Why you should care
Not everyone in Paris wants to eat butter.
Nothing is more precious to the French than their food — liberté, egalité, charcuterie — and the cultural tradition of French cuisine and of the French restaurant is fiercely protected. But where does that leave France’s diaspora communities, which bring a host of new cuisines when they immigrate?
For Fati Niang, the answer was to take to the streets. Literally. She’s the entrepreneur and chef behind Black Spoon, which claims to be Paris’s first African food truck, a mobile restaurant that’s been serving food from all over the continent since 2013 — though it focuses on dishes from Senegal, where her parents were born. The menu is simple: three main dishes (two Senegalese and one Malian, which sell for $10 to $11 each), two side dishes and a new addition every month from a different African nation. In October, it’s Congo’s beloved saka-saka, a soup made of cassava leaves. Her most popular dish? Tiep bou dien, a fish-and-rice platter considered the national dish of Senegal.
Serving African food in the French capital can be a bit tricky … you have to tone down the spice to appeal to Parisian palates.
You might think it’d be tough finding traditional African ingredients in the cream-and-butter capital of the world, but Niang has no trouble. “It’s not cheap,” she says, but it’s doable, and she’s managed to offer up some special treats, like exotic sodas flavored with baobab and hibiscus. Serving African food in the French capital can be a bit tricky, though, since you have to tone down the spice to appeal to Parisian palates, but her Senegalese clients will miss the heat if it isn’t there, so she deftly negotiates by providing tiny pots of spicy sauce that can be used to punch up the flavors if need be. And that’s a huge part of her business: More than 75 percent of France’s immigrants from developing countries are coming from Africa according to an OECD report, and while North Africa accounted for the most emigrants — 2.3 million of France’s residents came from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco alone — Senegal, Mali and the Ivory Coast each have yielded tens of thousands of newcomers.
When Niang’s parents emigrated in the 1970s (she was born in France, although not in Paris), she says there was no Southern African food to be had. “Chinese food was very popular,” she said, but the African immigrant communities had to establish themselves as a culinary force over decades. “It’s my culture,” she says. “I wanted to share it with the French.”
But France’s African diaspora has been around long enough that the food is not just the cuisine of Niang’s childhood. One of her customers, teenager Gabriel Massoni, isn’t of African descent, but he sought out the truck for its plantains because his African nanny made plantains for him when he was younger. “It’s like Proust’s madeleines,” he says, tucking into a sheaf of the fried, savory treat. He loves food trucks, but they’ll never replace restaurants — this is Paris, after all. He predicts that, despite the deeply held tradition of the corner bistro, food trucks will eventually just be another branch of gastronomy in Paris. “At the moment, it’s war,” he says, “The food truck comes to us! But you wouldn’t always want your restaurant stuck in traffic.”