Idiot’s guide to eating mussels in Belgium

“An entire pot of mussels? How am I going to finish it?”. It’s a usual exclamation when I bring friends to eat one of, if not the national dish of Belgium, mussels (or moules-frites in French). For a ‘first-timer’, the 1-1.5kg full pot of mussels does seem intimidating but a lot of the space is taken up by the shells so it really isn’t that enormous 😉

I’ve been told by many a Belgian, including Bolly himself, that the best time to eat mussels in Belgium (most of the mussels eaten in Belgium come from the North Sea) is during the window where the months end with “er”, i.e. September to December. In practice, the mussels season go on till about February or even March. Thankfully this was the case at one of our favourite restaurants in Brussels and we managed to each order a huge pot of mussels.  Not surprisingly, Bolly chose the a la crème version loaded with full cream while I chose the stock based on tomato sauce and vegetables. The mussels that we were served were big and juicy….yummy!

To impress those around you and look like you’ve actually been to Belgium and have been eating mussels for the longest time, instead of using the fork to get those juicy mussels out of their shells, take one of those empty shells and use that instead.

Moules without frites (fries)? Unheard of in Belgium! Belgians eat their fries with mayonnaise but feel free to ask for tomato sauce and/or even tabasco.  Perhaps waiters from more traditional (read: old fuddy duddy) establishments may frown at your request but who cares?

Table space may be tight when eating mussels as you not only receive a pot of mussels, a bowl of fries, mayonnaise (& ketchup + tabasco for some) but also a deep bowl in which you throw those empty shells.

Anthony Bourdain (chef, author and tv personality who hosts his own show on Travel Channel) had this to say about mussels in his book “Kitchen Confidential” – “I don’t eat mussels in restaurants unless I know the chef, or have seen, with my own eyes, how they store and hold their mussels for service. I love mussels. But, in my experience, most cooks are less than scrupulous in their handling of them. It takes only a single bad mussel, one treacherous little guy hidden among an otherwise impeccable group … If I’m hungry for mussels, I’ll pick the good-looking ones out of your order.” It’s rather easy (not that I’ve actually prepared them myself but I’ve witnessed Bolly preparing them ;)) to prepare mussels so perhaps that justifies not eating them at restaurants. But for those (like me) who don’t really cook and crave mussels, simple common sense could save us from any messy, ugly visits to the toilet, i.e. don’t eat the mussel if you find that it’s still tightly shut and not when it looks dubious like this one below!

Except for this one nasty looking fella, we enjoyed our yummy mussels. Evidence below…


Three of our favourite places to enjoy mussels in Brussels (and no, please do not go to Chez Leon that is frequently mentioned in guide books):

In’t Spinnekopke

Traditional Belgian restaurant in central Brussels. It was one of my first discoveries in Brussels and I’ve brought many friends to this restaurant given its old-world charm and huge list of Belgian classics.

Le Zinneke

Not that centrally located but the menu boasts 69 ways of cooking mussels. An experience in and of itself.

La Marée

Portuguese couple, Mario and Teresa Alves run this restaurant in the centre of Brussels. Apart from the mussels, the fish soup, gray shrimp croquettes, steam skate and sole fish are also excellent choices.