Simple Takeout To Hipster Fusion: Chinese Cuisine In Paris Gets Chic
Forget about Cantonese fried rice and spring rolls, new-look Chinese restaurants have been multiplying in Paris. They attract French people with increasingly diverse tastes… and a growing number of Chinese tourists.
PARIS — “It's a spicy pot that numbs the palate, with an explosion of flavors and a euphoric 'come-hither' taste.” Patrick El Khoury's eyes light up when he talks about málà xiāngguō, the dish he boasts of being the first to serve in France at his restaurant in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, which opened last June.
“It's not well known in Europe, but it's become very popular in China over the past 15-20 years. In one bowl, you choose the veggie elements, in another the meat, then you pay by weight and indicate your level of spiciness,” explains the Lebanese chef, who fell in love with this dish during his exchange year in Beijing when he was a student at the HEC school of business.
After becoming a consultant in Paris, he started to look for this dish in every European capital where he was sent for business. But he did not find it. He then decided to leave his company, went to China to learn more, then enrolled in one of the schools of French chef Thierry Marx. He organized big dinner parties at home to let people taste different versions of the málà sauce, the base of this dish, made of fermented black beans, and an oil infused with ten spices: red and green Sichuan berries, cloves, star anise, orange peels, and more.
Three hundred tests later, all meticulously recorded in an Excel file, Patrick El Khoury lifts a ladle of the mixture. It is in this sauce that the ingredients chosen by the customers — meats, vegetables, enoki mushrooms, “chewy” mini rice cakes, dehydrated tofu skin — are stir-fried in a wok over high heat. The mixture, sprinkled with soy sauce and sugar, then topped with a generous amount of peanuts, coriander and sesame seeds, is served with a bowl of rice to “neutralize the heat.”
Waves of immigration
“Mala Boom” is part of a new generation of Chinese restaurants whose menu no longer has much in common with what most French people still associate with this cuisine, which consists of “egg rolls, Cantonese rice with small cubes of ham, pork caramel and beef with onions,” according to Hélène Huang, head of the Chinese Food project at the Association des Jeunes Chinois de France (AJCF).
“This menu is now so much a part of the French food landscape, in small and large cities alike, that it has almost become more exotic to eat a beef bourguignon,” says Pierre Raffard, author of Geopolitics of Food and Gastronomy.
Many of the usual Chinese restaurants were opened in the 90s, by Wenzhou immigrants (400 km south of Shanghai), who also took over the capital's bar-tabac. Most of the restaurants in the 13th arrondissement were opened by boat people in the 70s and 80s.
“France welcomed about 100,000 Indochinese refugees, half of whom were Chinese,” says Daniel Tran, vice-president of the AJCF. This explains the long menus mixing Chinese, Thai, Laotian and Cambodian dishes, reflecting the journey of these migrants but also their understanding of French expectations.
Pates Vivantes, famous for their noodles, Paris, France
Red, black and white
“This generation of immigrants opened restaurants to survive, and sought to get as close as possible to the French palate, with dishes that were a little sweeter, often fried, and sometimes not Chinese at all. For example, egg rolls are not chūn juan, the Canton version with wheat paste, but the Vietnamese version with rice paste,” says Hélène Huang.
This new generation of restaurateurs is very different from those unskilled migrants. In her thesis published in 2021, Lise Gibet proposes a typology in three categories based on the evolution of storefronts. In contrast to the red of traditional eateries, there are the "blacks," regional specialty restaurants opened by Chinese from rather affluent social classes who came to study in France and do not identify with the existing offer. But also the "whites," created by French thirty somethings, often children of Chinese immigrants, who reconvert in the food industry after a career as executives in large companies.
They were decisive in the reconfiguration of the social morphology of Chinese people.
What do they have in common? "The willingness not to modify recipes to adapt to the 'French taste', as evidenced by the presence of highly spicy preparations and a refusal of the starter-main course-dessert formula to offer shared dishes according to a synchronous service where all dishes can be served at the same time," says Gibet.
Bingsi Li, 40 years old, manages seven establishments in the capital and has 14 in the works, and is the king of "black" restaurants. Originally from Dongbei, in northeastern China, and son of a restaurateur, he arrived in Paris in the early 2000s to study French and marketing. He benefited from university exchange agreements between China and France, which followed China's entry into the WTO in 2001 and led France to host more than 300,000 Chinese students in ten years.
