"The evolving Francophile..."

My husband Jack has always wanted to live in Paris and learn French. I thought it would be good for him to achieve his life time dream. Hence, we moved to Paris in 2008. My first year was difficult. I started "missives" to relieve some stress and chronicle my life so friends back in the US could read what I am experiencing. I currently write about my food and travel experiences, which is my passion.

It is definitely a challenge to live here, but each year it gets easier, and quite enjoyable, in large part because I value friendships over locale. I have a love/hate relationship with Paris as do most Parisians, mais La vie est belle (but life is good)!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Chinatown -- Paris

Inside a modern mall looking out to Place d'Italie

Chinese lanterns adorning the streets
I think every major city across the world has a Chinatown, Paris is no exception. I discovered an Asian area in the 3eme totally by accident. In early 2009, we lived in the 3eme arrondissement, as we were exploring the neighborhood, we came across this tiny street called rue au Maire, with Asian grocery stores, a few shops and a handful of restaurants. I thought how interesting a little Asian quartier. And, it just so happened that it coincided with Chinese New Year, so the streets were decorated with red lanterns throughout.  I later discovered that this was the original Chinatown,  who knew?
Gung hay fat choy
Gung hay fat choy

The most well known Chinatown is in the 13eme arrondissement, and the up and coming Belleville area (20eme arrondissement) is a growing Asian district.  The 13eme was developed in the 1970's and 1980's as a result of southeast Asians of Chinese descent displaced by the new governments..  The most famous of these migrants were the boat people fleeing Vietnam.  Later followed the Laotians and Cambodians primarily from the old region known as "French Indo-China" .   (Metro lines 5, 6, & 7 to Place d'Italie)

When I first visited this area in 2008, I was so happy to discover it, first of all because I was concerned that I would not be able to find Asian food products, which for me is a must have, since it is comfort food. 

Chinatown (13eme) is a pretty large area. It starts basically at "Place d'Italie" and stretches along the avenue d'Ivry, avenue de Choisy and boulevard Masséna.  Like all Chinatowns around the world it's teeming with alot of activity. In fact, you hear more Mandarin or Vietnamese spoken than you do French. For reference, refer to this map of 13eme. 

Here's a few little tricks when visiting Chinatown when shopping or eating.
  • Chinatown is predominantly populated by Chinese from southeast Asian; hence, alot of the restaurants that offer Chinese cuisine are actually a melange of Chinese/southeast style cooking, it's not better or worse, but just different.
  • Dim-sum  restaurants are non-existent in Paris. So, typically if you go out for e.g., lunch and also dinner, it is served as an entrée and the selection is limited to "pot-stickers" or sui-mai (pork or shrimp dumplings), char sui bao (steam or baked pork buns).
  • Pho (pronunced faa),  a hot noodle soup served with various condiments and leafy green herbs is very popular in Chinatown, and since the dish originates from Vietnam, it's a pretty good bet that it will be very good.
  • Avoid restaurants that say, "Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Japonais" and ever other Asian country. These restaurants are having an identity crisis and their food reflects this. 
  • Japanese food products tend to be very pricey, so if you like Japanese food products, you can find the same product, e.g., tonkatsu (sauce use for fried filet pork) at one-third if not half the cost for the same product, but it is a Korean made product.
  • You will find many exotic fruits like durian, dragon fruit, rambutan, but be aware, not all western palates find these fruits appetizing. For example, durian to most westerners and even some Asians smell like rotting eggs and the taste doesn't fare much better. But to most southeast Asians it is a delicious fruit.  Also beware, that durian can have a lasting odor, in fact it is banned in most western hotels in southeast Asia. For more information on the fruit check out this link Durian. Champagne mangoes otherwise known as Manila mangoes to some western palates also tastes like kerosene. With the exception of Durian, it's worth exploring the various exotic fruits. Try it, you may like it. A great reference book sold through amazon is "Exotic fruits".
  • You will find every conceivable Asian produce imaginable. You will find several varieties of Bok Choy, liseron (water lillies), asian egg plants, bitter melons plus some. And, the quality is great!  I found this reference guide for southeast Asian vegetables, although it's geared towards Thai cooking, the vegetables are used throughout most of Asia and it gives a wonderful description, List of common Asian produce.
  • There is a mini-mall in the Olympiade with stores, bars, shops and a few restaurants. Be forewarned, if you go there for dinner, the mall is locked after 9 pm. So, you will need to ask the guard to unlock the door in order to leave the mall.
  • The largest Asian grocery store is Tang Freres (Tang brothers), it is the largest Asian market west of China. There are also other smaller grocery stores but just as important named "Big" and the "Paris" store, I know strange names for an Asian grocery story, but hey, we're in Paris. You will find most everything you need to stock up on your Asian food supply from canned, to dried, to fresh products. Tang Freres is a great place to shop, but avoid this grocery store at all cost on Saturday and Sundays, unless of course you like  playing bumper car with your shoulders, or you're practicing to be a linebacker for a football team.
  • Hunan and Schzehuan style Chinese cooking is not common, and don't be surprised if it's different than what you get back home, especially if you're from SF. The "spiciness" has been "Frenchified"; hence, very toned down.
  • If you're looking for a restaurant, I suggest seeing if there are alot of Asians inside the restaurant, that's usually a good sign. Also, if there's a line to get in, that's also another pretty good sign that the restaurant is pretty good. FYI..., lines move pretty fast at Asian restaurants, 'cause they turn their tables quickly.  Note: Typically at French restaurants l'addition (the bill) is never given to you unless you ask for it. Only in Chinatown and at cafés will you get the bill  before you ask for it.
  • Like most places in Paris, Mondays are virtually dead. Very few restaurants will be open, and most shops are closed as well.
  • For people familiar with Picard, the fancy frozen food market located throughout France, there also exists a Asian version and the store is called "Paris Gelée", you will find a variety of dim-sum, and all things Asian, but frozen.
  • Try the Asian pastries, they're good. You can find sesame balls filled with wonderful bean paste, glutinous rice desserts, Asian fruit and egg tarts, almond cookies, and moon cakes to name a few.
  • If you see crispy ducks, roasted pork or 5-spiced roasted chicken hanging in the window, they're for sale.  Just point to what you want, and they'll ask if you want it chopped or not, and its great to bring home if you're not in the mood to cook.
  • Some grocery stores will not allow you to bring your shopping cart in. You will either need to leave it in front by the cashier, or in the case of Tang frere, one person waits at the outdoor benches with their shopping cart, while the other person shops. In some Belleville shops (e.g., Paris store), you must check your shopping cart in, they give you a little number, and you can retrieve it later.
Note:  There is a plethora of Chinese traiteurs throughout Paris. They're mostly for take-out, but some have tables where you can order your meal at the counter and then bring them to the table.  The food is "what it is" Chinese cafeteria mass produced food.  Personally, I would only go in if all the restaurants in Paris were closed and I was starving.

