It’s no secret that I love Belleville. I fully support the “Belleville Hills” t-shirts I’ve seen around the neighborhood the past couple of years, proclaiming pride in this area of eastern Paris. The colors, the people, the odors! The ongoing construction projects and the racaille, or riff-raff! They all make up this vibrant, working-class area I call (almost) home.
Truth be told, I live a little south of Belleville. So I’m not right in the thick of the Chinese street hawkers selling fragrant spring onions and the chaotic Asian supermarkets brimming with strange-shaped vegetables. I’m in a calmer part of the 20th, nestled right between the Mairie, or town hall, and the Père Lachaise cemetery (it doesn’t get much calmer than that).
But when I want ethnic food of all sorts – Greek, Lebanese, Thai – I head to Belleville by bicycle, pedaling up and coasting down the hills of the rue des Pyrénées, named for the mountains which separate France from Spain. Fortunately, the rue des Pyrénées isn’t quite that steep, because otherwise I’d have already bought an electric bicycle, for which the City of Paris is handing out substantial subsidies.
Just last night, I had dinner in Lower Belleville – le bas-Belleville – at a Spanish hole in the wall, Chez Ramona. The restaurant mostly serves paella: not wonderful paella, but it’s just the kind of place you want to go to with old friends, to knock back some rioja, and chat for an hour while you’re waiting for your paella to be served piping hot in its special black paella pan. The decor? Kitchissime, we might say – see this photo that looks like there are logs holding up the bar? That’s wallpaper.
And then there are newbies – every time I turn around, there’s a brand-new restaurant opening up in Belleville. The best one I’ve been to lately is Le Dénoyez, also in Lower Belleville. It’s a pocket-sized restaurant (restaurant de poche) and serves up fresh, high-quality French products on a daily menu (just look at these photos!), with only one or two choices of starters and main dishes. Their natural wines – vins natures – are superbly chosen, but hurry! If you call now, you might just grab one of only 10 or so seats for tomorrow night.
Apart from all the restaurants and Asian markets, what makes Belleville so special? For me, it’s the cosmopolitan environment. Now, I don’t quite mean this in the English-language way, because in English, cosmopolitan means “free from local, provincial, or national ideas, prejudices, or attachments; at home all over the world.” In French, cosmopolite is slightly different: rather than being FREE from national ideas, it’s the idea of a city or an area of a city being a mix of multiple nationalities. Nothing could describe Belleville better than that.
In Belleville, you’ll find northern Africans (from the Maghreb), including Jews from Tunisia. Armenians and Greeks once populated the area, and they worked making shoes, since leather hides came south to Belleville from the nearby slaughterhouses in La Villette (now a huge park!). To think: Belleville was once the shoe capital of Paris!
Polish, German, Spanish, and Portuguese immigrants also settled in Belleville, and by the time Asian populations began arriving in the 1960s, there were thousands of artists, too – they took over the small manufacturing shops that, it turned out, were wonderful light-filled art studios! So when Chinese, Vietnamese, and Laotians began settling in, Belleville was still “criss-crossed with tiny streams… harboring secrets, ancient manholes, dead ends, and protected alleyways.”¹
Rewarded with the view
That’s much the same Belleville I know and love today, and the one I rediscover over and over again with visitors to the area who are walking with me: the unknown back streets, bucolic in their abandonment, but abundant with life and art; the greenery-filled “empty” lots still peppering the area; the hills taking you up and down and dizzyingly around and back up again, until you’ve reached the top of the Belleville Park. And you’re rewarded with the view.
And then it’s back down again: once you’ve finally reached Lower Belleville, and you’re feeling what the French would call flappy or flagada, a little bereft of energy, and just plain famished, you’re ready – well, at least I am – for some great Vietnamese soup at Dong Huong (menu pictured) or at any other of the area’s tiny soup stops. Or, on a Thursday night, try out the now-famous Food Market – all the details are here. Bon appétit!
¹Some of my research for this article came from the book Belleville: Quartier Populaire? by Roselyne de Villanova and Agnès Deboulet, which is available in the specialized eastern Paris history section of the Médiathèque Maguerite Duras in the 20th district.
Photo of Belleville Hills t-shirt, © NO/ONE Paris
Photo of Le Dénoyez dishes and wines, © Le Dénoyez
Photo of Belleville Park, © Tom Guardabascio
Chicken pho (Phô ga)
When most of us eat the aromatic soup pho, we’re eating beef pho, and when I make it at home, I like to use the recipe for Hanoi Beef Soup in The Ethnic Paris Cookbook. But chicken pho is equally as tasty, and the recipe below is adapted from The Pho Cookbook by Andrea Nguyen, just published by Ten Speed Press. The recipe was also previously released in the fantastic newsletter Lucky Peach.
