In Belgium, we call French fries simply fries, because we know they were named wrongly. They should be named Belgian fries because there is no country in the world that takes fries more seriously than we do. A lot of our traditional dishes are eaten with fries. Like mussels, which we have by the kilo as a main dish with a side of fries. Or “stoofvlees”, the Belgian version of goulash. Fries are also our favorite fast food. The Americans have hamburgers, the Italians pizza, the Germans have sausage and we have fries, or frites (in French) or frieten (in Flemish).
Every respectable village in Belgium has his own -but mostly several- frites shops. And although the interior might vary, they all have a couple of things in common. First of all, a humongous fryer, mostly with at least two different compartments for different temperature settings. Secondly, a counter showcasing the enormous variation of possible sides, which are by the way also fried. Most are based on meat, but there is a growing number of vegetarian choices. My favorites are cheese or shrimp croquettes or a “frikandel special”: a minced meat sausage cut open and filled with diced onions, ketchup and mayonnaise. Which brings me to the third element of all frites shops: sauces. Yes, we traditionally eat mayonnaise with fries, but there are a lot of other options in frites shops, like curry ketchup, bearnaise or “samurai”, a spicy sort of mayonnaise.
When we still lived in Belgium, we had an excellent frites shop at the corner of our street, which we visited mostly on Friday nights. Or we would have fries at our favorite bar, as fries go best with beer. Especially if you are having beer in large quantities. Hmm, I guess the bar owner was just being smart allowing his customers to eat their take out fries at his bar.
In the States, I honestly did not miss Belgian fries that much. For two reasons. First of all, the range of fast food and take out around us quadrupled, which diminished the need for fries. Crossing the street, we had a Thai, a great burger place, a great pizza place, a McDonalds – which we first went to in our third year there – and a sushi place. The one thing not within walking distance was our favorite Mexican place. Don’t get me wrong, I love fries, but a burger or a burrito well done is better than half-baked fries. Secondly, our friend Mallory introduced us to “poutine”, the Canadian version of our traditional dish: fries with “stoofvlees”-sauce. Yes, unfortunately the Canadians do replace the mayonnaise with cheese, but the meal does fulfill the same basic need of fatty Belgian comfort food.
Now Germany. Germany is a completely different story. Of course, we went from a major city to a tiny village. So, our fast food options melted away like snow in the sun. Still, we have not one but two pizza places in town, one of which is in fact also a kebab store. But none are good. Going into town does not, however, improve the fast food by a lot. Yes, more and better options are available: mostly kebab and sausage, which are fairly decent, but I simply don’t “crave” sausage or kebab. Next to these traditional fast foods, there is also a growing hamburger culture, but all of them have the same Achilles’ heel: the fries. The fries, almost always served as a side dish, are simply not good. And to make matters worse: they put paprika powder on them! Paprika powder!! In the five years here, I have never enjoyed fries in Germany. One fancy restaurant came close once, but unfortunately, instead of putting paprika powder, they put chopped rosemary on them. With every bite I took, my head shouted “Why? Why did they do that?”
What has made this lack of decent fries in Germany bearable has been our frequent visits to Belgium. We have the great fortune of wonderful friends hosting us for the night while on our way to our parents’ s houses, a frites shop dinner is often included! And if our Belgian basic need was not fulfilled there, another frites shop stop is mandatory. Next to a grocery shop stop for chocolate, speculoos – the Biscoff cookies- and beer.
Enter Corona. We haven’t been in Belgium in a year by now. We had some stocks of speculoos, beer and chocolate brought to us by our life savier Cecilia, but our cries for Belgian fries could not be answered. Our need for fries became unbearable and as a result, we spoiled ourselves for Christmas with a real Belgian fryer. Because if you can’t get to Belgium, you have to make the fries come to you. Or how Corona sometimes has positive effects on our lives.