Some years ago, I lived in San Francisco—still one of my favorite cities. One of the things I loved about it was its neighborhoods populated by minority ethnic groups, including Chinatown, North Beach (Italian), the Mission (Latin American), Japantown and even a tiny French area (a few restaurants, a French church and the French consulate between Union Square and Chinatown). I loved the cultural and linguistic plurality these areas brought to the city, in the form of distinct architecture, street signs and advertisements in languages other than English, restaurants and grocery stores selling foods from other lands. In some of these districts, especially Chinatown and the Mission, I sometimes felt as though I had stumbled through a portal to another land.
Like any self-respecting major city, Paris has its minority ethnic neighborhoods too. My favorite one is the area roughly between and around La Chapelle, Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est, home to large numbers of people whose families hail from Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan as well as countries farther afield such as Madagascar and Mauritius. There isn’t really an official name for this neighborhood, although I very often hear it referred to as the quartier sri lankais. For the sake of full inclusion I will refer to it here as Little South Asia.
All along rue du Faubourg Saint Denis and the various side streets are shops selling colorful saris and jewelry, sweets and Bollywood DVDs, as well as restaurants and cash & carry stores. Garlands and fluttering mobiles can sometimes be seen decorating the streets for various holidays.
The most festive time of year in this neighborhood is definitely La Fête de Ganesh in late August or early September, when an elaborate and spectacular parade honoring the elephant god winds through the streets from the Temple Sri Manika Vinayakar Alayam (17 rue Pajol) around the La Chapelle area and back again. The participants include women wearing pots of burning camphor on their heads, shirtless men pulling the Ganesh statue down the street with ropes, flutists and drummers, mustachioed dancers with papier-mâché horses and larger-than-life ambulant statues. The festivities are accompanied by energetic smashing of coconuts on the streets and free distribution of cold drinks.
The rest of the year, this neighborhood’s main draw for me is VT Cash & Carry (11-15 rue Cail), a wonderland of spices, lentils, nuts, teas and exotic fruits and vegetables hidden behind a nondescript storefront on a side street. When you enter, the shop at first appears to be fairly small and cramped, as many of the cash & carrys (carries?) in the neighborhood are. But as you proceed further through the coats at the back of the wardrobe, it opens up, revealing a much larger space full of aisles packed to the ceiling with wares and edibles of all kinds.
It is of course a great place for spices, both common and rare, at better prices than at mainstream grocery stores. And it’s also where you can stock up on staples like lentils, rice, flours and grains.
Lentils of every description and color!
If you’ve got the muscles to carry it, and room at home to store it, a 20 kg (44 lb.) bag of rice is really your best buy. Or, of course, if you run a restaurant…
Every time I go here, I plan to get a can of ramboutans to see what they taste like, but then I invariably end up with too many other heavy things and decide to leave it for the next trip.
Some interesting jams and chutneys (ginger, chow chow, candied citrus peel, pineapple, lime, ambarella, passionfruit, tamarind, soursop, baobab and more) and a mysterious English thing called golden syrup that I have not tried yet. My favorite jam ever, which I discovered here, is made with physalis fruit, also known as aguaymanto in Peru and pok-pok in Madagascar, where this particular brand comes from. It is simply heavenly, with a tanginess reminiscent of kiwi and a sweeter side that brings to mind raisins or dried cherries.
These metal bowls, usually seen only at restaurants, are an elegant way to serve dal or curries at home.
Here, you can get many imported European items that are hard to find elsewhere, such as Marmite (if you enjoy it, or like me are trying to acquire a taste for it), psyllium powder (good for thickening raw desserts), date syrup, the aforementioned golden syrup and (not shown) Heinz baked beans, cream crackers, Scottish and Irish oatmeals and baking ingredients. VT Cash & Carry is also the place to head when you’re looking for your favorite brands of English tea.
Other often-tricky-to-find items include fonio, an African semolina, and peanut butter. Yep, in France peanut butter is a somewhat exotic item. You can still usually find it at regular grocery stores, but at really high prices. My favorite place to get PB is actually at Franprix, in their growing organic & fair-trade section, both because of these characteristics and because the taste is just nice.
Some ready-made sauces in foil packets that you immerse in hot water to heat up. Some of them are vegan (just check the ingredients carefully).
The produce section always contains a few items I’m unfamiliar with, so I sometimes buy things to find out for myself what they are and how they taste (trying to remember to note down the name before leaving the store!). Here, among other things I was already able to identify, we have fresh and dried turmeric root.
I did once buy a wood apple in spite of an Indian fellow shopper’s warning that they aren’t very good. Turns out she was right!
Also available toward the front of the store is sugarcane, young coconut (good for raw dishes) and fresh aloe leaves.
If after your lengthy shopping experience you need to rest a bit before facing the crush of people on the metro ride home, pop into one of the three Krishna Bhavan restaurants on the same street (at 15, 21 or 24 rue Cail) for a tasty bite. At the one shown above you can also get take-out veggie samosas at the front counter for €1 a piece.
Enjoy your explorations!