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Photo by Sam Zucker
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Photo by Sam Zucker
Of all the Chinese foreign nationals currently residing in Spain, 70 percent are from Zhejiang. The province is also known as the ‘Land of Fish and Rice’, which seems a fitting connection to both their immigrant home and the fact that food service is still their number one business pursuit when they arrive in Barcelona. Restaurants, followed by textile production and leatherwork, comprised the top original trades of the first Chinese immigrants to Spain, and, collectively, these callings were known as ‘The Three Knives’. Now, although each new generation of Chinese foreign nationals in Barcelona is pursuing more varied professional callings, the knives and cleavers are still chopping, splitting, and slicing away in the kitchens of Barcelona’s barrio chino (or ‘chinatown’, not to be confused with the Raval, which also bore the name of barrio chino in the past).
Twenty-three-year-old Kai Zhou is a perfect example of this new generation of Chinese-Catalans, helping to support their parents’ business pursuits while simultaneously setting off to forge their own paths. Kai not only brokers high-end real estate for wealthy Chinese looking to ‘buy’ residency (thanks to the recent Residencia por Inversión Inmobiliaria law, which states that a minimum investment of €500,000 in Spanish property gets you in the door), he also pitches in at his family's restaurant. Called 'Kai Xuan' (although, he swears that they didn’t name it after him), the restaurant's moniker literally translates to ‘Arc de Triomf’—a beloved nearby city landmark that could be considered the gateway (albeit not the traditional, oriental-style gateway you might expect) to the city centre’s most densely-populated barrio chino, Fort Pienc. And, just like nearly all other Chinese residents of Barcelona, Kai and his family hail from the curious district of Qingtian in the Zhejiang province.
A region of green mountains, rivers, and rugged coastline reminiscent of Northern Spain, the Zhejiang province is now one of China’s richest, thanks to industrial fabrication, food production, and a strong entrepreneurial spirit. However, the contrast between wealthy and poor, city and country is stark. Up river from the city of Wenzhou, sits the mountainous, economically-sparse district of Qingtian. In the Eighties, following the Chinese government’s economic reforms, many rural families left the mountains of Qingtian in search of what could be called the ‘European dream’. Of the 500,000 residents that then populated this tiny district, some 200,000 have ventured off to find their fortunes abroad. One family settling in Spain led to two, which led to five, then ten, and so on.
Gaëlla Patin-Laloy, Senior Project Manager of Diversity and Interculturality Programmes at Casa Asia, Barcelona’s premier Asian cultural organisation, notes that in Catalunya, 4.7 percent (50,000) of the 1.1 million foreign residents are Chinese. An even more impressive statistic is that a whopping 70 percent of them come from Qingtian, a miniscule backwater district in a nation of nearly 1.4 billion people.
“People came to Spain from Qingtian in the Eighties in large numbers for economic reasons,” Gaëlla explained, “But now the economies have flipped, and a lot of Spanish people are looking for business opportunities in China, so we offer tools to help them too. It’s funny,” Gaëlla mused, “that now, Europeans are the ‘easy, under-paid labour’ in China, while here, the Chinese still fill that labour role.” The biggest challenge for the first generations of Chinese in Spain is the language. But once families reach second and third generations here, they move up to higher-ranking jobs and become part of Catalan society. The Chinese community of Barcelona is very young, with 70 percent of people between the ages of 16 and 44, and with every new generation, there are more locally educated members of the community, resulting in a growing number of Chinese doctors, lawyers, finance professionals, journalists, real estate agents, and more.
Apparently, a touchy debate lingers over which group of Chinese were the first to arrive in Barcelona back in the Fifties. Even so, it is an undisputed fact that these brave Asian pioneers brought not only their hopes and dreams to the shores of an alien Mediterranean city; they also brought the best that their homeland’s cuisine has to offer.
