We’ve all tried a Belgian waffle or two. And everyone eats the fries. But what are the origin stories of all these yummy dishes? Belgium has a delicious history, so let’s dig in.
Belgian booze 101
Belgium has 340+ breweries. Belgians love their beer! Beer became popular way back when drinking water was of questionable quality. In fact, it’s still cheaper to buy a beer than water in the country. Historians say brewing in Belgium started way, way back. We’re talking the First Crusades in the Medieval era kind of way back. But Belgium’s developed its own unique brewing and beer culture over the years, one of which is beer brewed by monks.
Original Trappist beer
Belgium houses 5 of the 14 recognized brewing monasteries in the world. That’s right, monks brew the beer here. There’s Westmalle, West-Vleteren, Chimay, Rochefort and d’orval. There’s only 14 monasteries in the world that are recognised as brewing proper Trappist beer and this is one of them. Trappist monks first started in France in the 1600s and believed that their monasteries should be self-sufficient and efficient. So, they ended up brewing their own beer.
But we can get even more uniquely Belgian than that! Westmalle is known for making the first Trappist tripel beer. Tripel beer means it’s the strongest beer in their range, but Westmalle took it to the next level. Their Tripel beer is 9.5% ABV! We’ll take a drink to that.
The Jenever invention
Holland is often called the birthplace of gin. But Hasselt has thrown down the gauntlet. The Jenever Museum says that Jenever, the granddaddy of gin, was made in Hasselt in the 13th century. You can see the evidence for yourself at their museum. Yes, inspect the very important evidence of their 100 gins at the tasting bar.
Jenever was originally sold as a medicine in the 17th century. Mhmm. We’re not sure of the medicinal value, but it’s big in Belgium for a reason. Throw back a shot during the quaint christmas markets or hit up a traditional Belgian cafe or bar and ask for one.
Waffles, chocolates & fries; the trifecta
What’s the history of Belgian chocolate? Well, it all started in Ghent in 1653. The abbots of Baudeloo Abbey started mixing and selling chocolate. That’s some holy chocolate. But it was in the 1800s that the big chocolate factories came about and put together the delicious Belgian legacy we all know and love.
Did you know that praline chocolate was invented in Belgium in 1912? Yup, it was made by chocolate extraordinaire Jean Neuhaus Jr.
Learn more about the origins of chocolate at the Chocolate Museum in Antwerp. Also, you get chocolate samples on the tour. We’re drooling just thinking about it.
The only original fries
Have you ever wondered if French fries are actually French? The story goes that Belgian soldiers served up fries to the British army in WWI. Since the Belgians were speaking French, the British started calling the fries “French Fries”. Yup, leave it to the British to start confusing the rest of Europe. Of course, France has laid claim to the French fry. France says they made the fries in 1789 and they were sold by street vendors. There’s evidence on both sides, but given a Belgian is writing this there’s no claim there, we’ve decided Belgium wins.
What makes Belgian fries special?
Belgian fries are always no more than 1cm thick (0.4 inches) and are fried twice for extra yumminess. They’re served in a paper cone. Top with mayonnaise for that traditional Belgian feel. Frites are a must when in Belgium! Every neighbourhood has their local “fry shack” joint, the fast food of every Belgian. Ask a local their favorite fry shack, they’ll happily recommend one for you to try. Just 5% of Belgians say they never buy fries.
Want to know a little history about the humble potato? Check out the Fritesmuseum in Bruges. Totally devoted to the potato, the museum gives you all the info you need on potato history and more.
The real Belgian waffles
Waffles have been around in Belgium since, like, forever. This classic Belgian dish had its start in the street stalls of the Middle Ages outside of churches. That tradition is still going strong and thank goodness for that ‘cause we love ‘em a waffle lot. Waffles are superior to pancakes and that is our hot take of the day.
The rest of the world, especially America, met the Belgian waffle in 1958 at the World Expo. Taking America by storm, Americans have made their own take on the dish. But they really don’t compare (I think as a Belgian-American I am qualified to say this).
There are various types of waffles but the most popular ones are the Brussels and the Liege waffles. The Brussels one when made right is the fluffiest, lightest pastry ever shaped in a rectangle. If you’re a Belgian, you’re eating this one with powdered sugar and maybe some whipped cream. The Liege one’s delectable secret is its crystal rock sugar melted inside the dough, eaten warm melts right in your mouth. Belgians eat this completely pure. To cater to tourists, you can get a lot of toppings on waffles nowadays, we recommend against it as a true foodie! But hey we won’t judge, just a little bit.
Authentic waffles can be found in all sorts of cafes and restaurants across the country. Make sure they bake ‘em fresh and have the dough prepared fresh and aren’t reheating the waffles - as long as you check for that you should be golden.
If you’re in Antwerp, the Brussels waffles at Désiré de Lille get the local seal of approval. Plus, you can get original lacquemants here. Those are Belgian waffles that were invented a bit later at an Antwerp carnival in 1903.
Other foods you need to know
Waffles, fries and mussels always get all the attention. But Belgium has even more dishes you should keep an eye out for. From more street stall snacks to homey main meals, Belgium has it all.
The national dish
Known as the national dish of Belgium, mussels and fries (Dutch: mosselen-friet) is a classic main course you should try at least once. Mussels from the North sea are said to be the best. Mussels were once known as the common man’s meat but are now the black gold of Belgium.
What makes the Belgian style a bit different is the way they are cooked, you can choose among many different broth flavors. The most popular of which is Natural (cooked in its own broth with veggies) or white wine (cooked in white wine and parsley). You will also see curry broths and various others usually on the menu if it’s a traditional mussels restaurant.
Eat a mussel like a local: hold the mussel shell with your thumb and forefinger. When you hold it like this, you can make a pincer-like movement with the mussel. Holding it like this, you’ll be able to pull out the mussel meat with your other hand easily enough. If all else fails, just watch the locals and copy what they do.
Aren’t you sweet?
The syrup of Liège (Flemish: luikse siroop) is a super sweet spread, often used on pancakes, waffles, and as a sandwich spread. You can find it in meat dishes too to add flavour. If you have the syrup on bread, you’ll probably have cheese on the side too.
If you see ‘à la Liègeois’ on a menu, it means that the dish has this super sweet syrup in it. Proper Liège syrup is made without sugar, but still sweet thanks to all the dates, apples and other fruit in it. As the name suggests, you’ll find this syrup mostly in the Liège province.
At the fry shack
A popular snack in Belgium and the Netherlands, is a sausage made of minced meat (usually chicken and pork). It’s known around Antwerp as “curryworst” and called Frikandel across the country. You can get them along with your portion of fries from the local “fry shack” in every neighborhood, choose from a ton of sauces and toppings. Ask for the “special” a mix of onions, curry ketchup and mayonnaise. We know, it sounds weird but trust us, it’s good.
From Flanders, Waterzooi is a rich dish stew traditionally made with fish but chicken is used too. It’s also sometimes called Gentse Waterzooi, because it comes from Ghent. The soup is made with a base of egg yolk and cream, plus veggie broth. If you’re looking for a filling stew, then look no further.
Belgian home comfort
Carbonnades flamandes aka stoverij is this meaty stew that is perfect for a taste of Belgian home comforts. The beef and onion stew is usually made with beer instead of wine and served with a side of fries or bread. You’ll find carbonnades flamandes in most Belgian restaurants across the country. To make the stew, Flanders Brown beer is the most popular option, followed by Flemish red ale.