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Brussels : A Multicultural Melting-pot

                             
Brussels has a strong claim to the title of the cosmopolitan Capital of Europe, not just due to its position as home to the major seats of government for the European Union, but also because it is one of the world’s most genuinely multicultural cities. You see this in any bar where customers are chatting away in a dozen different languages, and for food-lovers, the city is a paradise, offering a melting-pot of restaurants specialising in delicious ethnic cuisines. These range from funky African diners that reflect the roots of Belgium’s former colonies to a thriving Chinatown and colourful North African quarter. There are scores of eclectic locales that mirror the varied nationalities that work around the EU headquarters, everything from exotic Greek to surprising Norwegian cuisine, and then there are the city’s strongly entrenched immigrant neighbourhoods where you can discover utterly authentic cooking from everywhere like Spain and Portugal to Poland and Peru. So, if you’re game to try Congolese curried goat or an Algerian couscous, a plate of tapas, mezze or Mediterranean antipasti, Japanese home cooking in a casual Michelin-starred restaurant or handmade Chinese noodles, then Brussels is the ideal place to plan a gastronomic ‘tour du monde’.

The place to kick off exploring exotic Brussels is unquestionably the African neighbourhood of Matongé, just a few minutes walk from the designer boutiques that line Avenue Louise, but a million miles away in terms of culture. Guide books rarely devote more than a few lines to Matongé, named after a lively part of the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, but its restaurants offer a panoply of African cuisine - from the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Cameroon, Ivory Coast. Pretty much all the Matongé restaurants double as bars and dance venues, opening their doors at midday and not closing till sunrise. You can choose between Le Soleil d’Afrique (rue Longue Vie 10), a cheap and cheerful canteen, packed to bursting, serving heaped plates of ‘mafe’, ‘yassa’, or ‘moambe’ for the grand cost of €5 a dish, or the more fashionable L’Horloge du Sud (141 rue du Trône, Tel: 02 512 1864), whose menu ranges from freshwater tilapia fish from Lake Tanganika, marinated in lemon and chilli then steamed in  a banana leaf, to tender beef cheeks, wrapped and slow-roasted in sweet potato leaves, or  ‘kedjenou’, a rich guinea-fowl stew that is the national dish of the Ivory Coast. And if you don’t want to head out to Matongé, there are two addresses right in the heart of Brussels that are worth checking out too. Just a couple of minutes walk from the sumptuous Guild Houses that line the medieval Grand Place, Kokob (10 rue des Grands Carmes, Tel: 02 511 1950), is dedicated to Ethiopian cuisine, meticulously prepared each afternoon by an army of demure Ethiopian ladies. Only open in the evening, a reservation is imperative as the food is inexpensive, portions are hearty and the dishes are mouth-watering. The walls are decorated with eye-catching art exhibitions, the place buzzes, and the food for each table is served on a huge communal plate, with everyone helping themselves. Don’t miss ‘attir kik alicha’, spicy lentils, and ‘key wot’, tender beef cooked in their signature ‘berbere’ sauce. And then there is Hemispheres (29, rue Leopold, Tel: 02 2 513 9370), the ultimate ethnic restaurant in Brussels, showcasing the cuisines of over a dozen countries across the globe, complemented by exhibitions and concerts. This welcoming locale has become something of an institution for cultural tolerance, with diners relaxing in a sumptuous decor, where you can order a North African ‘chorba’ soup of tomatoes, coriander and cinnamon, a lamb kebab with Egyptian spices or Caribbean chicken with mango, while the dish of the day could be a Brazilian seafood rice or a Moroccan pigeon ‘pastilla’.

