Thursday, June 24, 2010

Flemish Food-Eating Out

On my last night in Belgium, which was also the summer solstice, Stijn, Karolien, Cyrille and I went to a typical Flemish restaurant for dinner. Let me take a moment here to put the record straight about "French" fries. I don't care who came up with this idea, if it's French, Dutch or whatever. Belgian style is where it's at. Please, for the love of god, don't ever consider eating any other fried potato. Karolien demonstrated how to make Belgian fries, the secret of which, lies in the fact that they are fried, not once, but twice. Yes. And if that wasn't bad/good enough, eat them with mayonaisse. Don't argue with me. Just do it. You will not regret it. Well, not now.

There is also something sort of important about being in Belgium when making Belgian fries. As many ex-pats have come to find out (even if they bring the most important kitchen item--the deep fryer--with them on the train to England...) Belgian fries are not possible to make anywhere else. As a food geographer, I find this wonderful. As a lover of Belgian fries, I find this is a bit perplexing. I deduced that it has something to do with the variety of potato, but I suspect that it also has something to do with the soil in which the potatoes are grown. This warrants further investigation, and I shall apply for a grant to return to Belgium so I can eat more fries. I mean, study, fries.

So, this special variety of potato (unclear to me since I don't read Flemish, nor know anything about the Flemish potato varieties--hence a return visit to do "research") is peeled and washed in cold water and dried and cut into thin (or wide) strips. Karolien tells me that this removes some of the starchy residue from cutting and peeling, and leaves more of the starch in the tater to be exposed to the oil in the fryer. Yes. Do that. It seems to me that this is a medium starch, somewhat waxy potato, and if I had an extra set of arteries, I would experiment at home with which variety might work abroad, for all Belgian ex-pats. Since I don't, I'll just come back to Belgium.

There is also some debate in my host household about the proper width of good Belgian fries. Stijn likes them thick, Karolien, thin. Never completely resolved, like all domestic disputes, there is just compromise. Thin one time, thick the next. Karolien's fries were light, crispy and perfect. More perfect than any fries I've ever eaten. We ate them with a fried egg, salad and an almond tart for dessert. Decadent. Lunch. Nap.

So, for my last supper in Ghent, Stijn suggested a kind of carbonade flamande which is a simple tomato based stew of beef cooked in beer. Served with Belgian fries. Yes. I don't think I need to say anymore, and I will just share this picture. Both Stijn and Karolien ordered this as well...I am sensing that it's a favorite, and I understand why.

Afterward, we went next door to "Soul Food" (the name of which made me really happy for lots of wonderful reasons). This was an amazingly cozy, and according to Stijn, typical Belgian bar. It was an amazing cross-cultural experience with thick smoke greeting us as we came down the stairs, "Purple Rain" playing on the jukebox, American whiskey on the menu and the locals greeting each other with kisses and ribald Flemish jokes.

I had an amazing visit to Belgium and I can't thank Stijn and Karolien enough for their gracious hospitality. I can't wait to come back.

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