Belgium may be a largely land-locked country, and Brussels, its capital city, is relatively far from the coast. But that doesn’t mean the country doesn’t boast some incredible seafood. In fact, the country’s national dish is none other than moules frites—mussels with fries. And while that may seem like a strange combo if you have yet to be acquainted with the European city’s food scene, you only have to try it once to understand what all the hype is about.
It all starts off with briny, salty mussels, usually steamed with aromatics like celery, onions and leeks plus butter (but sometimes blessed with thick cream or a sultry tomato sauce), cooked lightly until they pop open, their obsidian shells perfectly framing the plump, fleshy meat inside. The first mussel may be extracted from its shell with a fork; subsequent mussels can be plucked out with the help of the first shell acting as tweezers. If you order mussels in Brussels, you’ll be greeted with a heaping, almost intimidating pile of shells on your plate, but no worries—their light flavor and texture ensure that they’re not too filling, satisfying your palate without requiring you to unbutton your pants halfway throughout the meal.
But that’s where the fries come in. Though the French have long claimed the long, thin strips of potato as a signature dish, fries can actually be traced back to Belgium—and they’re truly at their best when paired with fresh mussels. Salty, carb-y and filling, fries can really shine when they’re not being overshadowed by the heaviness of a burger, as is their traditional counterpart in the U.S. The fried potatoes can either be dipped in the flavorful cooking liquid that the mussels are still bathing in when they arrive at your table or given even more richness with the addition of plain mayonnaise. This is the heavy part of the meal, the part that’ll keep you from ordering another serving of mussels.
These days, you’ll find moules frites at higher-end restaurants around Brussels and other European cities, though the dish originally became popular because of the low cost and wide availability of mussels. When paired with potatoes, another readily available staple in Belgian cooking, the dish became a favorite of the country’s poor. Though moules frites can now be found in Brussel’s posher eateries, its consumption is still regarded as a casual affair, a dish to savor, not to fuss over.
While other classic poverty-foods-turned-“fancy”-foods boast an element of pretention or exclusivity (think lobsters or oysters), there is still something slightly more humble, more subtle about moules frites. It’s eaten with the hands with limited need for utensils. It’s almost snacky, a dish that can easily be shared, passed around the table and enjoyed communally. And for the most part, it doesn’t feel snobby. That’s not to say that there isn’t any element of exclusivity there—unlike in the age of the dish’s invention, moules frites is not particularly cheap, and at many restaurants, it’s far from affordable for much of the country’s poor.
But luckily, it can be made at home. You don’t even have to book a trip to Brussels to experience the true joy moules frites has to offer. Simply pay a visit to your local fishmonger, if you’re lucky enough to live near one. In a pinch, fresh (not frozen!) mussels from the nearest grocery store will do. Steam them with the aromatics of your choice, or add wine or beer to the vegetable broth and butter combo. Some restaurants in Brussels even add extra flavor to their broth with the addition of spices like curry powder, a feat that can also be easily achieved at home. Cook them until they pop open, and pair with the deep-fried (preferred) or oven-baked (if you must) fries of your choice. In my opinion, you’re definitely not going to want to skimp on the mayo on the side. I’ll personally always opt for kewpie, loaded as it is with richness from egg yolks and a generous portion of MSG, but Hellman’s is also acceptable. (And to all the Duke’s people out there, I don’t want to hear it.)
The Belgian staple dish is classically enjoyed the most during the winter months when mussels are in season and in plentiful supply, though you can snag cultivated mussels year-round. The important thing is that you embrace the dish for what it is: finger food to be enjoyed in the company of friends and family.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.