Sunday, April 7, 2013


This post is long overdue! I was in Belgium three months ago! I really loved Belgium and hopefully I can go back in the next year. 

Belgium can be summed up in one word: food. I only spent a little over a week there, but I have never eaten so much food in my life! Before I went, I looked up Belgium on Wikitravel and read this, “Belgians like to eat. Belgium is famous for its good cuisine and people like to go to restaurants frequently. Best description for Belgian food would be ‘French food in German quantities’.” Of course I was excited, because I also like to eat, but little did I know how big the quantities would be. I associate three foods with Belgium: chocolate, waffles and fries.

I was visiting a good friend and her husband and their cat. My friend is actually from Russia, but has lived in the US for a long time, so it’s easy to forget that she is not an American. And her husband is Belgian. They live in Gent, and that is where I spent most of my time.

When I first arrived in Belgium, my friends greeted me with a Belgian waffle. I didn’t know this until visiting Belgium, but there are different types of waffles. My favorite kind were the ones from street vendors. They have a caramelized sugar crust on them and are seriously addictive. Before I even knew I would be spending a year in Austria, I had asked my friend’s husband if Belgian waffles were actually good or overrated. When he told me they were amazing, I knew they would be really good. And they were!

I also tried the kind of waffle that comes to mind when I think of “Belgian waffle.” I had it in a restaurant with whipped cream. While it was good, I much prefer the ones you can buy on the street. They are absolutely amazing!

As for fries, they were also amazing. My first meal in Belgium consisted of a “small” portion of fries with mayo and ketchup and onions. I actually prefer fries with mayo now, but as a child, I remember hearing that French people ate that and I thought it was the strangest thing. Little did I know that it’s popular all over Europe, I mean, eating fries with mayo, not just in France! My friend told me that a serving of fries at a fries shop is considered a “hot meal” and Belgians will only eat a hot meal once a day.

My first meal in Belgium. This is a "small."
And the chocolate, oh my, the chocolate! The chocolate is also amazing. I know I need to come up with more adjectives to describe the food, but it’s something that is hard to describe and is better experienced. I visited a chocolate museum in Bruges and according to the museum, the cocoa powder is ground very fine in Belgium, which creates a smoother chocolate. Or something like that. I was in a food coma by that point. My friend and her husband gave me a box of chocolates upon my arrival in Belgium. There are numerous chocolate shops all over Belgium (especially in Bruges!) and you can go and fill a box with as much chocolate as you would like. My friend’s husband’s parents also gave me a box of chocolate on Christmas. I came back with two huge boxes of chocolate. But that is not all! Apparently Belgians like to eat chocolate for breakfast. You can buy chocolate bars that are eaten on bread and butter for breakfast. You can also buy chocolate sprinkles that are eaten in the same way. I thought both combos sounded a little weird, until I tried both. There is also something called chocolate paste or spread. Somewhat like Nutella, but no nuts. I brought back the two boxes of chocolate, the breakfast chocolate bars, the sprinkles and a tub of the chocolate spread. Unfortunately the chocolate spread was confiscated at the airport!

Eating chocolate in Europe has made me realize how bad some American chocolate can be. My Mom had sent me all the ingredients to make peanut butter blossom cookies, including Hershey kisses. I ate a Hershey kiss and while I knew it wasn’t the best chocolate, it was amazing how bad it tasted. Fortunately they still taste OK on the cookies. I made those cookies and took them to a party and it was funny seeing how suspicious everyone was of eating this strange American cookie.

As for the massive quantities of food, well Belgium definitely delivered. Granted, I was there during the holidays, so that might explain the copious amounts of food.

My “stuffed” Christmas

I celebrated Christmas at my friend’s husband’s brother’s house with the whole family. That morning, my friend made a big American style breakfast, so I was full before we even left the house. Before going there, however, we stopped by his aunt and uncle’s house.  There we were served cake, coffee and ice cream. I don’t speak any Dutch/Flemish, so I would smile and nod a lot when people spoke to be in Flemish, which I soon learned really quickly is a bad idea. Because it means you will be given more food.

