Eth­nic an­ti­dote for a French over­dose

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - Caro­line Baum

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.

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