Valerie Stahl is a writer and a graduate student in urban studies at Sciences Po. She lives in Paris.
French snobbery about their own cuisine has led the city to become a mecca of mediocre pan-Asian offerings
PARIS—There are a few stereotypical things an ex-pat moving from a city like New York can anticipate when coming to Paris. In terms of positives—crisp, warm baguette at the local boulangerie, delicious and inexpensive cheese at the corner market, and generally, a slightly slower pace of life marked by lazy strolls on beautiful cobblestone streets, surrounded by even more beautiful people. As far as trade-offs go, you can rightfully expect those great boulangeries and corner markets to close down come Sunday, and those beautiful cobblestone streets to be smeared with dog poop, probably thanks to the carelessness of those beautiful people who blow smoke in your face as they pass you by.
One thing that is entirely unexpected in coming to a city as internationally renowned as Paris is the sheer lack of good Thai, Chinese or Vietnamese restaurants, good being the operative word here. There is certainly no lack of Generic Pan-Asian take-out places— they're a staple of practically every Parisian neighborhood, and more and more, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants are popping up all over the map.
International culinary offerings in Paris, especially Asian cuisine, often pale in comparison to the options available in other global cities. “Parisians love Asian food, but the Asian food here is really mediocre compared to London and New York, as far as I’m concerned,” says Alexander Lobrano, current food and travel contributor to the New York Times and recent author of Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 102 Best Restaurants. “Really aside from North African cuisine, which is a very special case for demographic reasons, Paris hasn’t embraced the sort of gastric internationalism that reigns in almost every big city.”
The lack of good Asian restaurants invokes a sense that Paris is a city in denial about how international its population actually is, especially considering Asian migration patterns to the city over the last century. France’s colonial role in Indochina through the 1950s obviously significantly impacted the country’s immigrant population, yet Asian migration to France is inherently nuanced. While the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s brought large numbers of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian communities migrating to their colonial protectorate, heightened political troubles throughout Asia during the ‘60s and ‘70s resulted in the migration of a number of ethnic Chinese from Southeast Asia to France. Finally, in recent years, the city has seen a spike in Chinese migration. Such patterns help account for the pan-Asian mélange that Parisian restaurants serve, or what Lobrano terms as “a strange mixture that stops in Thailand, Vietnam with a large detour into China.”
Today, roughly 14 percent of French migrants come from Asia, and predominantly Chinese and Vietnamese communities have a dominant presence in two Parisian neighborhoods: one on the left bank, near Place d’Italie in the 13th arrondissement, and more recently, the other in Belleville, a multicultural neighborhood that straddles four districts on Paris’s right bank.
So if the community exists in Paris, why is there such a lack of quality Asian culinary offerings in the city?
Part of the issue stems from the difficulties Asian restaurateurs encounter accessing the proper produce and ingredients. “It’s difficult and very expensive for our chef, who is from Bangkok, to find the exact right vegetables,” says the owner of newly opened Kunchapai, a Thai restaurant in the 17th arrondissement. Apart from Tang Frères, a large Asian supermarket in the 13th, Asian products are difficult to come by in the City of Lights. Perhaps this is why Kunchapai’s green curry comes dotted with Italian instead of Thai eggplant, and their Pad Thai is garnished with sweet bamboo shoots instead of tangy bean curd.
The French republican ideology also encourages integration processes that undoubtedly further dilutes a migrant group’s presence in the city. “The French nation confuses its principles with a political project to abstract ethnic or religious distinctions,” reads a portion of the National Center for the History of Immigration’s website. This approach to integration in lieu of multiculturalism seems to have translated into a dumbed-down approach to Asian cuisine in Paris over time; In order to suit the quieter, subtler French palate, Asian migrants toned down the spicy, vibrant, and loud tastes so ingrained in their cuisine, transmitting the French abstraction of ethnic distinction to their kitchens.
Yet considering the growing demand for Asian cuisine in Paris, the continued lack of good options is surprising. On a recent Friday night in the Chinese district of Belleville, Le President—a large, oppressively lit, Chinese restaurant at the foot of the Belleville metro that conjures up images of a communist dining hall—a mostly Chinese staff quickly and inexpensively serves up a packed menu of semi-decent Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai dishes. The restaurant is about half full, which is a fairly sizable crowd considering the massive space. The long, outdated tables and chairs are scattered with a mix of foreigners and French alike, and two Parisians, a mother and daughter, step out of the restaurant expressing contentment with their meal. “We come here often, mostly for the Chinese and Vietnamese. It’s really good, really authentic what you get here,” they say. “We mostly go out for ethnic food, because, well, we cook French at home.”
Up the Rue de Belleville at Lao Siam, a disappointing Thai/Laotian restaurant that nevertheless is often heralded by Parisian food blogs, the restaurant is bursting at its seams with a young, hip-looking crowd of Parisians. Even by 10 PM, a line is still forming outside. Two well-dressed male diners that hail from the neighborhood claim that it’s worth the wait, and what you get here is “very good and authentic.” Despite admitting to being unable to differentiate between Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese cuisine, one Parisian sees great potential for South Asian kitchens in Paris. “I think it will develop more and more.” He says, “French people are very curious, and the food is delicious and very varied.”
French curiosity for different forms of cuisine is still a somewhat recent phenomenon. For centuries, the gastro scene in Paris remained static, with French cuisine assuming a de facto dominance that yielded little to no room for foreign kitchens to gain credibility. “This very confident sense of superiority, which was not unjustified most of the time, sort of blindsided the French in terms of their ability to be receptive to or honestly curious about food from other countries,” says Lobrano, who served as the European Correspondent for Gourmet Magazine for 10 years, until it folded in 2009.
French bistros have been, and for that matter, still are, the pinnacle of good eats in Paris. But Parisians shouldn’t have to sacrifice their high quality French cuisine for quality in other forms of ethnic restaurants, and there is room for foreign kitchens to gain momentum on the Parisian restaurant scene, as well as potential for ethnic cuisine to combine with French tastes to create interesting fusion cooking.
For Lobrano, who has been living in Paris for 25 years, a few new Parisian chefs are paving the way for a more multicultural restaurant scene in the French Capital. “Foreign cooking in Paris has changed a lot for the better in the long time that I’ve lived here,” he says. “There were some real crummy Lebanese restaurants when I first moved here, but there’s a new one in the 2nd called Liza… it’s just as vivid and wonderful as what you’d find in Beirut and it’s very successful.”
As for the future of the Parisian restaurant scene, Lobrano is hopeful. “I think Paris is on the cusp of change. All of the concierge kitchens—Italian, Spanish and Portuguese—no one ever used to take them seriously, but that’s changed. The Lebanese food is good now, and North African cooking is much better here than it is in any other major European city. But in terms of anything Asian, I think Paris still has a long way to go.”
Photo credit: faungg / Flickr