Unpacking my basket at the counter of a Chinese Supermarket on Carrer Roger Flor: I ask the cashier where I can go for a good congee?
“Congee, supa de arroz?” I insist.
She looks at me and then throws a comment over her shoulder to the man unpacking poultry carcasses before turning back and gesturing over the street to the restaurant Kai Xuan.
Sarah and I have a few more stops on our itinerary; the fancy Oriental Delicatessen which specializes in Japanese foods and equipment. And a happy accident – an Eastern European supermarket – Mixmarkt (C/ Sicilia, 133-135).
By which point we are ravenous. We circle back to Kai Xuan Chinese. Inside, the demonstrador has some pork ears, leather coloured chicken feet and a solitary bloated pickle. “This looks promising.” I say and clap my hands.
We turn the corner to see tables full of Chinese people, arms cradling a metal tray with 5 indentations: a large one for rice (or noodles for the foreigners) and 4 for anything you want from the buffet. Menu del dia: €6 for the buffet with a soup that looked like old dishwasher but has a pleasant cleansing effect.
Most of what I know about Chinese food I know from Fuchsia Dunlop. It is from her that I know that traditionally and on a day-to-day basis, Chinese people eat a lot of vegetables – the meat is there almost as a condiment. I make a bee line for those dishes: tofu in a mild chilli sauce (improved by me by copious amount of chili sauce from the ceramic bowl on our table), succulent eggplant in sesame sauce, stir fried peppers with (more) tofu, fish heads and tails (the best meat is always around the bones), and rice. Sarah has the chicken and beef – neither which are as tasty as my vegetables and tofu.
The man next to us is removing the flesh from his portion of fish ends and leaving the spines pristine and intact, he glances at my mangled attempts before bidding us que aproveche. Further along the wall a teenager is dexterously shoveling food into his mouth with his eyes firmly planted on the video his smart phone is streaming (full blast). There are young students, Chinese and local.
When I return the next day at 5 after the buffet has finished, it’s mostly older Chinese men sitting down to a large bowl of broth with noodles (€3 with €1 for each meat topping). I try the gyoza or Empanadilla china as they call them (€3.95). They are the size of a baby’s fist, thick dough filled with meat – dipped into Chiakiang vinegar and topped with the chilli sauce. They are not beautiful or delicate rather stodgy and almost clumsy, honest, hearty and moreish.
It’s the buffet I love though and the bespoke metal trays. I will return for those.
Kai Xuan Chinese
Carrer de Roger de Flor, 74