My friend Vita from Slovenia is here to visit me for the week. Since she got here, we’ve hardly eaten any French food, although we’ve probably had too much French coffee.
As we sat across from each other in a crowded restaurant in the Marais with a reputation for the best Falafel in Paris, I observed that she was about to leave Paris and she hadn’t really had any French meals.
“Well, that’s what’s French about them,” said Vita. “They’re not French.”
I thought about that. There was something French about the un-French balls of fried chickpeas before us. Everyday French food isn’t as distinctive as you might expect. They serve simple things,: vegetables, potatoes, cheese, bread. The French-ness is in the detail of the preparation. As I ate my well-stuffed falafel sandwich with pita bread and veggies, I took note of the lilywhite color of the bread, the quality of the fried falafel crust. When the French fry anything, there’s something extra precise about the taste, a sort of crystallized lightness to the crispiness of the breading.
Earlier in the week, we had dinner at an Indian restaurant that I’d also eaten at almost every day when I was in Delhi- Saravahna Bhavan. Vita liked it so much that we went a second time two days after our first meal there. I like it too. When it’s crowded, it’s mostly full of Indian customers. The chai is exactly the same as the chai in Delhi, the steel plates and cups and water pitchers are the same and the balance of spices is also the same. But if you order a Masala Dosa, something about the creaminess of the puréed potatoes and the crêpe-like texture of the bread give the traditional South Indian dish a French accent. For the second meal, I ordered a café madras as well. In India, a lot of the coffee that isn’t Nescafé comes from Madras. On Indian menus it’s called “Madras coffee” or “filter coffee”, that’s how you know it’s not instant. It has a rough, slightly burnt flavor that I learned to enjoy. Unless you order it black it comes with milk and sugar and maybe some froth on top, and it’s got this great pale burnt color. In the Paris outlet of Saravana Bhavan, the color and the froth were just right, but the taste had none of the rough edge.
And I thought of all the little details that globalization makes possible. The taste of a grilled egg and cheese sandwich served on Tibetan bread and spiced with cumin in Bodh Gaya, or the sound of French spoken in a Slovenian accent in Paris.