One of my favorite things to do is go have lunch in Chinatown. And, sometimes I even like biking there from our apartment, since there's a bike trail all along the tram line that ends at Porte D'Ivry (the other end of Chinatown).  After lunch I go window shopping and also do some food shopping. I never go food shopping on an empty stomach, I wind up buying way, way too much. My favorite lunch place is one of the many Chinese, Cambodian or Laotian restaurants inside the Olympiade mini-mall or to my favorite Cambodian restaurant Mondol Kiri.

Mondol Kiri has a fabulous prix fixe lunch starting at 10€ the food is always good and fresh.  If you're not familiar with Cambodian food, it similar to Thai, but not as spicy and more refined.
Papaya salad
Vermicelli noodle salad

Beef with basil

Fish with red bell peppers and basil

For the price and the quality of food, I highly recommend it. It's also actually quite lovely inside, albeit a little tight.

Interior of Mondol Kiri
Ironically, the tourist who will probably visit Chinatown, will be the Chinese themselves. With new found wealth, the Chinese are becoming one of the largest groups to tour Europe, in particular France.  However, for many Chinese, French cuisine is still an anomaly, and most "Asians" are still quite lactose-intolerant, that's why there's a big push to cater to Chinese tourist in the "tourist" areas.  For example, the Peninsula will build a large hotel in Paris to hopefully attract the chinese nouvelle riche. It would seem strange that they would want to see Chinatown, personally, I think it's more to connect with the food. I understand that growing up on Filipino and Chinese cuisine. Whenever I'm in a foreign country, after a few days, I just want some rice with stirred fried vegetables with e.g., shrimp and/or pork.

I can understand why most other tourist don't go to Chinatown, after-all they're here to experience the "French" Paris and in most cases have a limited time to explore Paris.  France is not a country founded by immigrants as the US; however, it is a country of immigrants with diverse backgrounds, harking back to the days of colonization. Personally, I think you're missing out on a lot since Paris has wonderful ethnic neighborhoods. The ethnic neighborhoods are part of the intricate make-up of Paris. Visiting their markets, their foods will let you explore the inner workings of that community.

 The Chinese dragon is also a symbol of power, strength, and good luck

For more information on Chinatown 13eme, check out Wiki travel (13eme) .

Update: my April 17, 2011 comments to the New York Magazine.


    1. MAkes me want to run right out and have some Pho!
      Nice article Randy..

    2. Very comprehensive Randy - my mouth is WATERING!!!
      Merci mille fois...

    3. I had to read all that to find out what Pho was!!! Just kidding. Great post. I always shy away from most ethnic foods in Paris but maybe I'll try it next visit.

    4. I've been to Paris about a dozen times for work now and the first time I heard of Chinatown here was from my taxi driver the other day. So I had to go back to my hotel and look it up! I can't believe my friends who live here have never told me about it! I'm heading over there tomorrow morning. I'm so excited to get a taste of home cooking while here for work. :)

    5. hi please i will like to ask a question, i dont really knw paris but a friend of mine is planning to come arround to stores that sell things in wholesale price ,please i dont know if you have an idea what area this shops or factories are in paris ?

      1. Wholesale stores are located in the 3eme arrondissments