According to Barcelona gastro-history, the original Chinese restaurant in the city opened in Plaça de Sant Jaume in November 1958. Appealing perhaps to the Catalans’ love for fire-breathing beasts, this trail-blazing establishment was dubbed the ‘Gran Dragón’, founded by the eventual Barcelona restaurant icon Peter Yang, who was born in 1921 in the Shandong province of China. Yang, who left China in 1949 for Spain, was not only a priest, trained surgeon (University of Barcelona 1957), and founder of the Spanish Institute of Tai Chi, he is also credited with something even more memorable—opening the gates of Barcelona to subsequent generations of Chinese immigrants like Kai Zhou, pursuing their fortunes in a faraway land.
“Did your family have a restaurant in China?” I asked Kai, while lingering over a steaming bowl of noodle soup at my corner table, tucked away from the Kai Xuan lunch rush. “We had nothing in China,” he replied. Kai’s father, PinJin, left their homeland in 1992 to seek a better life for his family abroad; part of the ‘second wave’ of hard-working immigrants to Spain. His diligence continues to this day at Kai Xuan. Officially, the restaurant opens at 9am, though the cooks have already been at it for hours by then, preparing a traditional Chinese breakfast (for a nearly full house every day). This morning ritual consists of fried Chinese ‘churros’, steamed pork and vegetable buns, rice soup, and bowls of soy milk for sipping. “It’s like the Spanish breakfast, but with steamed pork buns and soy milk instead of café con leche and a croissant,” explained Kai. From nine until twelve, you can order a typical breakfast, paying just 70 cents per bun and €1 for a bowl of soy milk. A delicious bargain.
Kai Xuan is most popular for its homemade pan-fried dumplings (guo tie) and huge soups of tallarines hecho a mano (tender wheat noodles pulled by hand, known as La Mian in Mandarin). Kai tells me that between 70 and 90 percent of all customers order the gou tie, and the soups are the most popular with Chinese diners. These big, aromatic bowls of chicken and pork broth flavoured with soy, black vinegar, ginger, garlic and cardamom are a substantial meal unto themselves. You can choose to add tender cubes of braised beef or pork rib that is so tender it melts right off the bone. Adding a fried egg on top is optional, but highly recommended. The soups are garnished with vibrant leaves, stems of pak choi and sliced green onion, and can serve as one big meal, or two smaller ones—all for only €4.50.
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Photo by Sam Zucker
Food service is still the number one business pursuit when Chinese immigrants arrive in Barcelona
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Photo by Sam Zucker
The '1,000-year-old' pídàn (egg) is buried underground for several months in a mixture of clay, ash, lime, salt and rice until it takes on a gelatinous texture and smells of strong cheese.
It took a few attempts to get the staff to take me seriously when I first peaked curiously at the glass display cases inside the entrance to Kai Xuan. “What’s that one?” I asked, pointing to various mystery items that turned out to be a heap of simmering duck tongues, crunchy pig ears, pig tongues, chicken feet, pork intestines and other odd offerings. I knew I had to try this culinary exotica—call it the gut feeling of an adventuresome eater. However, it wasn’t until I brought my camera along and explained my interest in authentic Chinese cuisine that these dishes finally made their way to my lacquered wooden table, equipped like all the others in the small dining area with a box of tissue paper napkins, a crock of chilli oil, bottles of dark black Chinese vinegar and a caddy of chopsticks and soup spoons. I was excited.
The salad of chilled, de-boned chicken feet with sweet chilli and coriander was surprisingly tasty, with a serious crunch that was only the slightest bit unsettling. The ‘1,000 year-old egg’—a glossy duck egg that has been buried underground for several months in a mixture of clay, ash, lime, salt and rice until it takes on a gelatinous texture and smells of strong cheese—was, however, a novel experience. Even Kai douses them with soy sauce to mask the intense flavour. For me, once was enough.
The cazuela de ternera (pot of beef) arrives at the table in a mini wok, bubbling and steaming over its own butane burner. This rich, brightly-spiced stew of beef tendon was dotted with red, sun-dried jujube (hong zhou) fruits that tasted sweetly of mild vanilla and are often referred to in English as ‘red dates’ for their texture.
