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A guide to vegan and vegetarian cuisine in Belgium

06:09 01/01/2019
Belgium is arriving a bit late to the vegetarian party, but it’s making up for lost time - so now’s a great time to broaden your culinary horizons

You’re in a charming little town in the Ardennes and feel a bit peckish. You check the menus of every restaurant and find you have two choices: pizza with mushrooms or pasta with cream sauce. If this sounds familiar, then you must be vegetarian.

But there’s good news on the horizon. Attitudes towards veggie eating are evolving. Even the staunch eaters of wild boar in the south of the country are starting to change their tune. While some neighbours – Germany, for instance, and especially the UK – have been turning to vegetarian and vegan eating for decades, Belgians in general are just starting to embrace the idea. Ghent is something of an exception, with veggie eateries popping up 20 years ago, but what happened in the rest of the country?

“Belgium is small, and conservative when it comes to food,” says Annemarie Ijkema of ethical food organisation Eva, based in – naturally – Ghent. “When you look at traditional cuisine here, there’s no dish that is not centred on meat or fish. Whereas when you look at other countries, you see traditional dishes based on things like lentils.” And in the south of the country,

But it’s also in the south of the country where the biggest leap in thinking is taking place. According to Eva’s research, two years ago 91% of people in Wallonia described themselves as omnivores – defined as eating meat regularly. This year, that figure is 81%. “That’s the biggest drop in the number of omnivores in the whole country,” says Ijkema. “Flexitarians and pescatarians there are really growing.”

Flexi-what? Flexitarians eat meat just occasionally, while pescatarians eat fish but not meat. Vegetarians don’t eat meat. Vegans don’t eat meat, eggs or dairy products. And veganism is what both Eva – which is responsible for the Thursday Veggie Day campaign – and its French-speaking counterpart, Vegetik, are gently pushing people towards. They both say that giving up animal products entirely is the only way to save the planet.

“We have a holistic approach to this topic,” says Elodie d’Halluweyn of Vegetik. “We talk about the environmental impact of the meat industry, but also health and hygiene issues. We talk about what people refer to as ‘animal welfare’, which isn’t ‘welfare’ at all. We relate what we eat to labour conditions, to world hunger and the use of land in southern countries.” That is why Vegetik offers courses and cooking classes. In one you learn the theory around veganism and in the other how to put it into practice.

Eva goes to canteens and hotel schools to teach present and future chefs how to create original and tasty vegan dishes. “They have a lot of prejudices,” says Ijkema. “How can you cook without meat? Without butter? But once they start tasting the food, they’re like ‘hey, this is actually good!’ That’s what it’s all about. Food has to be good. If it is, people don’t care if it’s vegan or not.”

One chef who doesn’t need convincing is Vincent Philippot. He’s the owner of Dolma, Brussels’ first vegetarian restaurant, which opened in 1973. Where he was born matters: Liège, the Ghent of Wallonia when it comes to vegetarianism. Philippot’s parents were part of a hippie commune and he was raised vegetarian. He worked at Dolma, then its sister restaurant, Tsampa. When the owner decided to sell Dolma, Philippot bought it in 2015.

He changed everything starting with the decor, replacing a multitude of bright colours with natural hardwoods and plants, then worked on social media, posting gorgeous photos of dishes bursting with colour. While keeping the buffet style (two-thirds vegan) and daily change of menu, there’s now locally sourced produce. “If you’re making food fresh every day, why not use seasonal?” He also avoids products that come from somewhere else, which means a lot of trendy foods are simply ignored. “I don’t use avocado. It’s really big right now, and it’s healthy, but it’s not grown locally.”

In two years, he has doubled the number of customers. Half of them are meat-eaters. One comment he often hears is that his food is satisfying. “They don’t feel deprived. I do emulate traditional food sometimes, like I make a vegan version of carbonnade. So when people who eat meat come here, they recognise the food, they can see themselves in it. They realise it’s not so different.”

Eat your greens

Brussels

Dolma
The capital’s first vegetarian restaurant owes its 45-year success to constant reinvention. Its buffet lets you choose from many dishes, and the menu changes every day.

Bouchéry
A chic spot with an inventive vegetarian lunch buffet, Bouchéry’s dinner menu is mixed, with both meat and veggie dishes.

Ami
Simple vegetarian fare with large choice of vegan options, including salads, burgers, toasted sandwiches and soups. 

Moon Food
Healthy vegan and gluten-free buffet, which you pay for by weight. Natural wood interior.

Le Flexitarian
Vegan buffet, plus daily meat and fish dishes and takeaway option at this EU quarter eatery.

Antwerp

Recollets
One thing new vegetarians – and especially vegans – tend to miss is comfort food. Look no further than Recollets, which offers vegan versions of croquettes, vol-au-vent and macaroni with “bacon”.

De Broers van Julienne
This favourite spot among the port city’s veggie set has a huge deli, so you can see the salads, quiches and strudels before you order. In the evening, a menu includes Moroccan and Indian dishes.

Leuven

Lukmieke
Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Lukmieke may be Belgium’s oldest vegetarian restaurant. Its daily platter is super fresh and largely organic and locally sourced. The garden is a perfect place to enjoy lunch or dinner. 

Ghent

Komkommertijd
This vegan buffet has plenty of terribly tasty warm and cold options, including soup and dessert. It’s open on Sundays and run by expats.

De Panda
Ghent’s chicest vegetarian restaurant, Panda is hidden at the back of an organic food store. Each plate bulges with about 10 salads, grains and proteins. Canal-side seating available. 09 225 07 86.

Waterloo

ZigZ
Vegan-friendly cuisine, which also offers meat, although that is likely to be phased out.

Liège

Terre mère
The menu of this ever-bustling veggie cafe is bigger than it looks. Everything comes in three versions – the traditional sandwich, a much larger open-faced variety or a salad.

Les Cuistots
Friendly service and Mediterranean mezzes that look as good as they taste cause locals to rave about this cosy bistro that offers meat, veggie and vegan options.

This article first appeared in The Bulletin autumn 2018

Written by Lisa Bradshaw