There are, I imagine, several ways to earn the enmity of a Belgian.
Hovering near the top of the list would be lobbing an insult at that national gastronomic institution – Belgian frites.
Insisting on casting doubt on its provenance by referring to “French fries” is probably not going to make you terribly popular in Brussels either. Lore has it that the name “French fries” can be traced back to World War I, when American soldiers encountered the dish in the French-speaking area of Belgium.
Firmly enmeshed in Belgian gastronomy since the potato made its way to Western Europe in the 16th century, Belgian frites are as comfortable in the home kitchen as they are at the corner neighbourhood frietkot/friterie, or fries shop.
“We are talking about an entire culture, the frietkot culture, which is rich in tradition but fairly modern as an industry,” said Romain Cools, the secretary-general of the Belgian Potato Industry Association (Belgapom) and president and CEO of the World Potato Congress. He was in town last year for the Food and Hotel Malaysia 2017 exhibition.
“Friteries were found at local fairs from 1842, then found their way into village squares and cities. Till today, every main square has its church, the mayor’s house and its friterie – as of 2016, we had 4,643 frietkots in the country.”
The frietkots are part of the Belgian landscape, social hubs where young and old alike gather to enjoy cardboard cones of piping hot fries traditionally made from Bintje potatoes, fried once and then again – the double-frying is an important secret to the fluffy inside and crisp exterior that a true Belgian frite should boast.
The first round of frying cooks the potato through; the second, gives it that enviable golden crunch, which is also the sound of it nestling into your gastronomic dreams for ages to come. Most frietkots today use pre-fried potatoes, so that they only need to give them the second frying.
“The frietkots used to do their own first frying sessions as well, but that resulted in too much starch running in the sewers! So, many use pre-fried potatoes today,” said Cools. “The quality of the frozen, pre-cut fries has improved with technical knowledge. There are no additives like pigments etc. allowed in the growing, or processing of the potatoes and storage techniques have improved too.”
And the 10 minutes that your frites take for the second frying will be spent catching up with your neighbours and making new friends.
Size-wise, these potato batons are somewhere in between skinny shoestring and stout steak fries. They’re speared on tiny little forks, and eaten with a plethora of sauces; a rich, freshly-made mayonnaise is the baseline, but other dips like beef stew, tartare sauce and Andalouse are also popular.
The mayo-based Andalouse – spiked with tomato, paprika and chilli – got its own day in the sun when German Chancellor Angela Merkel chose it for her frites at the famous Maison Antoine frietkot during a 2016 visit.
“There are 11 million people in Belgium, and the things that keep us together are our king, the national football team, and our food! And of the last, the three major components are beers, chocolates … and frites, of course,” said Cools. And they’re no mere side dish – frites are the main event, and perhaps you may have a meatball, mussels or some stew on the side.
Naturally yellow, medium-starch and low sugar Bintje potatoes are the traditional choice, but the four million tonnes of Belgian potatoes – the country is a world leader in the spud industry – also include varieties like Fontane, Challenger, Innovator and Markies, all focused on the fries market.
Even as the country looks at exporting the frite culture along with its potatoes – Belgium is the largest potato exporter in the world – frites remain rooted firmly on home ground.
Frites even play a role in protest – to protest the failure to form a government in 2011, students took to the streets of Belgium in the “Friet Revolutie” (Fries Revolution), dressed in the colours of the flag and choosing the frite as a symbol of national unity.
“The strength of the frietkots lies in the relationship of the owners with the people,” said Hartwig Moyaert, project coordinator for export promotion at Belgium’s Flanders Agricultural Marketing Board.
“When I went to university in Ghent, all the students went to one particular frietkot,” he said. Actually named De Gouden Sate, the place was simply known as “Julien’s”, after its friendly owner.
“He passed away a few years ago, and hundreds of people came to his funeral – many of them former students travelling from all over. He was that well-known and loved. Imagine, the owner of a small frietkot getting almost a state funeral – now, that is truly Belgian!”
And in homage to Julien, De Gouden Sate’s most famous dish became the Julientje – fries with barbecue spices, stewed meat, mayo, fried onions and pieces of crunchy, fried viandelle (a minced meat sausage).
Evert Onderbeke of Soleil in DC Mall is a proud Belgian; he shares how to make the perfect frites, as well as some Belgian dishes to enjoy with them.
TO MAKE THE PERFECT BELGIAN FRIES
Peel potatoes and cut into desired shapes – thick batons are ideal. Rinse with water, and pat dry.
Fry the potatoes at 150°C in vegetable oil, until soft. Remove from oil, drain and allow to cool.
Fry again in vegetable oil at 180°C, until golden brown and crisp. Sprinkle with salt and serve immediately.
4 egg yolks
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
500ml grape seed oil
1 tbsp vinegar
salt and pepper, to taste
Combine the egg yolks with the mustard and slowly whisk in the oil. Finally, whisk in the vinegar and season with salt and pepper.
2 tbsp tomato paste
paprika powder, to taste
chilli powder, to taste
Combine all ingredients and adjust seasoning to taste.
BELGIAN MUSSEL POT
1 white onion, peeled and sliced
1 clove garlic, peeled and sliced
1 stalk celery, sliced
500g Dutch mussels, cleaned
2 sprigs thyme
1/2 glass white wine
1/2 glass water
salt and black pepper, to taste
20g cold butter
Place the onion, garlic and celery in a pot, and add the mussels. Add in the thyme, white wine, water, salt and pepper.
Bring to a boil, and remove from stove when mussels are open. Discard any that do not open.
Mix in the butter, then served immediately.
VEAL HEAD AND TONGUE STEW, CRISPY SWEETBREAD, SEASONAL VEGETABLES
1 rolled veal head
1 veal tongue
1 big onion
2 carrots, peeled
1 stalk celery
1 sprig thyme
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper, to taste
cream, to taste
cold butter, to taste
500g veal sweetbread
butter, for pan-frying
blanched baby carrots
blanched turnip, cut into pieces
pickled cucumber slices
Cover the veal head and tongue with water, then bring to a boil.
Add vegetables and herbs, salt and pepper.
Turn down the heat and allow the mixture to simmer for about 2 hours.
Remove the meat when it is cooked through, and set aside. Peel the tongue and slice the meat from the veal head.
Reduce the cooking liquid by half, then bring to a boil and add the cream and butter – enough to thicken the mixture. Use a stick blender to process the liquid well, till foamy.
Blanch the sweetbread in boiling, salted water, then refresh in iced water. Remove the fleece and fat, cut into pieces and pan-fry in butter until crispy and cooked through. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Arrange the meats on a plate with vegetables and pour the sauce generously over.