samedi, novembre 04, 2006

Belleville, Pho, and Congee

I started my day by sleeping in, much as I had promised myself. After getting some more of the rest I so sorely needed, I hauled myself and headed for Belleville (with a slight delay to repair one of the WiFi networks). Belleville is this fascinating neighborhood that remains one of the few remaining immigrant-dense neighborhoods within Paris proper (otherwise, most are in the suburbs). What is even more interesting is that the main ethnic groups in Belleville are Maghrebi (arab/berber), Jewish (mostly N. African Sephardim, it seems), Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese. As a result, you have narrow streets lines with "asiatique" restaurants, hybrid kosher/halal grocery stores, bulk rice and grain shops and HOT PEPPERS. I finally found a shop that had scotch bonnet / habañero peppers. They were labeled piment antillais (Pepper from the Antilles), but I can recognize scotch bonnets from a mile away. I bought a big bag of them, a couple of mangoes and I was set for a my spicy mango salsa (sort of—I later realized I had no limes at home). This shop also had big canvas bags full of various dry goods in bulk, so I got myself some broken rice (to make congee), some nice basmati, a bit ol' bag of brown lentils, and some much needed cumin (I can't get enough of that stuff). I also found fresh cilantro, but there wasn't enough for a batch of chimichurri (I'll explain that another day).

The rice and spice shopping got me in the mood for congee and salty doughnuts. Congee (zhou in Mandarin and juk in Cantonese) is a sort of rice porridge, served as a filling (and cheap) breakfast or lunch with deep-fried dough on the side. The porridge often comes with beef balls or fish balls or some other flavorful thing inside, but it can also be eaten plain with some chopped green onions and/or a raw egg in the middle. I also like my congee with a bit of dark soy sauce. Mmmmm...

Anyway, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the desire for congee, but I didn't know the French-Chinese word for it (nor could I properly recall the Cantonese or Mandarin word at the time), so I went from restaurant to restaurant in the neighborhood, scouring their menu for some indication of congee. Part of my problem was that, although this is one of Paris' "chinatown" areas, most of the vendors and restaurateurs are actually Vietnamese or Thai. Many of the restaurants would bill themselves as Chinese restaurants, but then only have one page of the menu dedicated to a random collection of specialités chinoises, and the rest of the menu would be Thai and/or Vietnamese. Apparently, the French have a tradition of referring to all East Asian ethnicities as les chinois, which reminds me a lot of similar practices in South and Central America (chinitos).

Whatever the reason, I eventually gave up on my quixotic quest and settled for some pho. Now, when I say "settled," I don't want to imply that pho is not also delicious. I love pho and this pho was as good as anything I've found in Toronto; I just wasn't in the mood at the time. Also, I made the mistake of ordering the "special" pho without asking the contents, and got a bowl with rare beef slices, beef balls, tendons and tripe. To the restaurant's credit, it was pretty tasty, even if the texture wigged me out.

I went home and tried my hand at making congee with my broken rice, but totally miscalculated the proportions. Normally, you should make congee with about 1/2 or 1 cup of rice and 6 cups of water. Then, you boil until the rice "flowers" by breaking out of its husk to create a viscous white soup. I put in about 2 cups of rice and then filled the rest of my pot with water. Of course it wasn't enough, so I spent a couple of hours stirring and adding more and more water. As I added more water, the rice kept on absorbing and increasing in volume until the mixture began to spill over the side. I served myself a bowl of the too-thick congee to make some room, added more water, and then turned down the heat. I had a dinner to go to anyway, so this could wait till tomorrow.

[p.s. I also put a scotch bonnet into the congee mixture, for no particular reason other than that I was excited about having good hot peppers available again.]

I was invited again to dinner at my colleague's place, since she was inviting over a group of students as well. Things went very nicely, we ate very well (VERY well), and I got home rather late again.

2 commentaires:

in indigo a dit…

chinatown is masculine! never thought a 'ville' would be tricked out like that...

anyways luv ur variation on congee, which suggests a souped-up version of mangos w/sticky rice a la bangkok. you just can't escape the southeast asian in les chinois de la france!

Q: when you arriving to hawaii? we should clock in some gastro-ventures during our residency there...

LMGM a dit…

Yeah, if the personification of China and "the exotic east!" often involved a petite asian woman in some sort of silk kimono with chopsticks in her hair, I thought the proper personification for Chinatown is a middle-aged Chinese guy wearing ill-fitting dockers, comfortable shoes, Standard Issue haircut, and an apron.

I love the idea of congee with mangos and sticky rice! Hmmm. That's another one to stick in the mental rolodex for later attempts.

As for Hawaii, I'm getting there on the evening of the 14th (tuesday), so let's get our grub on! I'll email you my details and hotel and such.