La Malbouffe, Oui ou Non? Fast (Ethnic) Food and the French

If you saw the following headline  pop up on one of the many news feeds streaming into thousands of computers around the global, you might think, “Oops, some editor didn’t ingest their caffeine fix in time!”

French Get the Taste for Fast [Ethnic] Food

(Click on the link above to read the article that inspired this post.)

Ah oui? The honest-to-goodness truth? A pita restaurant in Antwerp, Belgium scored a whopping 13 out of 20 points from the picky GaultMillau critics.  Après ça, le deluge, because after that, in the minds of purists anyway, French cuisine is tainted, going to the dogs, garbage it is.

But it isn’t, not at all.

You see, the French* left a lot crumbs so to speak in their overseas empire, La France d’Outre-Mer. But generally they did not eat the local food, at least not like the Dutch did or even the British, who respectively went for the Indonesian rijsttafel (“rice table”) or Indian curry like starving men, which some of them were at times. Starving, that is.

Marché Dejean (Goutte d'Or neighborhood, Paris) Photo credit: David Dufresne

And so what do you find there in that article, but pita, falafel, and hummus, foods dear to many Lebanese immigrants and others from the Middle East. But of course there is much more to be had. The open-air markets of teem with food that might have been unfamiliar to the average grand-mère decades ago.  Customers seeking that food come from all the perimeters of the French colonial empire.

Given the prices of traditional French food (even that served in homey bistros can easily set you back a couple hundred dollars in the flash of a menu), it’s no wonder that the French finally find themselves craving the food of their former colonies.

That’s not to say that the French NEVER ate the local food when they lived and worked Outre-Mer. In “A Moroccan Luncheon,” French writer Colette described the food so well that by the end of the short passage, you might just find yourself headed toward the kitchen:

She had already placed before us pale griddle-cakes cooked in sugared butter and sprinkled with almonds, pigeons bathed in succulent juice with green olives, chickpeas buried fresh beans with wrinkled skins, and lemon cooked and recooked and reduced to a savory purée …

The following photos suggest just some of the many gastronomic pleasures surrounding adventurous French eaters:

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen


Photo credit: C. Bertelsen
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen
Photo credit: Busy Pochi
Photo credit: Vee Satayamas
Photo credit: Moacir P. de Sá Pereira
Photo credit: Graham Holliday

For a little more about France’s diversity, see:

Immigration in Postwar France,” by Toby McNeill (1996)

The Ethnic Paris Cookbook, by Charlotte Puckette and Olivia Kiang-Snaije (2007)

*”The French” could be debated and defined in any numerous ways, but here I guess we must refer to native-born French people, with roots reaching back to the Gauls.

And you can’t leave without a recipe, this time for homemade Harissa, a North African condiment that will take off the top of your head if you wield that spoon too carelessly. Use with just about any North African dish, goes particularly well with couscous — just drizzle a little over your food before starting to eat.

Makes about 1 cup

12 dried chiles, seeds and stems removed, soaked in warm water for half an hour
4 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 t. salt
1 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 t. ground coriander seeds
1 t. ground fennel seeds
1/2 t. ground cumin seeds
2 T. extra virgin olive oil

After soaking the chiles, drain them and (wearing rubber gloves) squeeze out excess water. Place chiles and remaining ingredients in a food processor or blender and purée.

© 2011 C. Bertelsen