04 September 2011

Very Parisian French Food

A German man once asked me what I liked about New York (he didn't like the place). I told him that one could travel anywhere in the world without leaving New York's boroughs - it is, in my opinion, the most diverse and interesting city on earth. He sneered and asked, "but you think that's a good thing?" Yes, in fact, I do.
My favorite thing about Paris is that it is so multi-ethnic, multi-religious and interesting. Like New York, it has attracted people from all over the globe, people who have not only created enclaves, but have changed the entire culture of the city. One of the biggest beneficiaries of this mixing of global currents is Paris' cuisine, which is increasingly good because of influences from - in particular - Asian, Caribbean, middle-eastern and African immigrants. The above picture was taken at Waly Fay, a Senegalese restaurant in the 11e arrondissement.
The food at Waly Fay borrows heavily from French techniques and from Creole tradition, but is entirely different from anything I'd tried before. The Tiep Bou Dien - a mound of grouper, African cabbage, carrots and cassava - was thickly coated with a spicy, fish gravy that melded peanut and wine. We drank French Bandol rosé with it and watched as the tables around us filled with stylish young men and women. The realization: it not only feels like a typical bistro, but it really is a typical bistro.
Almost a decade ago, I lived in a grubby (but respectable) rooming house off Boulevard de Rochechouart, in the northern reaches of central Paris. At the time, it wasn't a very welcoming neighborhood, with a lot of hashish peddlers and furtive men on their way to and from the nearby red-light district. It was wonderful, though, because of its Tunisian, Moroccan and Algerian population. Huge fabric markets choked the sidewalk, men in Daishikis strolled the streets and there was a whole universe of spices and foods that fascinated me.
Returning a few days ago, I found the area much gentrified, with some shiny new French bistros and a lot of tourists. My favorite old Tunisian cous cous place was still there, though, and we stopped in for a quick lunch. The starch is served dry, with a bowl of stewed vegetables and - if you'd like - big hunks of lamb and long, thin Merguez sausages. Fittingly, their beverage cooler is mostly full of Perrier, Orangina and Volvic. (The name of the place is El Jawhara)
Immigration into France has long been dominated by French speaking people – newcomers from the colonies of Algeria, Senegal and Ghana, and from Francophile countries like Vietnam, Laos and French Guyana. Not everyone comes because of a shared tongue, though. There has long been a large group of Moroccans, Tunisians, Lebanese and Turks, many of whom made their way to Paris by way of the Mediterranean and Marseille. At the Marché Bastille, most of these people are well represented, and their food is everywhere. We ate Lebaneses “Manouchés” from one stand – flatbread like things stuffed with spinach, garlic and lemon. A Moroccan woman stood behind this table, selling various salads and pan-fried goods.
From her, we bought a spiced mélange of carrots and two sardine fritters. The fish had been flattened out and stuck together with a paste of herbs and onion, then cooked in oil until crisp. They were delicious with an Algerian Tabouleh from yet another stand, eaten all together on a bench near the Bastille roundabout.
I was on a search for Phở one day at noon, and ducked into a nondescript storefront that promised Vietnamese specialties. The noodles that I was after are popular in some districts, enough so that entire restaurants are devoted only to them. Unfortunately, all the dishes on the Vietnamese section of this particular menu seemed to owe more to Cantonese cuisine than to that of Hanoi. In a nod towards true multi-culturalism, the waitress steered me towards a Thai salad and this vaguely spicy dish of shrimp. Curry in the sauce was a surprise, and made the sweetness more interesting.
Like many people, the French have long embraced Chinese restaurants. In Paris, though, they take a slightly different form than in other places. The ubiquitous “Traiteur Asiatique,” is modeled on the French Traiteur shops – something like a deli, where dishes and meats are displayed in cases, ready cooked and bought by weight. Differences in the quality or price of eggrolls or chop suey are enough to create lines at some shops and to leave others desolate. A mixture of national dishes and newly-invented standbys crowd the counters, their recipes geared toward assimilation rather than tradition.
As foods mingle in a new setting, they cease to really be anything other than a mixture. French food is, as a concept, a little static. In practice, it’s more colorful and noteworthy now than every before – especially in Paris, where diners accept change. In other French cities (with some exceptions, notably Marseille), there is French food and then there is stuff made by foreigners. Here, everything is French food that is cooked in a French kitchen. Assimilation is a beautiful thing not only for the newcomers, but for everyone. One only has to smell the different chickens cooking along Boulevard Belleville, for example: on a spit with spices here, simmering under wine there, tossed in a wok at another place, roasting in a tandoor, in a creole gumbo, in Ghanan Hkatenkwan.

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