Almonds and Oranges: Spanish Chinese Food

Seville_Oranges 

By Elizabeth Greenberg, Staff Writer

It's easier to find evidence of China inside Spain than you would think, considering that the first record of Chinese people settling in Spain only dates back to 1577. The Palacio Real (royal palace) in Madrid contains seven enormous blue-and-white Chinese vases from various centuries and several "chinoiserie" themed rooms, confusedly featuring the bright lacquers found in traditional Chinese architecture without the complexity and refinement of the traditional designs. And in modern culture, it's easy to find dollar stores or jewelry shops with Chinese names, and easier still to find Chinese restaurants.

 

 Almonds and Oranges: Spanish Chinese Food

By Elizabeth Greenberg, Staff Writer

It's easier to find evidence of China inside Spain than you would think, considering that the first record of Chinese people settling in Spain only dates back to 1577. The Palacio Real (royal palace) in Madrid contains seven enormous blue-and-white Chinese vases from various centuries and several "chinoiserie" themed rooms, confusedly featuring the bright lacquers found in traditional Chinese architecture without the complexity and refinement of the traditional designs. And in modern culture, it's easy to find dollar stores or jewelry shops with Chinese names, and easier still to find Chinese restaurants.

Obviously, the latter was of special interest to me, so when my family went to Spain to celebrate my brother's graduation from medical school (congratulations, Dr. Greenberg), I convinced them to go with me to a Chinese restaurant in Seville and endured their giggling at me for taking extensive notes.

Chinese restaurants have a slightly different history in Spain than they do in many of the other countries I've talked about.

The first real wave of Chinese immigrants came in the 1920s and 1930s, but unlike in many countries, they did not come primarily as manual laborers. Most of the Chinese immigrants of that generation, in fact, became traveling peddlers. It wasn't until after World War II that they expanded into the restaurant industry. Chinese restaurants are not as ubiquitous in Spain as they are in the United States, but they're still relatively common, especially in the big cities.

Seville_OrangesThe restaurant I eventually chose was located in Seville, a somewhat odd choice for a Chinese restaurant in Spain. The largest Chinese populations in Spain are located in Madrid, Barcelona, and the Canary Islands. Seville is more known for its gardens, its cultural life, and the bitter oranges dotting the streets than for its international cuisine. The orange trees actually made it especially odd for me: while the oranges in Seville are too bitter to be used for much besides marmalade, regular orange trees are grown in southern Spain as well. It's difficult to find a restaurant in the country that doesn't serve zumo natural, or freshly squeezed orange juice. When I lived in Beijing, by contrast, orange juice was one of the most exorbitantly priced drinks you could buy and difficult to track down.

I chose a restaurant mere blocks from Seville's famous cathedral. Hang Zhou, named after the Chinese city, was a small restaurant with a few stylings that reminded me of the nearby cathedral: intricately wrought gold on the Chinese lanterns, high ceilings. Though the restaurant didn't exactly live up to the Chinese proverb ("above there is heaven, below there is Hangzhou and Suzhou,") my experience there taught me some interesting things not only about Spanish Chinese cuisine, but about Spanish-Chinese relations.

The main menu listed a number of U.S. and Chinese staples-- homestyle and mapo tofu, garlic chicken-- along with some less familiar dishes, like 'Chinese salad' and 'four seasons dumplings.' I asked the waitress what would be especially typical of Spanish Chinese food, and she recommended the almond chicken, which both my parents ordered. I ordered the Chinese salad ("without ham," my brother added, when we asked about whether the dish was vegetarian) and the mapo tofu. I was curious as to how the dish would be treated in Spain, where spicy food was extremely unusual. My brother ordered mixed vegetables with added tofu.

Chinese salad turned out to be lettuce, carrots, seaweed, vinegar, and the ham my brother had requested they not put in. (They returned the salad to the kitchen and came back with the same salad with most of the ham picked out.) It bore even less resemblance to any Chinese dish I'd ever seen than the mandarin-orange-loaded Chinese chop salads popular in the States. The mapo tofu was unlike any other mapo tofu I had ever eaten-- barely spicy at all, and full of vegetables. In fact, it contained precisely the same vegetables as my brother's mixed vegetables with tofu. Almond chicken turned out to have whole almonds in it, rather than the familiar almond slivers, and according to my mother, the almonds were amazing. All of the sauces were thinner than Chinese sauces in the States, though despite the complaints littering the internet, I did not find them any greasier than their American or Chinese counterparts.

There was a separate dessert menu, which is again typical of Spanish restaurants. Desserts, in my experience, are where Chinese food takes on the most local flavor, as most Chinese desserts are made of unusual ingredients (plums, melon seeds) and are a balance of salty and sweet. This menu was no exception: although some dishes (fried bananas, various Néstlé products) were familiar from the States, there were a fair number of local dishes (flan) and unfamiliar variations. I ordered the fried bananas flambé out of curiosity, and our waitress proceeded to bring out some fried bananas, douse them in orange liqueur, and set them on fire.

The food was, as it is in the States, incredibly inexpensive for restaurant food. And most interesting to me, the waitresses both spoke Mandarin to one another but were unusually reluctant to speak it with me and completely uncurious as to how I knew the language. In the States and in China, virtually everyone I spoke Mandarin to wondered where and why I learned the language: the lack of curiosity made me wonder if Chinese Spanish culture really was as closed as popular perception indicated. 

Best restaurant worldwide? 
Unsurprisingly, the most written-up Chinese restaurant I've been able to encounter in Spain is located in Madrid, home of one of the largest Chinese populations on Spain. Jia Xiang Xiao Chi (literally "homestyle snacks") is very popular with Madrid locals, though nearly no one knows the actual name of the restaurant: it is better known as "the Chinese restaurant under Plaza de España." Reviewers especially recommend their dumplings and noodles.

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