After eating the cake and ice cream, I was stuffed. We continued on to the brother’s house. There, we had some appetizers. I was stuffed at this point, but was still eating, because I do love food. We were there for a couple of hours and then the second brother brought over the “real” appetizer. I was shocked, because I thought we had been eating appetizers for a couple of hours. The “real” appetizer was seafood mixed with a béchamel sauce that was baked in a shell. Very delicious!

We took a break and then were called back for soup. Another break and then the main entrée, which consisted of three kinds of potatoes, steak and salad. (A note about the salad: I had never eaten a salad like this, but my friend told me it was very Belgian. You take whole pieces of lettuce, tomatoes and I think there was also chicory, but I can’t remember for sure. You put it all on your plate and drizzle mayo on top and then cut it up. Then the dressing covers all of the salad and you have pieces of lettuce and tomato.)

I only ate half a steak because I was so full, but everyone else, except for my friend, ate a full portion of steak. Dessert was served later, but I wasn’t able to eat any, but everyone else did! I finished the night on the couch in a total food coma. I can’t even believe how much food was served and how full I felt.

All of the people I met seemed to have a strategy to get me to eat as much as possible. “Would you like some cake? No? Well then, how about some coffee? Ok, since you’re having coffee, do you want some ice cream with that? No? Well, would you like some cake?” Rinse and repeat. 
As for other interesting experiences and observations, I’ll just list a few.

Spa/Sauna: My friend mentioned a spa in Gent that she and her husband sometimes go to. She said that it was “no clothing” and that there was a women only day, which happened to fall on Christmas Day, so we ended up going on a normal, mixed gender day. When we arrived, the man working the front desk greeted us and told us a little about the spa, including that it was supposed to be a relaxing atmosphere, so you were supposed to be mostly silent in the spa. He told us to put on our towels and he would give us a tour. We went to the dressing room, and in the hallway, which overlooked the cooling off courtyard, I saw a completely naked man leaning over. I knew that everyone inside the spa would be naked, but seeing made me start laughing. I had to have a five-minute giggle fest in the dressing room before I could even enter the main part of the spa. Hey, I’m American and I couldn’t help myself from laughing! I just had to get it out before going inside. Once I got over my giggle fest, I really did enjoy the spa. I couldn’t manage to take a dunk in the super cold water, though!

Window blinds: In Belgium, everyone seems to have these window blinds that completely block out all light. I have never seen them in the US. However, since I saw them in Belgium, I feel like I’ve been seeing them all over Europe. I like to call them “vampire blinds” because they do block out all light. I spent the night in a house in Belgium that has these kinds of blinds and it was so disorienting. I thought it was still dark outside, but had ended up sleeping until noon!

Bruges: I went to Bruges and was not that impressed. Yes, it was beautiful, but there were too many tourists and tourist traps. I find Gent to be just as charming without the massive hordes of people. 

Antwerpen Centraal Station: I didn’t actually visit the town of Antwerp, but hopefully I will on another trip. But I had to change trains in Antwerp and it has the most beautiful train station I’ve ever seen. It’s the kind of train station I imagine when I think of a European train station. 
At the top platform looking down.
Ceiling of the station.
Just beautiful!


Now for some more pictures!

Horse meat at the grocery store. It's the very red meat.
The French coast.

My friend and I on the French coast. My hair does not normally look like this!
Penguin house!

House that looks like a windmill.

Houses in France are very colorful.
Got to meet some donkeys!

And a horse!

Unfortunately, we forgot to bring some snacks for them. The horse showed us how he felt about this by drinking muddy water.
The castle/fortress in Gent.

Houses on the canal in Gent. Apparently, houses in Belgium flood a lot. Even ones not on the canal!
Bruges is pretty cute, but I still prefer Gent.
Only in Europe! This was one statue of the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."

Lace map of Bruges.
In Gent.

Yeah, I forgot to mention all the beer. 
Monster stuck in a cannon!

There are great views of Gent from the fortress.

