You’re no doubt familiar with French fries. If you’ve ever traveled to Belgium, though, then you’ve likely heard a different story about this food. That is, fries are not French. They are Belgian.
According to the Belgians, fries originated in Belgium. The French contest this claim, and research into the history of the popular fried potato doesn’t shed any light on the issue.
French fries got their name from Americans
A common story is that the name “French fries” is derived from World War I. American soldiers in the Belgian city of Namur supposedly ate fries for the first time. Namur is in the francophone part of Belgium, so the American soldiers, believing they were in France, dubbed the snack “French fries.”
This telling is supported by chef and co-author of Carrément Frites, Albert Verdeyen. He claims that fries made their first recorded appearance in Namur in 1680. As the Namur story goes, one particularly harsh winter the people of the city were unable to fish because the river froze over. Instead of eating and frying the fish, they sliced up and fried potatoes instead.
The French lay claim to fries too
The tale of Namur and the American soldiers would do nicely as the fry’s origin story. The trouble, however, is that this can’t quite be verified. A French culinary historian, Pierre Leclercq, contends that fried potatoes were actually introduced as Parisian street food in the late 18th century.
It’s difficult to know what constituted in the past what we today call a “French fry.” The existing variations for fries make tracing their origin almost impossible.
Consequently, French historians don’t dwell too much on their origins. Fries are already known worldwide as French fries. If we all knew and loved the rectangular fried potatoes as Belgian fries, the French might not be so laissez-faire about the fry’s history.
Fries and modern Belgian gastronomy
Belgians have realized that reaching into the past for the fry’s authenticity isn’t working. Instead, they’re emphasizing its modern cultural importance. There are petitions circulating to raise awareness for Belgian fries, including an open letter to Merriam-Webster to add “Belgian fries” to the American English dictionary.
Belgian fries were recognized as national intangible heritage in 2017, immortalizing the “fritkot” culture in the country. With this status, Belgian fries became eligible for UNESCO intangible heritage recognition as well — but it still must be approved. The Belgian Union Nationale des Frituristes (Unafri) submitted a petition to UNESCO for official consideration in 2021.
So…what is a fritkot?
A fritkot is a free-standing food kiosk that sells fries and other fast food such as (I’m using mostly the French words for these foods):
- Brochettes (meat on a skewer)
- Boulettes (meatballs, another Belgian specialty)
- Merguez (lamb sausage)
- Fricandelle (chicken sausage)
- Chicken wings/nuggets
- Croquettes (fried mashed potato dumplings sometimes made with cheese)
- Mitraillette/Durum (a sandwich that consists of a demi-baguette with fried meat, fries, lettuce, and one of a variety of sauces)
You can find fritkots everywhere in Belgium, from busy street corners in Brussels to roadsides in tiny villages. The type of food they serve may vary by region but the one thing they all sell is fries.
When you order fries from a fritkot you can stick with the classic mayonnaise as your topping, but you’ll probably find a long list of other sauce choices too. Other than ketchup and curry ketchup (which is basically like barbecue sauce but less smoky), the sauces are all variations of mayonnaise with different flavorings. Your cone of fries will also probably come with a tiny plastic fork so you can easily spear each fry and dip it in the appropriate amount of sauce.
Fritkots go by several names in Belgium, depending on where you are and what language you speak. In French, they’re “friture,” “baraque à frites,” or “friterie.” In Dutch-speaking Belgium and the Netherlands they’re “frituur,” “frietkot,” or “frietkraam.” Although most of them are free-standing kiosks that do takeaway only, others have outdoor patios or indoor table service.
A symbol of Belgian cuisine
The intangible heritage recognition says a lot about the importance of fries in Belgium, but fried potatoes cut into strips are popular all over the world, right? British fish and chips, Canadian poutine, French steak-frites and the U.S. adding fries as a popular side dish are just a few examples of the fry’s gastronomical significance in other cultures.
But none of them have fritkots, or if they do, not nearly as many. Belgians also have a habit of sticking fries in dishes that are normally fries-less. The closest Greek restaurant to my apartment in Brussels shoves a few fries into their gyros, for example. In Belgium, it’s also not unheard of to eat a cone of fries as your entire meal.
The iconic cone topped with mayonnaise and sold as street food is a symbol of Belgian cuisine, and Belgium itself. At least, that’s the thinking behind the UNESCO application. Belgium was added to the same UNESCO list in 2016 for its beer culture. Someday you may be able to enjoy a cone of frites with a glass of lambic beer and have two Belgian heritage experiences at once.
You may wonder why all this debate over fries even matters. Fries are an art form in Belgium and once you’ve lived here long enough, you can tell the difference between masterful, lovingly crafted frites and generic, fast-food fries. McDonald’s and Burger King just don’t cut it for me anymore.
There’s a lot of info out there about fries in Belgium, although most of it is in French or Dutch. If you want to dive deeper into this topic, check these resources out: