One study abroad student’s understanding of Belgian culture through local cuisine
This is the start of a new project here on The Study Abroad Blog, which came about after I realized that as much as I wanted to cover every aspect of studying abroad in every country, it’s an impossible task to do on my own. The project is an on-going guest post series, and if you’re a current or previous study abroad student who would like to contribute, you can read more about the project below. Today’s guest post is by a student who spent this past year studying abroad in Brussels, Belgium. Using her interest and knowledge of the local food culture, along with her ability to paint a mouth-watering picture of her experience through words, Janelle gives us the dish on Belgian cuisine and culture.
This guest post is by Janelle Bitker.
When I first arrived to my host family’s gorgeous, four-story home, I was in a state of disarray. I smelled, obviously, having just endured 13-some hours from San Francisco to Brussels, Belgium. The airline lost my luggage. My new host-mother was kissing my cheek and speaking rapid French, a language I hadn’t remotely consumed since high school.
Then there was the fact that I had just left my real life for nine months.
I became less frazzled when I entered the kitchen. Homey and bright, with burnt orange walls and a large wooden table. The idea of eating breakfast and dinner here each evening was an immediate comfort.
And out came my first meal in Brussels: a simple butter leaf salad, with… is that canned tuna on top of canned peaches?
It was, and I was confused.
Belgian cuisine isn’t something many people talk about, and it’s not easily defined. But before my departure, I did do a lot of research, and I found commonly used buzz phrases like, “French quality in German-sized portions!” and “Brussels has more Michelin starred restaurants than Paris per capita!” The first is kind of true, the latter is definitely true.
I fell in love with Belgian food during my time in Brussels. It, like Belgium itself, is simple, wholesome, and most of all, underrated.
Take my first dinner: the canned tuna, mixed with mayo, on top of a halved canned peach. It sounds kind of repulsive. It looked real silly. And yet, it was absolutely delicious, and I still make it for myself to this day. The contrasts between sweet and savory, juicy and creamy, are shockingly satisfying.
The point is that this meal, like Belgium to so many people, did not sound special at first. In fact, it sounded like it should be avoided. It sounded like something I’d easily pass on in favor of, say, a warm goat cheese salad (France) or some simple bruschetta (Italy). But in fact, it, like Belgium, is special and worthy.
My host family created gorgeous dinners each night. There were frequently three courses. The television was never on. The whole family was always present. Belgians make an effort with dinner — it’s an important facet of life that deserves to be treated as such. It’s a welcomed change from typical American life, where dinner may be viewed as a necessary sustenance and nothing more, where eating is often in front of a televised football game, or where family members eat all at different times around their own schedules.
Picture starting with a simple, homemade carrot soup with a generous sprinkling of sea salt. Move on to carbonnades flamandes, where cubes of beef are stewed in spiced bread and dark, malty beer. Or a traditional pot of mussels with hand-cut fries. Then there’s dessert — there’s always dessert — dense chocolate mousse made with the best chocolate in the world, or perhaps a silky flan tart in a speculoos cookie crust.
This isn’t to say my family wasn’t busy and that every single dinner was an extravagant affair. Not at all. But even the quickly prepared meals felt special, more real: a light quiche with flaked canned salmon and spinach; pan-fried pork chops in a mustard cream sauce; grilled sausage with homemade apple sauce.
Belgians love to dine out, too, and it’s hard to find a bad meal in Brussels. All price ranges, from cafes to brasseries to restaurants, can lead to excellence. But even better, it’s a learning experience: people watching, feeling the city envelop you, all the while tasting the physical manifestation of the culture.
In the city’s central cafes, I linger with an espresso as I see tourists file in and take advantage of a safe place to look at their maps. In a cafe in the European Quarter, home to various governmental buildings, I hear groups of suits talking business in perfect English.
At a standing-only outdoor fish bar in the best food district, I rub shoulders with a lone Belgian drinking a whole bottle of white wine and feasting on mussels, calamari and shrimp croquettes. He says, “I only come here once a year, and when I do, I celebrate.”
In Ixelles, the student area, I spread boeuf américaine, raw beef, onto a crusty, buttered baguette. I chow down while hipsters read poetry in corners, and groups of society members (think non-exclusive fraternity) start partying early, in their bizarre and foolish-looking white baseball caps with bills three times as long as usual. It’s a sign of prestige, they say.
I grab a Liége waffle, dense and caramelized, from a street vendor and power walk amongst shoppers, business folk, students, tourists, the elderly and everyone else heading down to the busy metro station.
At midnight, I grab a snack from a friterie — a small shop selling deep-fried sausages and other bites — and walk away with a cone of fries beneath a dollop of mayo. Revelers abound, some obviously ending their nights and others not even close.
At a bar, or a nightclub, or a cafe, or a restaurant, or a snack shop, anywhere, anytime: I grab a beer. A smooth, sweet, nuanced Belgian beer. There is no going back to standard lagers after tasting so many Belgian varieties — white, sour, lambic, fruit, blonde, saison, Trappist — and there is no safer ice-breaker to use on a Belgian than mentioning beer.
Food and the culture around it can reveal so much about a place. Whenever I traveled around Europe, I made these experiences a top priority: a pristine Sacher torte in Vienna, a colorful kebap in Berlin, crazy tapas in Madrid, fine dining in Copenhagen, hearty potato soups in Bulgaria, rich foie gras in France, the simplest and freshest pastas in Italy…
If my prose did not illustrate my intent well enough: Travel. Eat. Eat the local cuisine. Eat what the locals eat. Eat with locals. You’ll learn far more huddled around that table than on any walking tour, and it’ll taste great, too.
Janelle is a student-journalist at UC Davis, missing her time as a student of the world. Scour her old blog posts from Belgium at janellebitker.com.
This guest post is part of a new project on The Study Abroad Blog about the Study Abroad Experience. The goal is simple: collect as many guest posts as possible, with posts written by current and previous study abroad students, covering a specific aspect of a city/country that the student was most interested in or passionate about. If you would like to contribute to the project, head over to the contact page and send me a message!