One mysterious menu item was handwritten onto the printed menu, but only in Chinese. No matter, I wanted it! The waiter didn’t know the Spanish translation of the dish, but assured us it was very good. We took his word. It turned out to be fresh okra steamed in black vinegar and garlic—a seasonal dish that was one of the undisputed highlights of our meal.
Another dish that arrived with its own, powerful flame was the humbly-named col a la plancha (grilled cabbage), seared on the flat-top grill, then simmered in a sauce of soy and spicy chilli. A subtle addition launched this dish over the top—chopped up bits of ‘Chinese bacon’ (pork belly that has been soaked in soy sauce, brown sugar, star anise, and cinnamon for several days before being air-dried). You don’t need a lot of this powerful ingredient to really elevate a dish, and Kai Xuan’s col a la plancha (not to be confused with the far-less-interesting col china) contains just enough to make this highly-fragrant preparation the best plate of cabbage I’ve ever tasted.
Currently, the clientele of Kai Xuan is nearly all Chinese, but Kai’s goal is to maintain the restaurant’s authenticity while capturing the young urban crowd that flocks to hip spots in the Born and other central locations, which offer Asian-fusion ‘tapas-style’ dishes. There is no arguing that the food at Kai Xuan offers better value than its trendy equivalents (well-made dishes, twice the size for half the price), but the harsh lighting and Chinese action movies that play day-to-night in Kai Xuan don’t attract the cool kids getting ready for a night on the town; no one looks sexy slurping soup under fluorescent lighting. Yet, for the savvy crowd in search of an unapologetically authentic dining experience, Kai Xuan is awesome, even if the eatery’s quirky charm is lost on the average diner. Alas, more noodles for those of us in the know.
Unlike the iconic Chinese neighbourhoods of New York and San Francisco, Barcelona's Chinatown of Barcelona is less conspicuous. You could wander along the streets Roger de Flor, Alí Bei, or Nàpols and not realise you had entered the most Chinese of Barcelona’s barrios—until you stop to take a closer look; peering in windows and sniffing out succulent dishes in unexpected settings.
Beyond the city centre, the next largest Chinese population in the Barcelona area is centralised around the Fondo metro stop; the last stop on the L1 (red) line. This area (Santa Coloma de Gramenet) houses the fastest-growing Chinese population in Spain, and since it’s often where the first-generation immigrants are now settling, you can truly become lost. I’ve also discovered that it’s not uncommon to find restaurants with no staff members that speak Spanish, let alone English. For adventurers, a ramble around Fondo is a curious outing (check out Wen Zhou restaurant on Carrer de Terrassa if hunger strikes), but for those who prefer to stay in the centre of the city, the bounty of real Chinese culture and cuisine (beyond the totally Western inventions of ‘Rice of Three Delights’ and ‘Spring Rolls’) is vast, tasty and affordable. Ladies and Gentlemen, prepare your chopsticks—a feast awaits!
CHINESE POPULATION IN NUMBERS
51,785 Chinese in Catalunya
17,451 Chinese in Barcelona
70% aged between 16 and 44 years old
70% from Qingtian district
4 Chinese language magazines in Spain
5 Chinese schools in Barcelona
Kai Xuan. Roger de Flor 74.
Chen Ji. C/ d'Alí Bei 65.
Lu Lu Tong. Diputació 340.
Pato Pekín Puerto Olímpico. Marina 16, 1ª.
Wen Zhou. C/ de Terrassa 4. Santa Coloma de Gramenet.
Jia Nan Mei Chi. C/ de Beethoven 72. Santa Coloma de Gramenet.
L’Olla de Si Chuan. Plaça Dr. Letamendi 11.
Yang Kuang. Passeig de Sant Joan 12.
Yueng Tong. Nàpols 177.
Dong Fang. Balmes 6.
Tokyo-Ya. Carrer de Girona 119.