Please, Sir, Can I Have Some Moor?

One afternoon last month, I was walking across the 3rd arrondissement of Paris (sidewalks of cigarette butts, trampled autumn leaves, pigeons pecking at someone’s lost piece of challah) on my way to Breizh Café, declared the best crêpes in town, when I was sidetracked by mounds of mubarak magnificence off rue de Bretagne (it’s not a pun).

The hunger pang stops here. © Desiree Koh

The sight of Parisians tucked into benches, their faces obfuscated by steam Old Faithful’ing from large colorful ceramic plates made me take an abrupt 90-degree right turn into an alley, the light at the end provided by florescent tubes whose sole purpose of being was to illuminate mosques of melt-in-your-mouth jannah, turning markets into meccas of masticulation.

Never trust a food stall without gravy spillage. © Desiree Koh

The marché des Enfants Rouges is the oldest covered market in Paris, built in the 1600s, and is where Marais comes for breakfast, lunch, and wine, delicatessen, cheese, fruit, and vegetable shopping. What a difference 400 years make – there’s an Italian stand serving fresh handmade pastas, a sushi stall, a pan-Asian one – seaweed-dusted poulet rôti, anyone? I stood in front of Traiteur Marocain, enthralled by walnuts and almonds caramelized and tossed with root vegetables in harissa sauces and meats clinging on to their bones only by slivers of tendon – oases amid dunes of fluffy cous cous. If we’ve played the “If You Could Only Eat Five Cuisines For the Rest of Your Life” game, you’d know that French is one of mine. I was in Paris and damn it, I was only going to eat French, even if it was baguette with Camembert forever.

But tenir à tes chameaux! Isn’t Moroccan cuisine as integral to French eating as Chinese-made souvenirs are to the city’s tourist spots? Hadn’t I learned anything from my traipse through Belleville, where shisha aromas instead of cigarette smoke now waft out of corner cafés?

Moving ahead: the new face of Paris in Belleville. © Desiree Koh

I stepped into line for what turned out to be an institution in Moroccan chow that wasn’t in the 20e, and immediately held it up when it came to my turn, because I wanted it all and couldn’t decide, not to mention my halting French. I settled for this:

Tajine d’agneau at le Marché des Enfants Rouges. A hunk of slow-stewed lamb shoulder surrounded by a supporting cast of zucchini, cauliflower, potatoes, carrots, peanuts, onions, cabbage, figs, and sultanas, each one infused with the taste of the other. © Desiree Koh

Then I settled on a bench and waited for my own heap of when lamb shoulder met apricots. And chopped tomatoes. And paprika. And sultanas. And honey. And cinnamon. And cumin. And turmeric. And saffron. And garlic. And mint leaves. And coriander. And onion. And lemon. That stock all of the above came together in like the Comic Con of stews should be publicly traded. Next to me, an older woman shared a beef pastilla with her poodle. Across from me, two 3e hipsters with perfect knots in their scarves and tatteredly natty newsboy hats shared pita with hummus and a plate of olives over red wine and cigarettes. We’ll always have lunch in Paris.

Epilogue: I continued on to Rue Vieille du Temple for a buckwheat crêpe with caramel and buckwheat ice cream. I asked if it was sea salt caramel, and the response was, “We only have sea salt caramel.” I could have been in Saint-Malo, Bretagne.

A moveable feast, digesting from north Africa to the Brittany coast. © Desiree Koh

French New Wave

It soars through the streets of Strasbourg like Captain America blazing highways in Easy Rider. It pirouettes around the Cathédrale Notre Dame turrets before teasing the rooftop pigeons. When you run along the European capital’s canals in the morning or stroll quayside in the late afternoon, you think you’re enjoying an uplifting breeze, but you’re not.

An air of awesome in Strasbourg’s La Petite France.

What you’re savoring is the smell of onions – specifically, the aroma of sautéing onions – that permanently lingers in the Strasbourg stratosphere, permeating your pores, gratifying your gullet, electrifying your endorphins. The only way onions will make you weep in this town is if you’re not having any. Quiche à l’oignonTarte flambée. Choucroute. A restaurant called l’Oignon. It’s like bulbs of ingenuity flashing above every cook’s head in one of France’s gastronomic capitals, emanating the glow of homely comfort laced with urgent pungency, guaranteed to brighten every meal.

Let’s summon our first witness to the stand, the choucroute from Au Brasseur (22 rue des Veaux), one of the finest examples of a Strasbourg bierstub, better defined as a large beer hall where the only things heartier than the cuisine and ales are its patrons’ laughter. This is the kind of place where students crush into dark booths and smash as many slices of tarte flambée as they can within the 90-minute free-flow deal while old ladies on a girls’ night out happily shrug when it’s time to order another four pitchers of house microbrews. But no matter who you’re with or which table you’re at, all chattering, chuckling and conviviality stop – just long enough for the heart to reset its senses – when the first pile of  choucroute is dispensed.

Ma chou chou, the Alsatian choucroute.

The Alsatian version of the German sauerkraut – a given, since this French region is just three miles from the river Rhine that borders both countries – is more delicate, less tangy, and in the Au Brasseur rendition, steeped in onion oil that doesn’t necessarily broadcast its presence as much as sweet talk your palate. (The next morning, the top I’d been wearing at dinner continued to smell of this onion oil, and I prayed this tryst would last longer than a one night stand.)

Pie baked in flames, the Forestière afired.

Next, we’ll call upon the tarte flambée, Alsace’s most famous dish and quite frankly, the reason I’m in Strasbourg. This thinnest of ‘zas has its dough rolled out to its finest (in every aspect of the word), before bacon, cheese, cream, and onions are splayed across in a Pollockian hand, and everything is blazed between one to two minutes in a wood-fired oven. That gives the crust a crisp that’s sharper than a newly minted hundred euro bill, little bubbles that confirm the yeast has properly risen, and a slight char for that smoky zest. More importantly, the caramelization of the onions sweetens the deal, whether smoothly cutting through the gruyère, adding color to the crème fraîche, or doing a diabolical tango with the lardon pieces.

Aunts were put on earth to be kindly ladies always more likely to give you too much of a good thing than your moms will. At Tante Liesel (44 rue des Dentelles), where local gentlemen dig into the house platter of terrine and foie gras with checked napkins tucked into their collars, onions are nuanced into the anatomy of the quiche, lusciously imbibed into a silky flow of egg, milk and cheese. In Alsace, a quiche is not just a quiche – it’s an onion quiche, although if that’s something you hadn’t noticed, you might need a facial for your tongue.

If this quiche is Michael Phelps, the onions in its DNA are its 10-pack.

And instead of backhanding you some change for candy, Tante Liesel does even better by surreptitiously slipping lots of onion bits into her pan-fried potatoes. Little is more pleasant that discovering the crunch of a sweet onion as your mouth works its way through powdery fluff – the devil’s in the details.

You say po-tah-toe, I say onion.

With onion, that aphrodisiac of appetite, constantly on your mind, hair and clothes in Strasbourg, you might find yourself appreciating the fowl floating about the city’s canals as confit canned for six months, ready for the skillet. Except, others can have the leg of duck or goose – you’ll settle for more onions, sautéd in fat.

The duck side of Strasbourg.