La Française Chinoise: Food Does Not A Frenchwoman Make

Posted by Chloë Lai & filed under Travel.

Fact: crêpes taste best when served folded into a square (Chloë Lai)
Fact: crêpes taste best when served folded into a square (Chloë Lai)

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On my way from Malaysia to France, I had a two-hour layover in Vietnam that I need to talk about before I get into any details about the amazing things I’ve seen since. Quick PSA: Anyone flying through Noi Bai international airport needs to find the Star Cafe in the departure lounge and get a coconut. Not only was it the best one I’ve ever tasted, the staff are also absolutely enchanted by mixed-race travellers. If I hadn’t already paid for all of my flights, I might have stayed and sold autographs to fund my MFA applications.

Eleven sleepless hours after I had dragged myself away from guaranteed fame and fortune, I approached the French customs counter, acutely aware that:

1. I was in the fashion capital of the world.
2. There was an unidentifiable stain on the left front pocket of my sweatpants.

Instead of throwing me a burlap sack and a verbal warning, the professional male model posing as a customs agent gave me a smile and a “Vous êtes ravissante!” (You are ravishing) as he stamped my passport.

Welcome to Paris.

It seemed best to flee before he realized his mistake, so I hopped on the train to Nantes . I was surprised at how quickly we left the city behind: by the time I fell asleep twenty minutes later, we were already speeding through tree-dotted fields.

I woke up as the train pulled into Nantes station, where my cousin was waiting with some of the best news I’d heard in months: Crêpes are not off-limits for gluten-free people. My main reason for coming to France was to embrace the French half of my heritage, and diving into the epic meals here seemed like the best (and most delicious) way to do that. My cousins, gracious hosts, duly obliged, and even threw in a heart-stopping amount of salted caramels and chocolate.

And crêpes. Also known as galettes, the savoury blé noir or sarrasin crêpes are made with buckwheat flour, instead of the regular flour used for froment ones. Don’t be afraid to get dessert toppings on a buckwheat galette, either: the old cliché about French chefs vehemently refusing to substitute ingredients is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Chocolate with whipped cream, caramelized pears with cinnamon, lemon with sugar; all of these could be yours. The French have more than lived up to their reputation for serving excellent food during this trip.

Fact: crêpes taste best when served folded into a square. (Chloë Lai)

Fact: crêpes taste best when served folded into a square (Chloë Lai)

I’ve quickly become accustomed to French habits: I eat dinner anytime between 7pm or 10pm. I put flavoured syrups in my water at lunch and drink hot chocolate in the afternoon. I speak only French. I press my cheeks against strangers’ in the standard air-kiss bise greeting, once on each side in Nantes and twice in Machecoul. No one asks me where I am from, unless I mention that I am a tourist. I’ve even started dreaming in French.

 Boar's head on display at the market, in case anyone was wondering whether those sausages were vegetarian. (Chloë Lai)

Boar’s head on display at the market, in case anyone was wondering whether those sausages were vegetarian (Chloë Lai)

On the second Sunday morning of my stay, I rose with a deep, satisfying sense of Frenchness. I got my morning bise from my cousin’s kids, and retrieved the Nutella from the cupboard. I turned on the crêpe pan, threw in a hunk of butter and laid the galette on to sizzle. An egg, some grated Emmental and…shocked stares from the kids.

“You’re going to eat that in the morning?

Busted.

Eating savoury food instead of sweet in the morning, apparently, is distinctly un-French. It’s then that I realize I’ve been doing this all wrong. There’s no way I’ll ever fit snugly into the French mold; my best bet is to build a new one that we can all cosy up in. Next visit, I’m cooking them char kway teow noodles for breakfast.

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