Sunday afternoons in Paris can be dispiriting. It’s a time traditionally spent with family, and while I’m surely not the only one without any to hand, it can sometimes feel that way. What to do? Shops on the Champs Elysees have a special exemption to stay open, and outer-city warehouses like Ikea simply ignore the government’s trading restrictions. But if neither of these appeal—and how could they?—there’s not much in the way of retail diversion. All but the most boring museums are uncomfortably packed when the weather is foul, while the quais and parks have little free real estate if the sun emerges. The Marais, where the historically Jewish-owned business have swapped closing days, is a natural destination. Thousands of tourists and residents have had the same idea, though, as the lines for falafel and the slowly-parading crowds on the main shopping drags attest. As for restaurants, perhaps one in ten is serving, none on my must-visit list.
When I have my wits about me, I head to Chinatown. Located in the southern 13th arrondissement, it isn’t on the way to or from anything. Its architecture—tall ‘70s buildings on long, windswept avenues—has little to recommend it. And the ingredients needed for occasional curries or noodle soups don’t require a special trip here. Come Sunday, though, the neighbourhood has a bustling energy, as eaters and shoppers from all over Paris (and beyond) descend. Dim sum palaces are the destination of many; modest pho joints are also highly popular. The menu at a popular Laotian restaurant, Lao Lane Xang, is unusually differentiated; most establishments would appear to derive their custom solely from reputation and tradition.
The heart of the neighbourhood is a bit further south, in and around a particularly ugly and run-down apartment and retail complex. On the sidewalk, vendors peddle counterfeit DVDs, phone cards and homemade fried snacks. Inside the mall are more restaurants, travel agencies and knick-knack shops. A Buddhist temple can apparently be accessed through one of the underground parking lots, though I’ve never located it.
The main draw is an enormous food shop, Tang Frères. Housed in a old railway warehouse on the avenue du Ivry, it is both the largest Asian supermarket in Europe and the flagship of a highly-successful food import and retail business. In the forecourt, fast food-style vendors offer barbecued pork, noodles and fresh coconut juice. An annex to the right sells kitchenware. The main, hangar-sized space boasts a daunting variety of fresh, frozen and packaged ingredients, ranging from the obvious to the esoteric. There are dedicated rows for fish and soy sauces, sacks of rice bigger than a toddler, even a stand piled with the noxious-smelling durian fruit. The only thing I’ve ever failed to find is fresh kaffir lime leaves; legislation apparently requires them to be frozen before importing.
Some families are clearly bulk-shopping for the coming week, others are in search of one or two speciality items. And at least a few must also be drawn by the cheapest bottled beer (Lao, 65 centimes) and free-range chickens in town. The latter has been fueling a series of home tutorials on butchering. (Though I’m a direct descendant of a butcher, knife skills are apparently not genetic.) Mastery will require a few more chickens, perhaps a cleaver—only 8 euros in the kitchenware shop—and most certainly some more beer.
48 avenue d’Ivry 75013
Metro: Olympiades or Place d'Italie