Disclaimer: Any statement I made about Belgian culture, especially the food culture is just from my and my friend’s (who is also not Belgian) observations/experiences. If any Belgians are reading this and don’t agree, I would love to hear your thoughts!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Austrian Food, Part II

I have been thinking about food a lot lately, mostly because I miss a lot of food in America. While I definitely do not feel home sick, I am looking forward to going home, mostly because of all the foods I miss. I do miss my friends and family, but this post is all about the food.

Before coming to Austria, I would have said that I didn't really like German/Austrian food. I've eaten sauerkraut and brats in the US, but German/Austrian food was not something I grew up with in Texas. In fact, I remember when my family lived in Texas and we would visit my relatives in Wisconsin and they were all eating bratwurst. I remember thinking it was the strangest thing, because in West Texas, no one eats brats.

However, after my many trips to Germany and living in Austria for a year, I have come to really like a lot of German/Austrian food that I would have formerly turned my nose up at.

Some things that I've discovered that I love include the following: pumpkin seed oil, pumpkin cream soup, (I've had this in the USA, but it's so amazing in Austria) Wiener Schnitzel, Preiselbeere, (lingonberries) Gulasch, dumplings, spätzle, lamb's lettuce (this isn't exclusive to Austria, but I've never had it in the US) Schweinebraten, and duh, sausages.

Pumpkin: Austrians love their pumpkin. I was actually a little surprised, because I thought pumpkin was more of a North American thing, seeing as how pumpkins did originate in North America. However, it seems like pumpkins here are only used in savory dishes. I haven't seen any pumpkin bread, pumpkin cake, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin pie or even pumpkin in a can. But pumpkin seed oil is amazing and the creamy pumpkin soups you can get in most Austrian restaurants are also amazing.

Wiener Schnitzel: I don't think I've ever actually eaten Schnitzel in the US, but I crave it all the time in Austria. It's a piece of meat that is pounded flat, breaded and fried. Most restaurants serve it here, but the best Schnitzel I've had was at Figlmüller's, a restaurant in Vienna. The Wiener Schnitzel served there is larger than the plate! I prefer Schnitzel made with pork and this is technically not Wiener Schnitzel, as that is made with veal, but it's still made in the "Viennese style." I also love to eat Schnitzel with a side of Preiselbeere. These are lingonberries, which are very similar to cranberries. I already loved lingonberries from my time spent in Sweden, but I love them even more now.

Blatantly stolen from another TA. Schnitzel from Figlmüller's.
Lamb's Lettuce: I don't recall ever seeing this type of lettuce in the US, but it's all over Austria. The first time I had it was when I was at Figlmüller's. It was served with the most amazing potato salad I've ever had. The salad was also drizzled with pumpkin seed oil of course!

Schweinebraten: This is basically roast pork. While it sounds like nothing special, I had some at one of my schools and it was one of the most amazing things I've eaten. Most people prepare it at home, but I have found a grocery store that sells it in slices.

Sausages: I'm actually a little disappointed by the sausage selection in Austria. It's much better in Germany and I was even impressed by the selection in Belgium. I included it in my list, because I do love the sausages in Germany. One of my favorite things is ordering a sausage and roll from a street vendor in Berlin.

Gulasch: I LOVE Gulasch! I think I crave it even more than Schnitzel now. I've had it many times, always with dumplings or spätzle. I've even had it made from venison and also had some served with a fried egg on top and a pickle on the side. I even had Gulasch in Hungary, and while it was good, I think I prefer the Austrian version better.
Gulasch with spätzle, a fried egg and pickles.

As for the foods I miss in the US, I miss Mexican food the most, to the point that when I was in Budapest, a city I do NOT associate with good Mexican food, I visited a taqueria and another Mexican restaurant. Hey, I was desperate! The food was pretty, good, however, and so was the margarita!
A burrito, a margarita and me in Budapest!

I know my first meal when I'm back in the US will definitely involve Mexican food somehow. I know I will miss Austrian food when I'm back in the US, but I bought an illustrated cookbook from Figlmüller's and will probably be attempting my own versions of Austrian food when I'm back at home!