The grass is always greener on the other side, the croissants are always more buttery in France and the ethnic food is always tastier in Canada.
Okay, I just made that up. But that was my somewhat cryptic conclusion after three weeks in France.
When I’m in Canada, my French foodie friends and I sometimes indulge in food porn fantasies, naming the brands of cookies we miss the most and the dishes we wish we could recreate but can’t because there is always some key ingredient missing (and also because we are too lazy to cook elaborated stuff).
So when I went to France after a two-year long absence, I had my eyes set on the food. I wanted twenty different kinds of stinky cheese, creamy and sweet yogurts and crèmes, and huge loafs of bread. I wanted quiches made with real crème fraîche (not the stupid Canadian sour cream!), fougasse bread and thin-crust pizzas (something Canadian don’t seem to master). I wanted buttery madeleine cakes, chaussons à la framboise, and kid’s cookies such as Petits Écoliers, chocos, LU Kangos, etc.
Note: I really wish I could provide a picture for each of the foods named above but I was too busy eating.
The first week, I kept on volunteering to go grocery shopping because I just enjoyed being around French food. I strolled the local Monoprix’s aisles looking like a dirty old man in a sex shop. Pathetic, really.
The second week, my French family felt like having Chinese food. “Alright,” I relented. “I’ll go pick up some stuff at the Chinese deli.”
I walked to Nantes’ “Chinatown”, i.e. a couple of streets with ethnic stores, including a few Chinese delis. Most work exactly the same. Appetizers, mains and a few desserts are already prepared, sitting there displayed on plates behind the glass case. You pick and point what you want and the “waiter” more or less grudgingly dump the food into little takeout boxes and weight it. If you answer “yes” to the question “hot?”, your box is thrown into a microwave for a few minutes, and handed back to you.
The first and only time I took Feng to the Chinese deli, he was stunned. “What? They don’t prepare the food as you order? And it’s cold? And it costs that much?”
Yes, yes, and yes.
And the saddest thing is that it’s pretty much the extent of Chinese “gastronomy” in France, not to mention that half of the dishes are not actually Chinese (try to order “nems” or “Cantonese rice” in China!). I’m sure that if you really look for it, you can find a few authentic Chinese restaurants in major cities, but they are hard to come by and very expensive.
And it’s the same with most ethnic foods. Nems and Cantonese rice represent Chinese cuisine, kebab symbolizes Turk/Greek cuisine and a few pricey Japanese restaurants serve skewers (stuffed with cheese!) and noodles. Good luck finding authentic and cheap Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Mexican, Malaysian, etc. food.
That’s when I started missing ethnic food. In Canada, we eat food from all around the world, and supermarkets sell bamboo shoots, tortillas, pad thai or korma chicken sauces, tzaziki, hummus, artichoke hearts, guacamole or tofu—ingredients I use a lot.
Besides, while in France, I realized I didn’t like traditional French food that much. My family is very casual and they cook “modern” French food. But these days, French seem to be into regional specialities, like I discovered going out with an old friend of mine.
We met one night for a drink, and then decided to go to the restaurant together. I have been away for so long that I don’t know any good places in Nantes anymore (not to mention that when I left, I was a broke teen and didn’t go out much).
“Pick a place you like,” I encouraged. “I trust you, I’m not really picky.”
We walked to his first “favourite restaurant”, offering French food. Hopeful, I looked at the menu and did a double-take. Featured were “steak tartare” (minced raw beef with a raw egg yolk), horse meat with “foie gras” sauce, several kinds of carpaccio (raw meat or fish), oysters, pork, duck and game product such as blood sausage, etc.
I mean, I’m not vegetarian and it takes a lot to gross me out but I draw the line at raw meat. This ain’t Fear Factor!
My friend laughed at me and we ended up in a crêperie (where the egg yolk is served very runny, but I can deal with that).
By my third week in France, I was really craving ethnic food—Chinese, Vietnamese, whatever—and a good burger, the kind we get at Dick’s. I had my fill of French food, and as good as it is, I needed multiculturalism in my plate.
What can I say—I’m also Canadian now.