While the Sainte Catherine neighbourhood is best known for its cutting-edge fashion boutiques, it is also home to a buzzing Chinatown, complete with vast Chinese supermarkets and restaurants offering the choice of Cantonese and Szechuan cuisine, Thai and Vietnamese cooking. On the terminally hip Rue Antoine Dansaert, Pataya is squeezed in between chic design stores, serving spicy green papaya and lemongrass salad, and authentic red and yellow Thai curries with duck, chicken or fish. Just round the corner, Rue van Artevelde is lined with excellent hole-in-the wall Vietnamese eateries like Thien Long and Da Kao, perfect for a hearty bowl of Pho noodle soup or prawns grilled on succulent chunks of sugar cane. And while there are a host of different Chinese restaurants to choose from,  a quick, cheap meal accompanied by a theatrical performance awaits diners that track down the off-the-beaten-track  Au Bon Bol (9 rue Paul Delvaux, Tel: 02 513 1688).  The owner here is from Lan Zhou, where the speciality is hand-made noodles. She spends most of the day at a tiny counter looking out over the street, theatrically stretching, pulling and twirling lumps of dough that are finally transformed into artisan noodles. You can order the noodles fried with honey-glazed pork or shrimps, but the chef’s special is in a huge bowl of tasty soup with vegetables and sliced duck. There are plenty of sushi bars located in Chinatown too, but anyone interested in serious Japanese food should grab a taxi out to the Ixelles neighbourhood to discover the inventive cuisine of chef Tomoyasi Kamo. His miniscule restaurant, Kamo (123 avenue des Saisons, Tel: 02 648 7848), has recently been awarded a Michelin star, and it is well worth reserving a seat at the bar that runs along the open kitchen to watch close-up his contemporary take on traditional Japanese recipes, preparing tempting dishes like a light bamboo tempura stuffed with a shrimp tartare, or veal sweetbreads served with red miso sauce.

Every visitor to Brussels passes through the iconic Grand Place, and although you expect to find the usual Belgian restaurants proposing braised endives and beef ‘carbonnade’, a big surprise, tucked down a narrow cobbled side street, is Up North (36 rue des Chapeliers, Tel: 02 2 502 7729), a smart new address specialising in Norwegian food. Chef Egil Haaseth serves classic smoked salmon and tasty herrings, but also inventive dishes like cod cooked with dried lamb and a tangy blueberry sauce. And while traditional Belgian restaurants are featuring the arrival of game season with classic renderings of wild boar and venison, here at Up North, adventurous gourmets can order marinated reindeer or elk steak paired with Brussels sprouts and Norway’s unique caramel-tasting goat’s cheese. A more insider address, in the elegant Le Chatelain neighbourhood, favoured hangout of European bureaucrats, is Notos (154, rue de Livourne, Tel: 02 513 2959), a real gourmet surprise. The cuisine here is Greek, but banish all thought of greasy moussaka and soggy dolmades. The friendly owner, Constantin Erinkoglou, is himself an ex-eurocrat who left a cushy job at the Commission to successfully reinvent himself as a self-trained chef. His cuisine is a gourmet interpretation of classic Greek dishes with French influences, such as a ‘pot-au-feu’ of free range chicken with duck foie gras, or ‘glycanissos’ tender pork slowly braised with honey, aniseed and orange zest.

The obligatory last stop for an ethnic food tour of Brussels has to be the aptly-named Marché Exotique, which takes place every Sunday morning. Hundreds of stalls are anarchically spread across scores of streets outside the Brussels Midi train station, just where the Eurostar departs back to London.  The electric atmosphere here is more Marrakech than Brussels, with noisy vendors selling dozens of different olives, fragrant oranges, fresh herbs and pungent spices. Every Sunday, crowds of North African immigrants line up waiting for buses to take them back for family-reunion holidays in Algeria or Tunisia, but if you have a look at the colourful restaurants at the heart of the market, around the Place de la Constitution, you will be surprised to discover they are nearly all Spanish and Portuguese, reminders of a much earlier wave of immigration to the Belgian capital. Close your eyes and you could be in Lisbon or Madrid, with scarcely a word of French being spoken. The atmosphere in these market restaurants is noisy and a bit rowdy, but the food is out of this world. Sit down for a lazy Sunday lunch at Oh Fadista (17 esplanade de l’Europe, Tel: 02 521 4050) or 25 Abril (4 boulevard Jamar, Tel: 02 522 1088) and you can feast off a tasty ‘caldo verde’ soup followed by ‘bacalhau dorado’, salt cod scrambled with eggs and potato, while lovers of Spanish cooking should head for La Laguna (10 rue d’Argonne, Tel: 02 2 523 4785), which for 50 years has been serving tempting tapas from the Asturia region, such as grilled sardines, octopus ‘a la gallega’ and piquant ‘picadillos’, chorizo fried with pimenton. There is even an Aladin’s Cave delicatessen just next door, Economato Gonzales, where you can stock up on Serrano ham, Manchego cheese and a bottle of Rioja for the journey home on the Eurostar.

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