Chinatown in Paris

I miss Asia. It spoiled me. I have got used to eating a wonderful and а very diverse, real Asian food. After that, there is no way back. Now it is difficult to accept the compromises called  “American-Chinese” or “British-Chinese” cuisine. If you live in a big city, good authentic restaurants do exist, but you have to search for them. And I usually do.

So, I really cannot understand, why I haven’t been trying to find them here. Or, rather, I do understand – I moved to Paris and finally had access to all the great french cuisine and delicious local food, which before I could only sample occasionally during our visits. Now it was available to me and I could eat it every day if I wanted. And I sure did, for the past year and a half. At last, I got over the excitement and even started to look again at the cuisines of other countries.

And I finally made it to Chinatown. There are a few of them in Paris, the biggest one is Avenue de Choisy and its surroundings.
The first step on the street from the metro and I felt myself at home. Everything was familiar and evoked pleasant memories: food in the shop windows, smells, colors, expressions on the faces.

Тoday was а cold rainy day, but in the rain stores and restaurants looked cozy and inviting and red Chinese lanterns reflected beautifully in a wet asphalt.

I wanted to visit the supermarket Tang Freres. Тhere are two of them in that area, I choose a smaller one. Here, as well as in Paris Store next door, was whatever the Asian heart desires, and not only the Asian –  me, a European was very content.  Familiar vegetables, sauces, spices, things which every Chinese household can’t do without – woks, tea making accessories, chopsticks, steamers and rice cookers, temple incense and soft brooms made of sorghum grass. Too bad those are not used in a plastic modern Western world.

On the second floor of the supermarket was a typical Chinese shopping center – small stores under the low ceilings, windows are full of jade and gold, red and white cats waving arms, beckoning good luck for their owners.

Downstairs in the supermarket, I saw durians. I smelled them first and then I saw them. I had to struggle with the desire to buy one. They sold them whole and unpeeled and I didn’t want to bother with a thick spiky husk, you also need a big cleaver and a thick mitten to hold it, and most likely I will be banished from my building if I appear there with durian.

I will degrees a bit. When I lived in Singapore, I was one of the rare species of Europeans who actually liked the taste of durian. Every time I took a taxi and I had a chatty Chinese driver, whom here you could simply call “uncle”, and we talked about Singaporean national dishes, I liked to mention that I love durian and see their surprised reaction. The first time I tried durian, I remember thinking that it tasted like the combination of boiled potato, banana, herring, and ice-cream. Sounds terrible, but in fact, the taste of its tender, buttery/custardy flesh is very pleasant. But the smell, oh my god! In Singapore, despite calling durian a “King of the Fruits”, it is prohibited to bring it to the metro and to the public transport. But in my opinion, it smells so strongly from far away, but you don’t feel the smell anymore when it’s on your plate. Durians in Asia have numbers, some fruits are cheap, some are expensive, depending on the sort and the grade. Singaporeans treat it with love and tenderness and spend special weekends in Malaysian durian farms, where all they do all day is degustation of fruits.

This time I bought a big pomelo with а red flesh to make Thai salad at home and continued my journey through the neighborhood. Here, next to the metro station Olympiades everywhere you looked were high-rise apartment blocks, it feels like I was not in Paris, but in the outskirts of Moscow or in Hong Kong. On one patch of land between such buildings, I saw something which looked like a makeshift outdoor kitchen. Under flimsy collapsible tents, under the drizzle, Chinese women were busying themselves with big steaming pots and a few Chinese were sitting at the folded tables, eating lunch (or dinner), leaning low over their plates. Here, like in Asia, people eat earlier than in France.

After walking around for an hour and seen and buying Chinese groceries, I decided, that my next logical stop should be a local restaurant. The place I choose was big, but relatively cozy, due to lack of fluorescent lamps, which are so popular among the Chinese restaurateurs. Here I saw familiar big round tables, where is impossible to reach the dish on another end, and they use Lazy Susann – a turntable, on which the plates are placed and which you can spin towards yourself.

I ordered a Dim Sam – Chinese “tapas”, cooked and presented in little bamboo steamers. They were tasty and authentic. It was only six in the evening, but the restaurant was already filling up and some of the guests have finished their dinner and were leaving. I was served in a classic Chinese way – without much gallantry, business-like and with a slight touch of a curiosity towards European – am I going to use chopsticks or ask for knife and fork?

After clearing the table, the server asked me if I would like a tea or coffee, ignoring the fact that I already had the contents of an entire teapot of Oolong splashing around in my tummy.

I left the big Chinatown and went to a tiny one, next to Rue Beaubourg. It was already dark and it was drizzling again. Here, on the narrow dark Rue Maire, the little local restaurants were full of light and people. Thanks to Lola, from whom I find out about this tiny Chinatown, created by the settlers, who escaped the precincts of Shanghai long time ago. She is also the one, who recommended the “New art du Ravioli”, where I headed straightaway for the Chinese dumplings to take home. And they were good (and inexpensive).

Well, I didn’t dare to bring a durian home, but at least we could feast on dumplings.

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