New 'frite' stalls revive Belgian culinary claims over 'French fries'

Georges GOBET / AFP | In this file photo taken on January 22, 2011, Josiane Devlaeminck prepares Belgian fries at the Atomium "fritkot", the Flemish word for fries stand, in Brussels

The age old cultural feud between Belgium and France over culinary claims to the universally-loved “frite” has sprouted a new battlefront on the streets of Brussels.


In the Belgian capital, a number of "fritkot", or mobile “frite” stalls -- officially designated to sell the deep-fried potato strips, often doused with mayonnaise, to tourists and locals -- are to undergo a post-modern revamp.

Up to eight stalls owned by city authorities are to be newly decked out with mirrored facades, special lighting and colours, and are set to reopen in late 2019.

But the upgrade is more than window dressing; it also taps into something culturally ingrained.

“Without frites, Belgium doesn’t exist,” Vuistema Kemal, a fritkot operator in central Brussels whose stall is among those being upgraded, told AFP.

He said that frites "represent Belgium around the world".

To the more cynical observer, the project could appear akin to a nationalist ploy to bolster the claims of the Belgians over the French in their longstanding culinary war over who has rightful ownership of the "frite".

Who invented the “frite”?

Historical proof behind the perennial question of who invented frites has been almost impossible to come by.

According to one hypothesis, frites were invented in the 17th century by the people of Namur, in southern Belgium, when the town’s river froze and fish were replaced with potato slices.

Another folk tale claims they first appeared on the Pont Neuf in Paris during the French Revolution.

French and Belgians also disagree over how to eat them.

In France, “frites” are generally served with a piece of meat and eaten with a knife and fork, whereas Belgians tend to eat them in cones and with their fingers.

Nevertheless, frites -- or chips, as the British call them -- carry such cultural cachet for the Belgians and the French that their competing claims for having invented the delicacy have even led to academic investigation.

“Potato fries belong to the realm of street food for the poor, which is why it’s so difficult to establish a birth certificate,” French historian Madeleine Ferriéres told Le Point magazine back in 2013.

Hands off our frites

Lack of evidence, however, didn’t deter the Flemish community of Flanders from making a bid for global recognition of the frite in 2014, when they petitioned to have their signature dish granted UNESCO world heritage status.

Then last year, Belgium had to defend its cultural treasure after the European Commission’s food safety authority recommended changes to the way fries are cooked. The Commission said it was acting to reduce acrylamide, a known carcinogenic, produced during the double-frying process. Belgium claimed its gastronomic heritage would be undermined. More bruising were references throughout the consultation paper to the Belgian frites as "French fries".

While "French fries" has emerged as the name most commonly used around the world, the Belgians blame American soldiers stationed in French-speaking Wallonia during World War I for having dubbed their national dish with the “misnomer”.

Though the origin of frites may never be truly known, the issue still manages to pique culinary experts and nationalists alike.

Nor has the culturally-charged issue been lost on the architects of Studio Moto, who were awarded the commission to remodel the fritkot stalls after winning a competition in January.

The fritkot is essentially "part of Belgian culture, Brussels culture, and replacing them is something sensitive, so we really had (to keep) in mind we couldn't put something standardised", one of the architects, Thomas Hick, told AFP.

"We are not trying to reinvent anything in particular," he said. "We are trying to go back to the basics as much as possible."

In its drive to revive and consolidate its reputation as the chip capital of the world, Brussels will also expand its fritkots to two new locations, one of which will be placed at the popular historic landmark, Mont des Arts, in the city centre.

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