This recipe takes some time, but the rewards are ten-fold: a rich, succulent chicken broth, perfumed with coriander (both seeds and stems) and ginger is served steaming over rice noodles, and garnished with crisp bean sprouts and plenty of herbs. To me, this is pure comfort food.
special equipment: a large soup pot (minimum 8-quart capacity) or medium stock pot
ingredients for the broth:
1 chubby 4-inch (10cm) section ginger, unpeeled (about 4 ounces or 110g)
2 medium yellow onions, about 1 pound or 450g, unpeeled
3 pounds (about 1.4 kg) chicken parts, such as backs, necks, wings, feet, and drumsticks (I love using wings for this and for stocks)
2.2 pounds (1 kg) chicken legs and breasts, any combination, cut into half-portions (legs cut at the joint between drumstick and thigh, breasts cut in half)
3 quarts (3 liters) cold water
2 tablespoons whole coriander seeds
4 whole cloves
1 small bunch cilantro, leaves separated from stems (1½ ounces or 40g)
1-inch (2.5cm) piece yellow Chinese rock sugar (½ ounce or 15g), or 1 tablespoon raw sugar
1½ teaspoons fine sea salt
3 tablespoons fish sauce (Andrea Nguyen uses MegaChef’s premium blue bottle, but she says you can use the standard brown bottle)
20 ounces (565g) dried narrow flat rice noodles, or 1 pound (455g) fresh pho noodles
cooked chicken from the broth, cut or torn into bite-sized pieces
¼ medium yellow or red onion, thinly sliced against the grain and soaked in water for 10 minutes
2 or 3 thinly sliced scallions, green parts only
¼ cup or small handful chopped fresh cilantro (from reserved leafy tops)
freshly ground pepper (optional)
to finish (optional garnishes):
1½ cups (150g) bean sprouts
5-6 sprigs mint
5-6 sprigs Thai basil
1.2 Thai or serrano chilies, thinly sliced
1 lime, cut into wedges
how to make it:
1. To make the broth, start by charring the ginger and onions. If you have a grill, place them directly on the cooking grate of a medium-hot charcoal or gas grill. I used my gas stove burner, but I place a wire cooling rack (the kind you use for cookies) over the burner: place the vegetables on the cooling rack over a medium flame (or on a medium-hot burner of an electric stove). Let the skin burn, using tongs to occasionally turn the vegetables until they’re charred almost everywhere. After 15 minutes, they will have softened slightly and become sweetly fragrant. It’s fine if the vegetables bubble a little, and you don’t have to blacken them completely.
2. Remove the vegetables from the heat source, and run them under cold water, rubbing (and scraping with a small spoon for the ginger), to remove all traces of peel and skin. Cut off the root end of the onion. Cut the ginger lengthwise, and then into chunks. Use the heel of a large chef’s knife to bruise the ginger. Cut the onions in half, and set the vegetables aside.
3. Using a large cleaver or chef’s knife, chop up the chicken parts. (Or ask your butcher to chop up the parts.) Leaving the legs and breasts aside for the moment, place the chicken parts in a large soup pot. Cover them generously with cold water (the 3 quarts is for after this blanching step) and bring to a boil. Let the parts simmer for 2 minutes, skimming well, then dump the parts into a colander and rinse them well with cold water. Scrub the pot you just used, then place the chicken parts back inside, and pour in the 3 quarts of cold water.
4. Bring the parts to a boil, skim, and then add the legs and breasts. Bring to the boil again, and add the coriander seeds, cloves, cilantro stems (reserve the leaves in the refrigerator), rock sugar, and sea salt. Simmer gently for 25 minutes, and then using a pair of tongs, remove the legs and breast – you may have to fish around, and using a slotted spoon also helps. Transfer these parts to a bowl and let them cool. When completely cooled, transfer this bowl to the refrigerator.
5. The broth should still be simmering – keep simmering for about 1½ hours (total cooking time is about 2 hours). When the broth is done, let it rest and settle for about 30 minutes.
6. Skim the fat from the top of the broth, and transfer as many of the chicken parts as possible to a colander. Strain the broth separately through a fine-mesh strainer. Discard the solids, or let your significant other have at them if you like (my guy picks through the wings and nibbles on them, even though they’ve given all their flavor to the broth).
7. If you’re serving this dish right away, add the fish sauce and extra seasoning if needed. If you’re making this ahead, cool the broth completely and refrigerate it for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 3 months. Reheat and season with fish sauce and salt before using.
8. To serve the pho, soak dried noodles or prepare fresh ones according to the package directions. Divide them among 4 soup bowls.
9. Sliced or tear the chicken into 4 equal portions, then top the noodles with chicken. Add the red onions, scallions, freshly ground pepper, and cilantro.
10. Carefully ladle about 2 cups of broth into each soup bowl.
11. On small dishes, or as you wish, place bean sprouts, mint and basil sprigs, chilies, and lime wedges so that diners may help themselves. Invite your guests to simply tear herb leaves into pieces, adding them to their soup as they go. Slurping and splashing seem to happen a lot – in Parisian soup shops, or at home, it’s enjoyed as much as the eating. Bon app’!
makes 4 servings; broth recipe makes 8 cups (about 1.9 liters)