Belgium is in an interesting confluence of distinct culinary influences. It neighbours France, Germany and the Netherlands, and its cuisine borrows from each to a degree that I suspect they would not be game to borrow from each other. I’ve mentioned before that I think countries with long histories of an openness to inter-regional culinary fusion end up with the best cuisines, so I was excited to try this area of Europe. I wasn’t disappointed; Belgian food has elements of the unabashed ode to fat, potatoes and beer from Germany, as well as an appreciation for subtle complex flavours, fresh produce and wine from France and a flair for whimsy from the Dutch. Indeed, it’s often said that Belgian food happily combines the quality of French cuisine with the large portion sizes of German fare – I can think of no better advertisement! When eating Belgian food, I’m afraid beer is a near-compulsory accompaniment, given that they produce more than 1000 different varieties of beer, more per capita than any other country in the world. I suspect in an attempt to justify this extraordinary variety, there are typical expected beer-pairings with different courses and types of meals. As a starting guide: you should drink a wheat beer when eating seafood, blonde beers with white meat, dark beer (such as dubbel) with red meat, and fruity lambics with dessert. The existence of a “dessert-beer” has endeared me to Belgium for reasons I can’t quite explain. So, appropriate beers in hands, let’s launch into Flemish fare!
Moules frites is perhaps the most famous of Belgian foods – consisting of mussels and French fries. It is said to have arisen from Flemish home cooks living near the coast, who often turned to shellfish during winter when there was a shortage of fish. I cooked the mussels traditionally in garlic, onion, thyme, parsley, white wine and Pernod. I’ve mentioned Pernod before during Southern France week – it’s a liquor that tastes strongly of aniseed and pairs perfectly with seafood. It was quite subtle in the mussels, with the herbs and white wine shining through as much stronger flavours. I happen to think that white wine with seafood is the epitome of deliciousness, so I always knew I would love this dish, but the reality was even better than expected. I made oven-baked fries (because I hate to deep-fry), and they soaked up the mussel/wine-juices as if especially designed for the job. Indeed, it could be argued that this is was the case, as Belgium often claims the title for inventor of chips, specifically paired with shellfish. According to many Belgians, the English term “French fry” arose from English-speaking soldiers hearing Flemish people speaking French while eating fries during World War I and erroneously attributing them to France. This is violently debated by the French, however, who also claim to have founded the concept, and who are also famous for serving moules frites. As far as I’m concerned, the two countries can continue their dispute, because the more moules frites in the world, the better.
Tomate aux crevettesalade liégeoise
Tomate aux crevettes is a typical Belgian starter of cold small cooked shrimp (crevettes) mixed with mayonnaise and stuffed inside raw and hollowed out tomatoes. The briny shrimp mixed with an excellent quality ripe and fresh tomato sings to me of summer flavours and leisurely picnics by the seaside, and indeed this is a dish commonly associated with the summer months. Tomate aux crevettes are not commonly served along with salade liégoise, a contrasting winter appetiser, although upon learning that the latter meant that I could have potato and bacon in a meal under the guise of salad, I was unable to resist making it. Salade liégoise comes from the region of Liege, and the crucial ingredients include fried bacon, boiled or fried potatoes and steamed green beans, mixed together and served warm. I also included sautéed apple and onion in mine (which are apparently acceptable additional ingredients) in order to at least maintain a thin illusion of health. I dressed the combination with a red wine vinaigrette, which nicely balanced the fat of the bacon and starchiness of the potatoes. This is undoubtedly a good meal to make if you are craving comfort food, but you also want to tell yourself you’re just having a “salad” for dinner.
Filet Américain is the Belgian name for a dish popular in various forms across Europe, often by the name steak tartare or variations thereof. The “tartare” part of the name is sometimes attributed to the Turkic ethnic group called the Tartars, from Mongolia, where the tradition of eating raw minced horse and camel meat bound with eggs or milk may have originated from. The tradition then spread into Russia, then west to Germany where it formed the “Hamburg steak” (a raw ancestor of the hamburger), and from there into the rest of Western Europe. The exact preparation differs region-by-region, but generally includes mixing ground beef or horse meat, either with seasonings on the side or mixed in (mayonnaise, onions, capers, Worcestershire sauce, pepper etc). In Belgium, of course, it is often served with hot chips on the side, but having had more than my fill of chips already from Belgium, I opted for bread crisps and vegetables instead. Nobody seems quite sure where the “American” part of the name “filet Américain” came from, given that the dish was never as popular in the new world as in Europe, but I did read one amusing story suggesting that it was a tongue-in-cheek jibe at visiting Americans who were disgusted at the thought of eating raw meat. Perhaps the true origins are lost to history? The reasons for the suspicion of raw meat are not entirely unfounded, with bacteria and parasite infections more likely in raw than cooked meat. Then again, raw fish in the form of sushi has been accepted all over the world, and cultures from Africa to South America also have culinary traditions of eating raw red meat, so with appropriate food safety precautions it’s surely safe. Doubtless, many in Belgium and other parts of Europe enjoy eating this dish daily seemingly without any health ramifications!
Waterzooi (meaning to simmer in water) is a soup/stew that hails from the Belgian town of Ghent, and was originally made with fish, specifically burbot, a cod-like freshwater fish. Legend has it that at some stage the waterways of Ghent became so polluted that it was no longer feasible and/or desirable to eat the local fish, and so a waterzooi with chicken became increasingly popular. In modern times either fish or chicken are used by different cooks. As I already had a lot of seafood on the menu this week, I made my waterzooi with chicken, poaching whole breasts in broth once I had softened and stewed the sliced onion, leek, carrot, celery and potato. The soup is additionally flavoured with bay leaves, time, sage, parsley and plenty of black pepper, and thickened at the last minute of cooking by the addition of cream and egg yolks. I served my waterzooi with a fresh baguette and was delighted by the combination. The dish truly masters comfort food, providing subtle and mild flavours and textures wrapped in a warm nourishing coat. I can’t wait to try it again with fish instead – I think that might be even better.