My only brush with Belgium prior to visiting was the chicken waterzooi my mother would make for dinner sometimes. In the ‘80s, my uncle was an editor for a Japanese newspaper and was stationed in Brussels for a while, and my cool cousins grew up speaking French and, I assume, eating lots of quality chocolate. The waterzooi recipe came from a Belgian friend of my aunt’s, and was something she brought with her when the family was transferred back to Tokyo. Its light cream broth with a hint of tanginess from the lemon always reminds me of home.
With four days to spend in Brussels, we scoured Couchsurfing for the perfect host to spend that time with. We found it in the form of a tall, stylin’, chain-smoking Belgian named Flex who quit his cushy fulltime job to work for himself and to enjoy a more flexible schedule. Flex lives in a beautiful apartment in the hip neighborhood of Saint Gilles, which reminded us of Park Slope (Brooklyn), but with a lot of cool Art Deco architecture and a much more happening scene during the work week.
The first night in the city, Flex took us to an outdoor market where we bought freshly-made Moroccan wraps and a bottle of cava to share on the steps of the Saint Gilles Town Hall. It was a Monday night and people were packed into the square eating and drinking late into the night as if they didn’t have work the next day. We finished the night with Belgian beers at a nearby bar, Moeder Lambic.
I caught a glimpse of one of my cousins here, a beer lover (well, alcohol lover) who would’ve undoubtedly sat at one of the wooden tables savoring the bar’s offerings. When we left the bar after midnight, there were still a good number of Belgians there. Seriously, Europeans know how to have a good time.
Besides their beer, Belgians take chocolate very, very seriously. Flex pointed us in the direction of the Grand Sablon neighborhood where all of the big chocolatiers are clustered. We realized that we’ve already had most of these chocolates in Tokyo or New York: Wittamer, Neuhaus, Pierre Marcolini, Godiva… But we also realized that they were much cheaper in Belgium so we sat down at Wittamer for dessert and I caught a glimpse of my aunt walking through the neighborhood with her sons in tow.
When my grandmother was still alive, my aunt and my mother would have tea and sweets with her every afternoon before they went home (which was next door and upstairs, respectively) to prepare dinner. It was probably something my grandmother looked forward to every day. A time when her daughters took a moment out of their busy days to sit with her for a while. My sister and I would always join them on the weekends and over summer and winter vacations when we were loitering around the house. Every year, my aunt’s Belgian friend would send her a box of her favorite chocolates, and my aunt would share them with us on these afternoons.
Over the course of the next few days, N and I did the touristy stuff during the day (details in the next post) and met up with Flex in the evening. Every night, the three of us packed into his Renault and he expertly sped around the city, taking us to restaurants and bars the locals love. At the end of these nights, we always got a mini-tour of the city at night as Flex drove around the empty streets pointing out the lit-up landmarks of Brussels.
A trip to Brussels isn’t complete without having mussels, so Flex recommended La Bonne Humeur after warning us that a meal of mussels isn’t cheap (about 20 euros per person). This was our one splurge for the city, so we were fine with it. We met up with another CS couple for a nice group dinner, where I ate mussels like a real Belgian by using a mussel shell like a pair of tweezers. I had learned this technique from a friend who had spent some time in Belgium, but it was cool to be using it in Brussels.
I caught a glimpse of my uncle the next afternoon. One of the men we met up with for mussels turned out to be half-Japanese, and N and I sought out his mother’s restaurant, Yamayu Santatsu, the next day for a chirashi sushi lunch. We had been told his mother knew every Japanese person in Brussels. We were also told it was a steal (and good). Stepping into the restaurant felt like we had been transported back to some hole-in-the-wall place in Tokyo, with Japanese businessmen everywhere, chatting it up with the sushi chefs at the counter. I imagined that maybe my uncle had eaten here back in the day on a lunch break with his colleagues. He probably ate the same lunch set here, feeling nostalgic for the taste of his homeland.
On our last day in Brussels, the three of us went to a supermarket and bought ingredients for a dinner in before a night out. I always love checking out supermarkets in other countries, and the Belgians did not disappoint. There was almost half an aisle dedicated to chocolate bars and an entire aisle for beer. Priorities, priorities.
We bought a few cheeses, a few beers and tiny shrimps for a concoction Flex was going to make for us. That night, we chilled in the apartment and ate a tomato stuffed with shrimp salad. The slightly tangy mayonaissey shrimp salad compliments the sweetness of the fresh tomato. The tiny shrimp are caught off the coast of Belgium and are hand-peeled in Morocco by small children (I’m joking about the children, but who else has small enough hands to do it, hmm?).
We finished the night at Le Bar du Matin in Saint Gilles, where N and I had our last Belgian beers in Belgium while listening to a live band perform big band music. Belgium was never really that high up on my list of places I wanted to visit, but sitting there that night in Saint Gilles, I realized that this was definitely a city I could see myself living in one day. Brussels is a quiet and classy little city, and also felt a little familiar to me, thanks to my aunt and her family who had introduced the city to me as an ignorant kid. And thanks to our tall, stylin’, chainsmoking local, we got a special taste of the city (quite literally, actually). We’ll be back!
For photos of our time in Brussels, check out our Flickr album.