In Belgium, chips are part of the culture - no two stands alike.
Bernd F. Meier tours the country's chippers and discovers what anyone living here already knows: Frietkots- The Belgians love them.
Tourists passing through Belgium cannot fail to notice the "Frietkots" and "Frituuren", the stands where French fries, or chips, are sold.
These golden-brown delicacies made from the humble potato are on sale at more than 4,000 stands across this relatively small country.
And they are offered these days with more than 30 different sauces, from sweetish mayonnaise to piquant chili.
Belgians see their Frietkots as a kind of bulwark against the invasion of American fast-food chains, regarding their own homegrown fast-food as intrinsic to their culture. In the city of Antwerp there is even a museum to the Frietkots.
In Brussels, the numberless bureaucrats of the European Union stream out of their glass palaces at lunchtime every day with one thought in mind: the nearest chippy.
"Maison Antoine", run by Pascal and Thierry Willaert at the Place Jourdan, is an institution these "Eurocrats" know well. Here members of the European Parliament and prominent public figures wait their turn in the queue with humble secretaries and lobbyists for their portion of chips. This fast-food outlet has been there for more than 50 years.
Frietkots are something of a cult in Belgium. They are everywhere: at street markets, on church squares, along the promenades of the North Sea beaches and at the highest point in the country, the "Signal de Botrange" between Eupen and Malmedy, 694metres above sea-level.
"Chips, pralines and beer make up Belgium's Supertrio," says Bernard Lefevre of the National Association of Chipmakers, the 1,500-member professional chip friers body.
Friday evening is traditionally chip time, when Belgian fathers go out to the outlets and take chips home for the family. High season is in July and August. Some people like their chips - "Frieten Special" - with mayo, ketchup and onions.
The first Frietkots in Belgium were set up in the second half of the 19th century.
"Hawkers offered fried potato chips to their customers during the annual markets in Antwerp and other towns," according to the art historian Paul Ilegems, who himself hails from Antwerp. "A couple of decades later, more permanent chip establishments were set up. And with the passage of time, this spread right across Belgium," Ilegems says.
Some of them have been turned into works of art by Gilles Houben, who works in oils and acrylic. He has immortalized more than 100 chippies in Antwerp and Brussels, exhibiting them in his studio high up under the roof in a Brussels house.
Houben notes with regret that many of the subjects of his paintings have given way to the march of time, as buildings have been torn down to make way for new projects.
"With them, part of Belgian life has passed away," he says.
Unlike the mass-produced architecture of U.S. fast food joints, no two Belgian chippies are alike. Some are converted caravans, some former shipping containers and others simple wooden huts.
"Drive through our country with open eyes and watch out for Frietkots and Frituuren," says Ilegems, the author of a book on the topic. "The chippies reflect the character of my countrymen, which is characterized by individualism, improvisation and surrealism."
Ilegems, who takes his chip research seriously, sees many positive aspects to Belgian fastfood culture. The Frietkots appear to unite the three main ethnic groups in Belgium, the Flemish, the Walloons and the Germans, in a way that nothing else does.
Right across the country, the potato sticks have been prepared in much the same way for generations. Whether in Bruges, Charleroi, Hasselt or Eupen, they are eaten in much the same way. Moreover, there is no class prejudice when it comes to the humble potato chip. "Top managers and working people alike are regular customers at their local chippy," Ilegem says.
Since the 1980s he has been collecting anything and everything connected with Belgian chippies. Some of his large collection is to be seen on the upper floor of "Frietkot Max" at 12 Groenplaats in Antwerp.
Among the most recent additions to his collection are old vinyl records on which bands with bizarre names like "De zingende Frietboeren" - The Singing Chip Friers - sing the praises of the chip in a "Frituurballade".
Belgian chippies have developed their own way of preparing the potato chip. The 10-centimetre long sticks are pre-fried at a temperature of 160 degrees Celsius. Then they are cooled and kept ready for an order.
Once the order comes in they are fried once again, this time at 180 degrees in vegetable oil or in beef fat.
"This double frying ensures that the chip is really beautifully crispy and crunchy," Ilegems says.
There are minor regional differences, discernible only to the most demanding customer. In Limburg and Wallonia the chips are on average 11 millimetres thick, whereas Antwerp's citizens prefer them a millimetre thinner.
In Ghent in the heart of Flanders they are slimmest at nine millimetres, and in Eupen they reach their maximum girth of up to 14 millimetres, according to Jozef van Remoortel, who runs Remo Frit in Verrebroek near Antwerp, one of around 100 chip-making firms in Belgium.
Remoortel's firm delivers ready-cut potatoes to chippies within 24 hours of the raw product arriving at his factory. The preferred potato varieties are "Bintje" and "Hansa".
"We deliver the fresh potatoes vacuum-packed, and not frozen, to the chippies. That's what gives them their characteristic flavour and texture," Remoortel says.
Truck drivers - true connoisseurs of the chip - vote as best chippy the one to be found on the A1 motorway linking Brussels and Antwerp, where an old bus has reached its last parking place between Machelen and Weerde.
Now brightly painted, the bus dispenses huge quantities of chips under the banner "Hunger Killer".
Visit Living in Belgium for information on what's on, where to go, photos and useful tips for making life in Belgium more interesting.