What is Belgian food?

Article published on March 14, 2011
Article published on March 14, 2011
By Enisa Bajrami The diversity of languages is Brussels is on par with the diversity of the food. Only walking down the street you can hear thousands of different languages spoken at the same time. On every corner, you can find different restaurants such as Italian, Mexican, Chinese, French and Indian, and sometimes it may seem that traditional Belgian food is slowly vanishing from the daily menu.
Cafebabel talks to expert "foody" Professor Danielle De Vooght Ph.D about food and cultural identity.

Food has a special power of identity and culture and by losing food identity, one can risk losing its culture identity as well. There are many questions that can be asked related to food and identity in Belgium. Read this short interview with Professor Danielle De Vooght, Ph.D, who has a master in History from Vrije University Brussels and who wrote a Ph.D thesis on “Food culture at the Belgium Royal Court of the 19th century”.In this interview, the discovery of the relationship between food and identity and “frites, chocolate and bread in Belgium” is discussed.

If you would like to expand your knowledge about Belgian food you can always refer to different food books. The one I recommend is “Food Culture in Belgium” by Professor Peter Scholliers. What_do_you_eat_in_Belgium.jpg

1. How do you link food with identity?

Professor De Vooght: I think there is a reciprocal relationship between food and identity. You decide what food to eat because of who you are, but you also are who you are (especially when seen through someone else's eyes) because of the food that you eat. For example, I live in Western Europe (I am Belgian/European), so I don't eat dogs, while this is a normal thing to do when you live in China (and you are Chinese). It is my living environment, my education etc. that create a context in which it is not done to eat dogs. However, I don't eat meat at all. When people realize this, they immediately have this image of me (whether it's a correct image or not, doesn't really matter in this case). So the food that I'm eating (or not eating) has a huge part in creating my identity. Numerous examples can be given that strengthen this argument, think of the example about religious food issues, environmental food issues, the difference between the city and the countryside etc.

2. Belgium is known for its “bread, frites, and chocolates”…is there a special reason that bonds these three foods that have no connection whatsoever?

Professor De Vooght: Perhaps the question should be why Belgium is known for its bread, fries and chocolate by foreigners? I could, for example, also add beer and 'stoofvlees' to the list. I don't really know whether there is a link between the three foodstuffs that you mentioned. Of course, bread and potatoes have been our basic foodstuffs since the nineteenth century. These were the foodstuffs that everyone ate, even if you couldn't afford meat or dairy or whatever, you usually did have bread and potatoes (except in times of crisis of course). In the beginning, fries were actually a luxury product. This is something I also noticed during my own research. When the king and queen (in the nineteenth century) were served fries, their staff was usually offered regular boiled potatoes. By the turn of the century, the 'frietkoten' started showing up in the vicinity of train stations etc., feeding the hungry commuters (so you could call it 'street food'). Chocolate is a quite 'traditional' snack in Belgium, but it is also something that you might present as a gift to family and friends. There is a law saying that it should have a certain amount of true cocoa (not cocoa butter) in it, making sure that the quality remains intact. And, in the same way that professional bread bakers exist (who are educated in this field of baking), there are also professional chocolate makers, taking proud in their work and combining the 'tradition' of chocolate making with new innovative ingredients etc.

You should definitely also take a look at Professor Scholliers' book about food culture in Belgium', there should be something in it about potatoes, bread, fries and also chocolate.

3. With the entire flow of emigrants and with the opening of many world known cuisines in Belgium such as Italian, Chinese, Indian etc…do you think Belgium food is (or may) losing its identity?

Professor De Vooght: No, I don't think so. Of course, it is difficult to talk about 'Belgian' food and 'Italian' food etc. But I think that all of these different cuisines will be coexisting, as will probably also be the case in other (European) countries. The menu might be adapted to the restaurant's 'place of residence', and in that sense you could say that all of these cuisines will lose a part of their identity. But you shouldn't forget that they might get something in return as well. I also think that food has a quite large 'cultural heritage'-value and that, thus, it will be guarded, so to speak, by enough groups of people, to make sure that the different cuisines do not disappear. But of course, I don't really have any proof of that, it is just a feeling and the future will tell whether I am right.

4. Where can the best restaurants serving Belgian cuisine can be found?

Professor De Vooght: ''Of course, Brussels has the largest offer in restaurants and since there is a coming and going from people from all over the world, restaurants are constantly challenged to keep up the pace. So I guess Brussels is the place to start. It is the capital and there should be something to find for every range of income. But as you probably know, Belgium has some restaurants that have obtained Michelin-stars. And since it is really 'fashionable' to create 'local' dishes at this moment, I can imagine that you would eat really well in some of those too!''