Photos: Azmin Saini

Notes from Paris is how writer and media strategist Azimin Saini makes sense of Paris through the lens of a Singaporean. The social media influencer uses Instagram to document his everyday life as a Parisian, navigating protests (of which there are many), naming etymologies, bureaucracy with local French authorities, and meal prep. This digital column is a textual manifestation of the hours he spent understanding what Paris is and accepting what it isn’t.

I’m not vegan, but I slaved for over two days in my kitchen, cooking a feast of entirely plant-based Malay dishes for friends. There was tempeh with sambal balado, a 10-hour slow-cooked rendang with mushrooms, otak-otak made with tofu, tahu goreng (fried tofu) with peanut sauce, and nasi kuning (turmeric rice). For dessert, it was sago pudding, where mounds of tapioca balls sit in warm coconut milk with lashings of gula melaka we all know and love.

Except this wasn’t in Singapore, but 10,000km away in Paris, where I now live.

Those friends weren’t vegan. One was French, and his partner was Argentinean (“We eat three cows a day there,” he says). Sure, food in Asia is a love language, and I was cooking to feed friends, but my meal also had a mission: I wanted to showcase my cuisine to people who would otherwise never have had it.

At its essence, Malay food harmonises a cacophony of Southeast Asian botanicals from root to fruit into a melodious symphony. I aimed to pay homage to Asia’s long history of high protein and delicious vegetarianism in a country that sees it as a newfangled domain of left-wing tree huggers. 

But let’s back up a little bit.

Back to my roots

Tofu otak-otak. (Photo: Azimin Saini)

In 2022, I moved to Paris armed with only a year of French lessons, a meaningful remote job, and three kilos of gula melaka I bought from Geylang Serai market.

As part of my assimilation, I spent half the year eating every croissant (of course) and gobbling every morsel of cheese to find out what Parisians considered good. 

But it wasn’t long till I started craving the flavours of Asia and began reaching out to touch the pulse of Paris’ Asian community. 

That was when I realised that, unlike the global cities of New York and London where immigrant food cultures are part of the city’s DNA, Paris is still very much centred around “whiteness”.

It’s a huge irony because this city sees itself as the centre of the gastronomic universe even while the gastronomic universe itself is rapidly expanding to embrace cuisines that don’t hail from Europe. For centuries, France’s culinary ingenuity — from how restaurant kitchens organise themselves to its food ranking guides — has been the spindle that the world revolved around. 

Still, within Paris, immigrant cultures and cuisines are relegated to the periphery. Mention Asian food, and most Parisians would think of cheap takeaway spots while French restaurants get all the artisanship glory. But really, just how much artisanal cheese can you scoff at before your sweat starts to smell like spoilt milk?

What makes the French, French?

Slow-cooked rendang with mushrooms. (Photo: Azimin Saini)

In part, it’s because food in France is part of a proud French identity. That means, like everything else in this country, it’s deeply political. France has a conservative veneer that resists new ideas and identities that lap at its Gallic walls and that, sadly, bleeds into its culinary culture. 

For instance, right now, laws are being debated banning plant-based companies from using terms like cheese, milk, and bacon to protect France’s large dairy and cattle industries. Oat milk is still rare here, and if you asked for vegan or vegetarian options in some restaurants, you’d likely be served a silver platter of freshly mown grass — and asked to get out.

The immigrant-hating extreme right also wants to ban halal and kosher slaughter, believing the practice to be cruel to animals. That, to me, is the height of idiocy because if they truly cared for animal welfare, they would be vegan to begin with and not be chomping on Charolaise at breakfast.

Sago pudding. (Photo: Azimin Saini)

Breaching the Gallic walls

Still, even against a clear distaste for anything global, Paris’ culinary scene is evolving and growing incredibly diverse. In the past few years, the city has seen a rise in ethnically diverse concepts. 

A new wave of cool Asian joints serving up everything from gourmet banh mis to bao burgers has now joined the ranks of Vietnamese eateries in the 13th arrondissement and the window-facing paratha makers of the South Indian diaspora in Chapelle.

I’m also beginning to see surprising culinary intersectionalities in Paris that seem so traditionally out of place. A Korean friend living in the hoity-toity 16th arrondissement showed me a Korean barbecue restaurant that serves halal meat. I imagine it to be a fiery hellscape for the insufferable Charolaise chompers.

Conde Nast Traveler called this evolution, “a softening of the Parisian stubbornness to keep white France the focus,” in an article published in November.

Well, white France, meet brown Singapore and my vegan Malay food. While we may not have been the cradle of restaurant kitchen organisations or famous food ranking guides, we are fertile with ancient ideas that sound progressive in Europe but are just part of daily life back home.

So yes, as much as my meal was about pampering friends, it was also about globalising delicious ideas. That us foreigners come to this country not to threaten the French way of life but to make this place even greater than it already is.

All it takes is a suitcase of knowledge. That, and three kilos of gula melaka from Geylang Serai market.