We know Belgium is said to be the ‘cockpit’ of Europe, and by cockpit I meant the pit where cock fights happen and not the pilot’s area of the plane. Belgium is so called because it has been the site of more European battles than any other country. The country lies on the road to many other countries, so it is between A and B, C and D, and so many more. Nobody really wanted Belgium, but, since it was in between, it became the battleground for a lot of countries on its either sides. It has been the ground for countless battles – Oudenarde, Ramillies, Fontenoy, Fleurus, Jemmapes, Ligny, Quatre Bras, Waterloo, and so, so many more.
But we also know that Belgium is known for its waffles. Belgian waffles, and I already can feel the aroma of fresh, hot waffles drift by. Belgium has indeed gifted the world quite a few culinary delights – waffles to name one, and then there’s chocolates, crisp fries, well crafted beers, finest chocolates…
Food is but more than just sustenance, I believe. We have, over the years, grown to have food for pleasure, going beyond the purpose of simple sustenance. But, I believe, food could also be a significant symbol of culture. Subsistence patterns in a particular geographical area and the methods of acquiring and cooking food say a lot about the settlement patterns, the available resources, the beliefs and customs about a place. Food is indeed an important part of the culture of a geographical space.
Waffles were first made in the Middle Ages. They were sold as crispy and rich street-side snacks by vendors outside the churches of Belgium. Agriculture was the main occupation of the region, barley and oats being among the majorly cultivated crops, making them easily available to use as ingredients. Such was the popularity enjoyed by these waffles that the stalls had to be kept at a safe distance from one another as they attracted huge crowds, it was indeed a very popular phenomenon of the time.
Contrary to popular belief, Belgian Waffles are not just one type of waffles. There are two types of waffles that originated in Belgium – the Brussels Waffles and the Liege Waffles. The Brussels Waffle is what is now famous the world over as the Belgian Waffle, though actually both the Brussels and the Liege types are Belgian Waffles. The Brussels Waffles were introduced the to the United States at the 1964 World’s Fair in NYC by Maurice Vermersch as the ‘Belgian Waffle’, as most Americans then had no idea where Brussels was. However, they had made an appearance in the USA before at the World’s Fair in 1962 at Seattle. Thus, the image of Belgian waffles in the USA and other countries abroad became highly generalised right from origin. The Liege waffles are most common in Belgium and are known for their rich, sticky texture, accentuated with every bite.
The Brussels Waffle has to be airy, fluffy and has to be eaten with the hands. It is not an excessively sweetened, diabetic snack. In contemporary Belgium, a lot of vendors refuse to hand customer any cutlery to consume the waffles so they can eat it like the real deal.
Generally speaking, the Brussels Waffle is a crowd pleaser, and it is not meant to be a sweetened carrier for a ton of toppings, while the Liege Waffle is the tougher, younger sibling. The Liege waffle has doesn’t have deep pockets or a great perfect shape but it would grow on you with time, with its dense structure.
The Brussels Waffle starts off as a yeast leavened batter. It is fuelled by a special ingredient sometimes, like beer, it’s Belgian after all! Then it is poured into a hot cast iron waffle iron and out comes a crisp, light, melt in your mouth waffle. Surprisingly, an original Brussels Waffle is never, repeat – never, ever eaten with Maple Syrup or honey. It doesn’t need the syrup, it tastes like pure happiness on its own. These days, Brussels Waffle, now that it has become ‘Belgian Waffle’, gets served with all sorts of syrups and toppings, and are more like ‘pancakes cooked in waffle iron’, having also become a popular breakfast option.
The Liege Waffles come from the Liege city in the Wallonia region of Belgium. It is made with a dough similar to that of brioche. It uses pearl sugar (which looks like regular sugar on steroids) is mixed into the Liege waffle batter, so when it is cooked in the iron, these pearls melt and caramelise forming big bites of crisp, browned sugar. Liege waffles are denser, sweeter, chewier. These are also sold mostly on the street and eaten entirely with hands. Belgians do not mar the flavor of their waffles with toppings and enjoy the waffles in itself.