The Geography of Taste

A topic that inevitably comes up in relation to homesickness when I talk to my expat friends is the food. Paris, of course, has a lot going for it (that's why we're all here to learn the culinary arts!) but I miss the familiarity of the foodscape at home. In Seattle (my hometown), the Bay Area (my adopted home for the four years before I came for France), and even New York City (where I spent the summer of 2011), I had an eclectic rotation of trustworthy restaurants, bars and cafés that I knew I liked. And by "eclectic," what I really mean are various kinds of ethnic cuisines.

The expats I know who hail from so-called countries of immigrants - Canada, Australia, and the good ol' USA - all say the same thing. Paris is culturally and ethnically diverse, but even when you dine in immigrant-run restaurants it feels...Frenchified. In some instances it's a matter of being used to the Americanized version (especially for Chinese food), but it's definitely disconcerting to see menus written only in French and a foreign language. But I suppose no matter the quality of the food, not knowing what you're eating is always an adventure.

However, there's no denying that certain products and dishes are just engineered differently in France. Recently I had pho in the 13th arrondissement, a neighborhood known for its many Asian restaurants, and while the noodle soup itself was fine, I was sorely disappointed that the Sriracha sauce did nothing. Given the amount I added to the broth, if this were at a restaurant at home in the states I would have been in tears by the end. For my friends and me, that's kind of the point - to go in on a cold winter's day, and put just the right amount of kick in the soup to clear your sinuses and make you sweat a little. But in Paris, no matter how much you put in your bowl it remains a stubborn combination of sweet and salty.

I had a similar experience when a friend from Mexico took me to try out a new Mexican restaurant. The food was authentic enough, by his standards, but the salsa was so bland it seemed to be just for looks. No wonder people bring back bottles of Tapatío sauce after visiting home.

The more I've talked to other chefs and people who have lived here longer than I have, the more I realize that traditional French cuisine is very mild, and so those who enter the restaurant industry here have to work around the local preferential tastes if they want to succeed. The most obvious examples are branches of chains like McDonald's and Starbucks, whose menus are quite different from the ones I'm used to seeing at home.

When I heard that Chipotle was to open its first location in Paris, I scoffed, thinking, "Typical expansion of American corporatism." But I've been so homesick lately maybe I will try it. (After my next paycheck clears; I've heard it's expensive). I don't really expect the salsa to be spicy, but I hope it is.

If you're in the northwest any time soon, here is a compilation of my favorite places to eat in Seattle.