A splendid Parisian summer, captured in a bowl of spicy shredded carrots.
Say Paris, and most people envision the Eiffel tower, a pyramid of colorful macarons, a bicycle ride with a baguette poking out of the front basket. But Paris for me is captured in a bowl of spicy shredded carrots. A cross between traditional French carottes râpées (a grated carrot salad mixed with little more than lemon juice, olive oil, parsley, and a pinch of sugar) and Middle Eastern harissa-spiced cooked carrots, this Tunisian raw carrot slaw screams summer in Paris to me.
Picture this: It’s Saturday afternoon, July 2007, and I’m sitting in Luxembourg Garden, nestled between the student-filled Latin Quarter where I’m subletting for the month and the trendy Saint-Germain-des-Près where the great intellectuals of France once congregated in cafes. I’ve made the Kiddush blessing over wine at the flat and brought the rest of my lunch for a picnic in the park.
The lawns are lush and manicured, people mostly sitting on chairs rather than sprawled out in the grass, obeying the signs saying “interdit.” In awe of this politesse, I grab my own brightly-painted green seat and pull up a second as a table. A portable chraime, the fiery Sephardic fish stew, concentrated into boulettes de poisson (much more appealing to say than fish balls) and a thickened sauce, smushed onto a baguette. Merguez sausage. Plastic containers of cold salads: spicy shredded carrots, roasted eggplant and peppers, potatoes. A tart of concentric berries. A wedge of chocolate cake. All for me.
Just two days earlier, I had landed at Charles de Gaulle airport with a backpack stuffed with a computer, flip flops, a pair of tap shoes, and ballet slippers. My luggage stranded in London, my summer waiting in France. First thing Friday morning, I made a beeline to the grands magasins department stores on Boulevard Haussmann for a shopping spree courtesy of the airline.
A few basic outfits in hand, I set out to find some of the kosher restaurants I had marked on my map with big red Xs. Several were on Rue Richer and I found the street by following historic landmark signs directing me to the Folies-Bergère cabaret music hall. There was a line in front of the iconic building’s art deco marquee, but rather than looking for tickets, the crowd was queuing to pick up their Shabbat feasts from Les Ailes, the Tunisian-owned restaurant and traiteur take-out counter next door.
I took my place after the last person and quickly found myself face-to-face with a (luckily very patient) waiter. We were separated by my elementary vocabulary and several meters of glass-encased salads, vegetables, meats, fish and pastries. With a lot of pointing and stammering, I managed to amass two bags full of food. In an act of generous hospitality, my new friend threw in a few extra challah rolls and a big container of unassuming-looking shredded carrots.
My luggage eventually found its way to me, and for the remainder of the month I took classes in the mirrored studios of Centre de Danse du Marais with a view of the Centre Pompidou on one side and the old Jewish neighborhood on the other. Every week, I made my Friday trek to Les Ailes, eventually narrowing down my order to my favorite choices (which I could now request with confidence) and always asking for an extra serving of the spicy carottes râpées. The piquant salad would last all week in the teeny-tiny frigo in my apartment. Some mornings, I took a few nibbles before heading out. Many nights, I ate a bowl before a late-night crêpe with lemon and sugar. The carrots quenched any type of hunger I had.
Last month, I returned to Paris and visited good friends and old haunts. We had lunch in le Marais and walked past Notre Dame to lounge on chairs in the Luxembourg Gardens. One night, we went to see a cirque de soleil-like performance at the renovated and gilded Folies-Bergère. I knew that Les Ailes next door had closed, but it was still a shock to see its rainbow of salads replaced by a whole new storefront.
In the intervening years, I sought to recreate the carrot salad that carried me through that summer. I collected recipes and compared techniques. How best to prepare the vegetables: Cooked in chunks? Sliced thin on a mandolin? Shredded in a food processor? Should the salad be sinus-clearing spicy? What about using raw garlic? In the end, I believe I have perfected my own interpretation of Les Ailes’ spicy carottes râpées, so whenever I want to remember my summer in Paris, I pull out a few ingredients and I am transported.
Spicy Tunisian Carrot Salad (Carottes Râpées à la Tunisienne)
Adapted from the late Gil Marks’ Moroccan raw carrot salad (shlata chizo) published in “Olive Trees and Honey” I’m not sure of the actual provenance of this salad — Moroccan? Tunisian? — but since it uses harissa and was inspired by the Tunisian restaurant Les Ailes in Paris, I’ve decided to call it Tunisian. You can use a food processor to grate the carrots, but I prefer to use a julienned peeler, which results in long, uniform carrot strands that soften just enough when absorbing the spicy liquid to become a little floppy; when I’ve used a food processor or box grater, the carrots quickly become a droopy soupy mess.
Wrapped well, the carrot salad keeps in the refrigerator for several days.
Makes about 2 cups
1 pound carrots, peeled and grated
¼ cup fresh lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
½ teaspoon hot paprika
½ teaspoon sumac
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons silan or honey
1-2 teaspoons harissa, to taste
2 tablespoons chopped parsley and/or cilantro
1) Mix. In a large bowl, mix the carrots, lemon juice, oil, spices, salt, silan/honey and 1 teaspoon of harissa. Taste and adjust heat with more harissa if you’d like.
2) Sprinkle. Just before serving, sprinkle with herbs.
Gayle Squires is a food writer, recipe developer and photographer. Her path to the culinary world is paved with tap shoes, a medical degree, business consulting and travel. She has a knack for convincing chefs to give up their secret recipes. Her blog is KosherCamembert