Ethnic antidote for a French overdose
WITH its rich colonial past in Asia and Africa, France is a melting pot of flavours, but the dominant traditions of French cuisine tend to eclipse the food of other cultures.
After several months in France, I fantasise about food other than traditional French. Not out of boredom or disrespect, but from a craving for the kind of ethnic variety I take for granted in Australia.
This same impulse has prompted two hardcore foodies — an American, Charlotte Puckette, and the Egypt-born Olivia Kiang-Snaije — who live in Paris to write TheEthnicParisCookbook (Dorling Kindersley, $45). The title only tells half the story: the book is as much a resource for locating eateries as it is helpful in tracking down ingredients for preparing ethnic food at home (although I make notes, as the hefty hardback is too big to carry around). I decide to do some exploring, with the book as my guide.
The authors take the reader on a journey through some of Paris’s less glamorous arrondissements and outer suburbs where immigrants from former French colonies cook the dishes that remind them of their origins. Puckette runs a catering company and gradually drifted away from pate en croute in favour of Moroccan salads and sushi. Kiang-Snaije is a journalist whose interviews with exiled writers and artists often turned to the subject of food. Both women are long-time Paris residents who met while dropping off their children at school. Once the project was launched, friends, clients, even one of the women’s hairdressers, all turned out to be generous sources and some were even happy to cook for them.
They discovered another talented school mother, illustrator Dinah Diwan, and she joined the enterprise, providing maps as well as drawings of ingredients, dishes and shops (as pictured). I choose a couple of places the book recommends, and although the results are not consistent, they do introduce me to a different side of Paris.
My first stop is La Baie d’Halong (164 avenue de Versailles) in a distinctly unfashionable part of the otherwise well-heeled 16th arrondissement. The restaurant is small and the decor could best be described as Vietnamese kitsch, but the book proclaims it a favourite with actor Catherine Deneuve, so I think it must be worth a try.
Deneuve’s appearance in Indochine may have provided her with a few useful phrases to ease her way through the menu at d’Halong, but I amnot so fortunate. I don’t speak Vietnamese and my hosts can barely speak French, but when the food comes it is zingy with lime and mint freshness, especially the recommended beef bo bun, which includes delicately carved vegetables. But the prices — j17-j27 ($27.50-$43.50) — are rather steep and I feel the book has been too enthusiastic.
This is not the problem in the Marais, where rue Elzevir has become a little African enclave.
First stop is the CSAO shop (la Compagnie du Senegal et de l’Afrique de l’Ouest, 9 rue Elzevir; www.csao.fr), which sells crafts including woven baskets, brightly coloured fabrics and woven plastic mats from West Africa.
Across the street, le Petit Dakar (at No 6), a cramped, modest bistro serving food from Senegal, is empty when I visit but gets busy at night, according to the book, when people begin their evening at Jokko at No 5, near CSAO. Jokko bar has great groove cred, being part-owned by Senegalese music king Youssou N’Dour.
At le Petit Dakar, under old black-and-white photographs of famous Senegalese boxing champion Battling Siki, I indulge in an entree of silky smooth and tender palm hearts (a delicacy also popular in Malaysia and Brazil), followed by a mustardy sweet-and-sour curried chicken stew flavoured with piquant lemons. Filling and ridiculously cheap (prices range from about j15 to j21), this place is a great discovery.
Puckette and Kiang-Snaije’s book does not ignore Paris’s craze for Japanese patisseries. The gourmet equivalent of ikebana or origami, the elaborate aesthetic of wagashi is all about imagination, texture and reverence for beauty.
These traditional Japanese confections are truly an edible art form and, with a repertoire of more than 3000 pastries, boredom is unlikely.
In the window of the ultra-chic Minamoto Kitchoan tea rooms (17 place de la Madeleine; www.kitchoan.com), a perfect blushing white peach, fashioned out of bean paste and potato, floats in a bubble of clear agar-agar jelly. Things appear more appetising at Sadaharu Aoki’s counter at the wonderful food hall Galeries Lafayette Gourmet (1st floor, 40 boulevard Haussman; Patisserie Sadaharu Aoki also has stores at 56 boulevard de Port Royal and 35 rue de Vaugirard; www.sadaharuaoki.com).
At Lafayette Gourmet, alongside well-established French rivals such as Dalloyau, green-tea eclairs compete with bamboo-like millefeuilles. For the latest in noir chic, I can’t pass up the black sesame macaroons.
But TheEthnicParisCookbook hasn’t uncovered all of Paris’s best-kept secrets. Staying on the wrong side of Montparnasse, I stumble upon Le Taghit (63 rue de l’Ouest), a restaurant specialising in Algerian and Saharan food. Malika Benamrane, the assertive patronne , explains that dinner includes three different types of couscous, no matter what meat one orders to accompany it. She also informs me that actor Isabelle Adjani is among her regulars. Although Adjani has the execrable desert film Ishtar among her screen credits, I can’t fault her taste in restaurants.
With its ochre walls, typical of Algerian homes, and its rustically authentic cuisine, Le Taghit has the charm of an oasis. Several of the dishes are flavoured with more than 20 herbs and spices sent to the cook by nomadic Berber relatives. The artichoke and lamb tagine is fragrant and juicy and one of the side dishes of couscous is flavoured with orange-flower water, another with herbs. The bill is about and worth every cent. This is food to enjoy with a novel by Albert Camus at one’s elbow.