry is two-fold. First, the potato itself must be a soft variety, but, most importantly, the freshly cut potatoes must be fried twice: First at a lower temperature to cook the inside to a soft, fluffy consistency; and second, quickly at a higher temperature to cook the outside to crispy perfection.
While you can get Belgian fries at virtually any restaurant, they are invariably best from a genuine friterie (French) or frietkot/frituur (Flemish). These fry shops can be anything from a small building to a fry truck and the best ones are hotly contested and voted on annually. While most do serve other foods (all of them deep-fried), the emphasis is always on cooking fries to crispy, golden perfection.
Some friteries still serve their fries in traditional paper cones, while others have turned to the more convenient but less eco-friendly plastic containers. Either way, any good frituur will offer a mind-boggling array of sauces to choose from and, yes, most are mayonnaise based. But, trust me on this one, there really is a sauce for everyone – other than ketchup. Try aioli for a garlicky-mayo hit, or the popular andalouse, a mix of mayo and tomato sauce with a hint of paprika. I’m a spicy kind of gal, so my go-to is samurai sauce, a kicked-up version of andalouse. If you’re brave, you can experiment with anything from peanut to curry sauces, so be Belgian and expand your sauce horizons.
Eat them in Brussels at:
Maison Antoine –There’s always a line at this outdoor stand and that’s a great sign. You can also take your cone of fries to most of the local bars, as long as you order a drink.
Place Jourdan, 1040 Etterbeek
Fritkot – This fry trailer is close to Grand Place but far enough that you won’t find many tourists. Grab a park bench and enjoy.
Place de la Chapelle, Brussels
Meatballs are a Belgian favourite, on both sides of the language divide, and are usually a mixture of beef and pork. In Flanders, balletjes are often served smothered in tomato sauce, or, sometimes, Frikadellen-style; fried in butter with Belgian cherry sauce.
South of Brussels, boulets Liégeois are the rage. These meatballs are served with a rich sauce of beef stock, spices, and sirop de Liege, a fruit syrup a bit like molasses, made from apples and pears.
Whichever style you prefer, you can guarantee they will come with crispy Belgian frites.
Eat them in Brussels at:
Balls & Glory – While not exactly served in the traditional style, I guarantee these will be the best meatballs you’ve ever eaten. Using locally sourced, mostly organic ingredients, Balls & Glory serves up giant meatballs filled with a variety of sauces.
The balls are mainly pork, but there are beef, lamb, chicken, and even veggie versions available. Your ball comes served on stoemp (a potato and veggie mash) or with a salad. Try the blue cheese or truffle varieties, or stick to the ‘retro-balls,’ the way grandma made ‘em. Balls & Glory began in Antwerp and is quickly taking Belgium by storm. (Read a full review of Balls & Glory)
Lakenstraat 171, Brussels
4. Flemish Stew
If I had to pick one favourite Belgian dish, it would be Carbonnade à la flamande (French) or Stoofvlees (Flemish). This Flemish stew literally translates to “stew meat” and that’s a pretty accurate description.
This stew is made from beef slowly simmered in Belgian beer until it melts in your mouth. The sauce is thickened with a few slabs of bread slathered in mustard, a bit of onion, and some seasoning. Some chefs add other ingredients like mushrooms or garlic, but the traditional recipe focuses on Belgian beer and beef.
Good Flemish stew is so much more than the sum of its humble parts. In the right hands, it can be both rich and slightly tart from the beer. It’s the perfect comfort food on a wet winter day, especially as it is invariably served over French fries or mashed potatoes. It warms you from the inside out.
Eat it in Brussels at:
Café Novo – a short walk from Grand Place, this café does a great, traditional Flemish stew, served with fries. Place de la Vieille Halle aux Blés, 37
5. Grey Shrimp Croquettes
The tiny North Sea grey shrimps are ubiquitous in Belgium. If you dine at one of the many seafood restaurants in the Sainte-Catherine neighbourhood, chances are you’ll be presented with a small bowl of these crunchy crustaceans to snack on.
Not only are grey shrimps sweet and delicate, they are part of Belgium’s cultural heritage. Traditionally, these shrimps were harvested along the coast, from France to the Netherlands, by fishermen on horseback.
The only place this tradition is still practised is the village of Oostduinkerke, on the Belgian coast, and it was recently inscribed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. If you have the opportunity to see this spectacle you definitely should.
My favourite way to eat grey shrimps is in a shrimp croquette, (garnaalkroket in Flemish). While there are plenty of bland, frozen, and refried versions served around Brussels, croquettes made from scratch are a revelation. The outside should be a thin, delicately crispy crust. When you break through, the creamy shrimp mixture should be molten and oozing. They make a perfect starter or snack.
Eat them in Brussels at:
Noordzee / Mer du Nord – For a truly local experience, order your croquettes (and a glass of white wine) from this fish counter on Place Sainte Catherine. It’s a local favourite, especially in the summer. These are my favourite croquettes in Brussels.
Rue Sainte Catherine 45, Brussels
Les Petits Oignons – If you prefer to try your croquette sitting down, this restaurant is a close runner-up for the best shrimp croquettes in Brussels.
Rue de la Régence 25, Brussels
Are you ready for dessert now? I thought so! In Belgium, the classic choice has to be a waffle. As with ‘French fries,’ there is some confusion about the term ‘Belgian waffles.’ In fact, there is no one Belgian waffle, but rather two types of waffles, both originating in Belgium.
The Brussels waffle, or gaufre de Bruxelles, is rectangular and flaky. It isn’t as sweet as its rival but is often topped with whipped cream, chocolate, ice-cream or various fruit toppings.
The denser Liège waffle has rounded edges and crystallised sugar baked into it, making it slightly sticky and sweeter than the Brussels waffle.
Eat them in Brussels at:
Whatever you do, avoid buying the over-priced waffles at the shops around Grand Place that are covered in way too many toppings. (In fact, waffle purists say you shouldn’t top your waffles with anything.) You can get both types of waffles from trucks (usually painted yellow) parked around most tourist hot-spots in the city.
There is also a surprisingly good chain, called Belgaufre, found in most metro stations around the city centre, adding a tasty smell to the many less pleasant smells of the Belgian underground.
If you want to fancy things up a bit, my favourite Belgian, or rather Liege, waffle comes from the Dandoy Tearoom, steps from the Grand Place. Dandoy is a traditional Belgian cookie maker, with shops around Brussels. From the street level, the Dandoy shop on Rue Charles Buls looks much like the others. But step inside and you will see a couple of differences.
For one, there is normally someone making fresh waffles, behind the counter, to sell as takeaway treats. Secondly, you’ll notice a set of stairs, heading up to the Tearoom. There, you can sit and enjoy a waffle at your leisure, while admiring the collection of antique speculoos molds decorating the walls. (Read this article for more on Dandoy and the best waffles in Brussels.)
I hope this post has made your mouth water to try classic Belgian cuisine in Brussels. If you want enough Belgian foodie secrets to keep you eating like a local for years, check out my book, the Foodie Guide to Brussels, available in digital and paperback formats on most internet retailers.
Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian travel writer and photographer and the founder of Cheeseweb.eu. She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities.
Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She is currently slow travelling through Europe in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.
Where to stay in Brussels
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