Belgium is known for its wide-ranging eponymous cuisine, including Belgian waffles, Belgian endive, and Brussels sprouts, and slightly more generic but no less admirable Belgian chocolates, Belgian mussels, and Belgian beers.
But I had come here for Belgian frites, those delectable, hand-held sidekick potatoes, crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, almost always served in heaps along steaks and mussels in restaurants throughout the world.
We’ve known them as “French fries” perhaps because they’re cut in the French style, or “frenched.“ Or maybe because American soldiers in Belgium discovered les frites in World War I, when the Belgian army spoke French. But a journalist named Jo Gerard details how Belgians ate fried potatoes, cut lengthwise, as far back as the 17th century, in place of small fried fish to accompany meals. That’s way before France’s first written mention of fries in the 19th century. So the kerfuffle about “Freedom Fries” a few years ago was even more stupid than we thought.
But let’s keep it in the present. On a recent spring week in Belgium, folks were out and about in ancient towns such as Ghent and Bruges, strolling along canals, visiting Flemish artworks, or on their way to work. And many were munching on frites. That was the goal of my French fry tour.
I’ve visited Bruges many times and even wrote about it in a guidebook: It’s best to go off-season, off-hours, when crowds are fewer. (Besides the frites, check out not just the Belfry and the town hall with the Basilica of the Holy Blood, but quiet corners, such as the Beguinage, where single women have found refuge for centuries.)
Folks wander the Bruges canals holding paper cones of the crisp, golden fries.
Folks wander the Bruges canals holding paper cones of the crisp, golden fries. Throughout the day, kiosks known as fry shops offer the freshly cooked potatoes with topping choices including mayonnaise, cheese, and curry ketchup. But you don’t find these yummy potatoes just at the fry shops. Frites are the supporting act at many memorable meals throughout Belgium.
Ghent is a sensual place, known for its architecture and artwork (there’s also a renowned torture museum, but that’s another story). The city’s pleasures include loads of little candy shops and cheese and chocolate shops along narrow, winding streets, so you can graze quite happily. The most popular hot nibble is frites, which I devoured at dinner at Belga Queen, a popular canal-side restaurant inside a 13th-century grain storehouse.
In nearby Mechelen, an ancient, charming, relatively untouristed town well-worth a visit, I stayed at Martin’s Paterhof, a converted 19th-century Franciscan church, where stained-glass windows dominate guestrooms, and flying buttresses frame flat-screen TVs. No frites evident, but then I walked along the cobbled streets to the main marketplace. And there, at the bustling restaurant De Witten Vos, my main course of local fish was plated high atop a pile of peas—and delicious Belgian frites.
In nearby Brussels, I couldn’t miss dropping by the Godiva shop and so many of the other great chocolate purveyors. And at the Horta Brasserie inside the Comic Strip museum, an impressive art nouveau building in this city of great architecture, I ordered a savory Flemish stew, hearty beef braised in beer, with golden frites.
I was eating my way through a crisp Belgian potato rapture, rather than the sorry, soggy representations too prevalent in fast food chains around the world. And for those who’d like to create the real thing at home, authentic recipes for Belgian Frites are the next best thing to visiting the ancestral home of the fry.