Monday, May 2, 2011

A French Fry Rant

Yesterday’s post was all about the Queen’s Day festivities here in Maastricht, which included, besides the flea market and various street performances, a free concert at the Stadtpark. While the grassy spaces in front of the stages were left open for people to hang out and picnic, all around the perimeter of the fenced in concert area where trucks set up to sell street food, with folding tables and picnic benches nearby for people to park themselves at and eat either sitting down or standing up.

As restaurants in Maastricht are so expensive, fast food and takeaway joints provide a good (but not necessarily healthy) option if you want a quick, cheap bite to eat. And as at the concert, a lot of places, even the carts and trucks that set up pretty much every day in the Markt, will provide outdoor seating or at least tables where customers can relax for a bit to eat their greasy snack.

Dutch and Belgian street food (and many other food items, for that matter) tend to be very similar, which makes sense considering how close the two countries are (I can run to the Belgian border in about 15 minutes, to give you an idea). The fast food of both nations (and we’re talking local fast food here, not the ever-present McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC, which I assume most readers are already familiar with) primarily consists of, besides the famous waffles, things that have been deep-fried. This includes fish (kibbeling if it’s in chunks, lekkerbek for a fried filet like you’d get with British fish and chips) with tartar sauce, a hot dog-type thing called a frikandel, and little breaded meat and/or cheese balls called kroket or bitterballen (also popular bar snacks). Indonesian foods. But probably the most ubiquitous and well-known of the Dutch/Belgian fried foods go by the name of frites (in Flemish or French) or frieten (in Dutch), a.k.a French fries (or chips if you’re British).

Credit for the invention of the classic French fry is often awarded to the Belgians, and throughout Belgium and the Netherlands you can find them on offer at informal eateries usually conveniently located on the main squares, and generally intended more for takeaway than as sit-down places (though as mentioned above most have some sort of indoor and/or outdoor seating area). These are called either friteries in French or frituur in Dutch, and usually offer a range of other fried items (mostly meat) besides French fries. Here's some examples:

A note about this place, called FEBO: this is a fast food chain that can be found all over the Netherlands. While you can order fries, drinks and sometimes soft-serve ice cream at the counter, the restaurant is also what is known here as an automatiek, similar to an automat in the States. Those of you who weren't around in the first half of the 20th century or who don't read obsessively about food (ahem) might not know what an automat is, but apparently they were really popular in the U.S. for a while, especially the Horn & Hardart franchise, the most prominent chain, which closed its last store in 1991. They're basically like a restaurant in a vending machine: you walked up to a wall of windows, put some coins in a slot, and lifted the window of your choosing to reveal your meal, which has been backloaded by workers in a kitchen behind the wall. While the rise of the suburbs and fast food chains in the States led the automats to fall out of popularity, in the Netherlands the concept survives with FEBO, where besides counter service you can choose from an array of burgers, sandwiches, krokets and frikandellen from the vending windows. Just something I thought was cool and might invoke some nostalgia for any people who may have ever experienced the automat in the States.

Can you see the fries piled up behind the guy at the FEBO counter (who was really amused that I was taking pictures, by the way)? Dutch frieten are twice-fried as classic French fries should be, once in big batches to partially cook them, and then again when the customer orders in small batches until they're nice and hot and crispy.

Belgian or Dutch frieten are a bit different from the ones you’d get a McDonald’s or Burger King; they are closer to British “chips” in that they are rather thickly cut, making them excellent vehicles for the various sauces normally available at the friteries. Now, as Todd will tell you (I’ve complained about this numerous times since arriving here), I take issue with the classic Dutch/Belgian way of consuming fries: namely, in a paper cone or square plastic container with a huge, ice cream scoop-sized dollop of mayonnaise plopped directly on top. I’m not really a fan of mayonnaise; I don’t mind it in a sauce, like tartar sauce, or mixed into tuna or egg salad, but the taste and mouthfeel of just plain mayo kind of grosses me out. It feels like eating just pure fat, which it basically is, especially when the vehicle for its consumption is a stick of deep-fried potato. Fat on fat = not good on the tummy (or the arteries, but I’m a runner, so I don’t need to worry about that. Right? Right??).

Plus, and here’s the real turn-off for me, when you dump room-temperature (gag) mayo onto a pile of hot, fresh-from-the-bubbling-oil fries, what do you think happens? I’ll tell you what happens: the mayo absorbs the heat from the fries, while the fries absorb the moisture from the mayo. What you’re left with is warm mayo on top of soggy fries, a.k.a a goopy, fatty, icky mess. Yes, they give you a little fork to eat the fries with (isn’t that adorable? But I always start with the fork and then end up resorting to my fingers, it just feels more right to me, you know?) but it’s still a mess, and not in a good way.

So hold the mayonnaise for me; I’ll take ketchup any day. On second thought, make that curry ketchup, a mildly spiced version of the former that I love so much I would eat it with a spoon. Sure it still makes the fries go soggy pretty quickly, but if I view them as merely a way to shovel as much curry ketchup in my mouth as possible, I don’t mind so much. I might have to bring back a bottle of this stuff too, along with the Indonesian soy sauce I’ve discovered (my luggage should smell great!).

Thus ends my French fry rant. Thank you for listening.

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