"They were decisive in the reconfiguration of the social morphology of Chinese people in France, with a new migrant population who, in addition to being qualified, comes from big Chinese cities or regions in the north (Liaoning, Henan) and the west (Sichuan), which are not traditional migration areas," says Gibet.
A taste of home
To benefit from the association with Japanese and Korean restaurants already established, which "have a more upscale image," these new migrants choose the location between Opéra and Cadet-Poissonnière in central Paris. This neighborhood, close to the department stores, is also favored because it is frequented by an increasing number of Chinese tourists in the capital.
It was these travelers, whom he accompanied as a tour guide, who pushed Bingsi Li to open his first restaurant: after a few days of eating croissants, entrecôtes, and onion soup, they wanted to have food that tasted like home. "They told me, 'why don't you open a real Chinese restaurant? It would be good business'," he says.
His "hot pot" customers are now 30% Chinese tourists, who share his address on the Xiaohongshu app, the "lifestyle bible" used every month by 200 million Chinese people. The guests cook their meat and vegetables in a large spicy broth placed in the center of the table, and the French translation of "fondue" makes some people smile. It's convivial — but also very Instagram-friendly.
In China, the popularity of this dish has led to the creation of chains, such as Liuyishou, which has more than 1,280 restaurants in the country, as well as in the United States, Canada, Dubai, and France since 2017. Bingsi Li was recruited by this group to develop its presence in Europe: he converted his restaurant in the 10th arrondissement to his brand and developed their other brand, LiuKouShui, a "hot pot noodle", which now has six variations in Paris.
Shaxian Snacks, the world's largest restaurant chain, which has developed with the encouragement of Xi Jinping to the point of reaching a footprint twice that of McDonald's, has also opened four locations in France.
If these chains are mainly frequented by Asians, French people, whose culinary tastes are becoming increasingly mixed, also rush to the four restaurants of Zhao Baoyan, who is from Xian and also arrived in France as a student. At his restaurant, biangbiang noodles are a hit. These "belt noodles" of 2 m long and 5 cm wide, bathed in a delicious egg and tomato sauce, are cut with the teeth... and delight social media, where unique dishes are trending.
"At the time, no restaurant in Europe specialized in the cuisine of my region," says Zhao, who reminds us that "northwestern China is the birthplace of pasta, before Italy." Proof of its popularity, the specialty dish at "La Taverne de Zhao" was selected by Uber Eats to be featured in its advertising campaign on the streets of Paris in Oct. 2022. This prompted Zhao Baoyan to cross the Seine to soon open his first restaurant on the left bank... and set the goal of being present in every district of Paris within the next three years.
Entrance of Chinese restaurant in Paris, France
The "ravioli apartments" crisis
One of the features found in many of these new restaurants is the display of the cooking process. This trend started in 2007 with "Les Pâtes Vivantes," where noodles are handcrafted in the storefront. "It was important to show that it's fresh," explains Xiaorong Duan-Coutin, the owner, who is still cooking at 67.
This is particularly important to counter the negative image of Chinese restaurants caused by the broadcasting of two reports on the unsanitary conditions of "ravioli apartments" on the French investigative show Envoyé spécial in 2004 and 2006, which led to the bankruptcy of many establishments and the conversion of some into Japanese or Korean restaurants.
The trend is rather towards the proliferation of all-you-can-eat Asian buffets.
Rather than ignoring the bad reputation and stereotypes about Chinese cuisine, Céline Chung decided to play with them: "No dogs, no cats, no rats, just Chinese food," she mischievously displayed on the menu of her first restaurant, "Petit Bao," which opened in 2019. Daughter of Wenzhou immigrants, Céline initially followed her parents' desire for social success after spending her childhood in the Parisian district of Le Marais.
After attending a business school, she joined a consulting firm. Then, in 2019, she decided to abandon "this well-trodden path" to partner with Billy Pham, a former franchise manager for Bagelstein and Subway, and venture into the world of cuisine.
The new Chinese gastronomy is mostly found in Paris, as immigrants from China are concentrated two-thirds in the Île-de-France region, compared to about one-third for those of other origins. In the provinces and suburbs, the trend is rather towards the proliferation of all-you-can-eat Asian buffets, according to Christian Navet, the secretary general of the UMIH (Union of Trades and Industries in the Hotel and Catering Industry).
Not much used in traditional French cuisine, chili peppers are now increasingly popular with young people. "The French palate is evolving. Spicy cuisine is gradually becoming part of the culture, as we can see with sriracha sauce and Mexican food," says Pierre Raffard, a professor and specialist in food geopolitics.
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