Belgian food is often overshadowed or lumped together with French cuisine- and it is hard to deny its similarity.
However, Belgium might be small, but it has a rich history which has produced some pretty notable dishes and products we know and love like waffles, chocolate and some of the best beer in the world.
Belgium is only a hop-skip and a jump away from the UK and is home to some of the most beautiful, historic cities in there whole world- so I urge you to get there and try the cuisine for yourself. In the meantime, there is plenty to sample right here on your doorstep.
There is only one dedicated Belgian restaurant here in Manchester-Bock Biere Cafe- although there has been talk of others opening. So, this is going to be more of a guide of where to get a taste of Belgian food right here in our hometown.
Belgian food can best be described as simplistic. And I mean that in the best way possible. Some of their most famous dishes are straightforward dishes executed perfectly – like sausages and creamy mash or beef cooked in beer.
One of the things the Belgians do best is mayonnaise. I am obsessed with mayonnaise- I could practically bathe in the stuff if there weren’t anyone around to stop me. And nothing goes with mayonnaise better than crispy, salty chips- or frites as they would say en Belgique.
I can’t even imagine what it must feel like to not know how chips and mayonnaise tastes- but my father always tells me the time he discovered it while away in Bruges when he was a teenager which kick-started an addiction that has transcended to a new generation of mayonnaise obsessed offspring.
Frites and mayo is the most common street food across Belgium, and you will find them on every street corner served in a paper cone with a wooden fork and smothered in a healthy dose of mayonnaise.
I could probably write an entire feature on the best chips of Manchester- there are too many to choose from, but if I had to narrow it down to just one, I would have to pick Man Bites Frog in Chorlton. They are thin frites just like the ones you would find on the streets of Brussels and come smothered in sea salt, black pepper and fresh rosemary and a side of mayo for dipping. Fantastique!
Frites are a loyal side dish to many meals in Belgium. Another simple comfort food that is common in this part of the world would be Moules-Frites which consists of a steaming bowl of mussels cooked in garlic, white wine and cream with a side of fries. It is quick, delicious and straightforward provincial food at its best. I really like the Moules-frites from Brasserie Abode, and it makes the perfect choice for quick lunch.
Although Belgian food can most operatively be described as simplistic, there are lots of dishes that are native to the country which have much more finesse. Filet Américain is just like steak tartare and is made up of very thinly shredded raw beef. Historically, it was made from horse meat, which you can still get in some of the more traditional restaurants in Belgium and the Netherlands, but certainly not here- well, not since 2013… and not knowingly.
Anyway, over in Belgium, Filet American is made without egg and instead used mayonnaise to stick it all together. There is also capers and lots of fresh herbs for flavour, and sometimes this mixture is made into a paste to be spread on toast. I couldn’t find anything exactly like it here in Manchester, but the Carpaccio of Piedmontese Fassona Beef from San Carlo Fumo is finely ground and similar to what you would see in Belgium. Other than that, you haven’t truly lived until you have tasted tartare from Hawksmoor.
Belgians also love a little sea creature they call Crevette Grise, or brown shrimp to you and I. You will find these little buggers on lots of menus in this part of the world, and they have a strong fishy flavour in relation to their size. Belgians love them mixed with mayonnaise and thrown aloft salads, or in croquettes which are so moreish.
They are seen as quite old fashioned here in the UK, so you do not come across them a lot. However, The Lowry Hotel’s River Restaurant has a potted shrimp on the menu which is to die for. The Crevette Grise are potted with a butter mouse with black pepper, lemon and mace and are perfect for spreading on toast. It is an incredibly rich dish, but certainly not to be missed.
The gratin is another dish from this part of the world which deserves an honourable mention. Although it comes from France, the cuisines of these two countries are incredibly similar, so it is popular in the cities of Belgium too. Gratin translates to ‘grate’ or to ‘scrape’ and so refers to any dish which is covered in cheese and baked in the oven. Most gratins are potato based and are used as a side to meat stews and fish dishes.
Potato dauphinoise is probably the most famous gratin which we all know and love, but if you want to blow your mind, I would recommend you shimmy on over to Albert Schloss. They have a gratin dish call Sformato on their menu which is designed to be shared. It consists of truffled mashed potatoes covered in melting nuggets of alpine cheese which are stingy and gooey and everything that is good all at once. I am drooling just thinking about it.
Two out of three of Belgium’s most famous exports fall under the category of sweet. First, there is Belgian chocolate which is arguably the best in the world. The chocolate industry has been a huge part of the Belgian culture since the beginning of the 19th Century, and they quickly became the finest producers of chocolate in Europe and indeed the entire world.
The main chocolates that Belgium is famous for would be pralines, truffles and eggs (as in Easter eggs.) Pralines are soft-centred chocolates which contain any sort of nuts- but most typically hazelnuts. Truffles are those delicious morsels which explode chocolate ganache into your mouth upon cracking open the hard outer shell. I love the cocoa dust truffles leave on your lips too, and for me, no dinner is genuinely over until we have snuffled a few of these.
If you want your chocolate fix, we have some great options here in Manchester. Cocoa Cabana in West Didsbury is a fantastic little coffee shop which serves up handmade chocolates which can be eaten in or taken away in a pretty little box. Their truffles are out if this world, and their beautiful rusty keys are a favourite of mine with a strong black coffee.
Slattery’s is world famous for all things chocolate. From cakes to patisserie, to pralines- they really have it all. You can even go on courses there and learn how to be an expert chocolatier for yourself which range from half a day to five days advanced training. When it comes to chocolate, Slattery’s really knows what they are doing, and if you are a chocoholic like myself, I am sure you already know that.
The other hugely calorific export from Belgium would be waffles. Belgian waffles are made from an extremely light batter that was initially leavened with yeast, but nowadays baking powder is used more commonly. They are a delicious street food that can be bought on every street corner and are typically topped with cream and strawberries.
You can get real authentic Belgian waffles at Bock Biere Café which come drizzled in chocolate, seasonal fruit and ice cream. Bock Biere also has an impressive menu of savoury waffles which are mouthwateringly good – lookout for the Bleu at Vert (blue cheese and pear chutney) – It is almost too good to be true.
Black Milk are also pretty famous for their epic waffles. They are proper hefty- so I would recommend sharing it with someone you trust. Tradition is thrown out the window here, so expect toppings like Oreo and salted caramel, brownie and s’mores and even Kinder Bueno. Hell yes.
I’m going to just give a quick shout out to Speculoos. Now, I know you know what these are, but naturally you might not speak French- they are those delectable little cinnamon biscuits you get with a cup of coffee that are so addictive they are almost certainly laced with meth.
These delightful little biscuits hail from Belgium, and if you wish upon a star the night before walking into Fress- there might be something in their cake cabinet with a generous dusting of this delicious Speculoos. They had a Biscoff cheesecake on a few weeks back which I still think about to this day, as well as larger cakes, brownies and even cronuts.