Monday, April 28, 2014

W is for Belgian Waffles

“What a great exhibit,” I said catching the afternoon light on the museum’s front steps.
“Art is inspiring,” my Belgian friend said grasping a rolled up poster of a Surrealist painter. 
“And stimulating.” 
“And expensive.”
“And makes me hungry.”
“Let’s get waffles!”


Whether domestic or international, traveling allows one to experience the local cuisine. Thanks to my various journeys I’ve enjoyed eating Po’ Boy sandwiches in New Orleans, fish and chips in London and sushi in Kyoto. But then I like eating sushi anywhere, anytime, anyhow. That’s exactly how Belgians feel about waffles. Find yourself peckish between lunch and dinner? Get a waffle. Want a snack? Get a waffle? Want a pick me up? Get a waffle! In Belgium waffles are the go-to snack and a popular hot food of choice. They’re sort of like New York City’s salt pretzels, only they’re sweet and good. And unlike salt pretzels which native New Yorkers never eat, all Belgians eat waffles. Sometimes several a week. 

Astrid’s smiling blue eyes sparkled in her attempt to convince me to get a waffle. 
“Sure,” I said. “Let’s get Belgian waffles.”
“Uh… Belgium doesn’t have Belgian waffles.” Was this some joke? Had the exhibit we’d just seen on Surrealist painters infected Astrid’s brain with a sense of playful fun and nonsense? 
“Of course Belgium has Belgian waffles,” I said. She shook her head and proceeded to explain the waffle situation in the land of the Belgae.

“There are three main types of waffles,” she said holding up two fingers and a thumb. 1) Stroopwafels; 2) Brussels waffles; and 3) Liège waffles. A stroopwafel consists of two hard, round disks—like flat cookies imprinted with a faint waffle pattern—that are bound together with a sugared caramel center. It’s like an oversized Oreo cookie with caramel and they are delicious. Often they are eaten with coffee or tea and they may even be set on top of a coffee cup or mug—much like a lid—which warms up the caramel center and makes it even tastier. Stroopwafels are sold in packs of eight in grocery stores and supermarkets. And speaking from personal experience, they are addictive.

“Then there are Brussels waffles,” Astrid continued which come in a rectangular shape and have deep, square grooves, which are perfectly designed for holding powdered sugar. These waffles are sold hot on the street by food vendors. They can be eaten with the fingers or on a paper plate which is then topped with strawberries and whipped cream. No Belgians eat Brussels waffles with strawberries and whip cream, that’s for the tourists. Rather Belgians either eat Brussels waffles plain or with a dusting of powdered sugar and they use their hands.

“Then there’s my favorite,” Astrid smiled as we walked side by side. “Liège waffles.” These waffles use a brioche dough and pearl sugar whose granules will cling to the cooked dough like a barnacle on a ship, like ivy on a chimney, like a five-carat diamond ring on a woman’s finger, like— You get the idea. Traditionally from the eastern city of Liège, these waffles are now sold nationwide from street vendors who will make them fresh while you wait. Vanilla is also in the batter but once you taste the pearl sugar, everything else fades away. It’s surreal.

“What about Belgian waffles?” I said as we crossed the street to a waffle street vendor. 
“Those only exist in America,” Astrid said with the flick of her wrist. 
“What about serving fresh fruit and syrup with your waffles?” I said trying to legitimize the Belgian waffles found at every Denny’s restaurant in North America and devoured by every one under 102 years of age. “The ones you eat with a fork and knife?”
“Those Belgian waffles only exist in America,” Astrid shrugged.

We stopped in front of a vendor selling Liège waffles on the street.
“Twee wafels,” Astrid said ordering for both of us. I watched the vendor rub butter on the waffle irons, pour the batter onto the waffle grids and close the lid. In the waning sunlight the smell of baking vanilla and sugar made my mouth water. Soon a bell beeped. The vendor opened the waffle iron and using a two-pronged metal fork, whose tines were as long and thin as knitting needles, poked the fork into the waffles, slipped them into a piece of wax paper and handed one to Astrid and the other to me. 

“Do I eat it with my hands?” I said lifting the hot waffle to my face. 
“It beats eating it with your nose,” she said biting into the dough. I followed her lead. She was right: no matter how good it smelled, it tasted so much better on my tongue.
“Lekker,” she said chewing her waffle. There was nothing surreal about it. Eating hot waffles while walking in the street with a friend was delicious.