Sunday, December 19, 2010

Feeling Foreign

Auckland is a fantastic place for eating authentic Asian food.  It's hard to get the authentic experience though, if you are with people that don't look like the right ethnicity, or if you don't speak or read the language.  I am thinking in particular about a number of Chinese restaurants that I have been to recently.  It's a rude shock to the system when, instead of being asked which kind of tea you would like, you are offered soft drinks and beer.  At a Malaysian restaurant, we even had to ask for chopsticks, which had been given to other tables by default.  Then there are the specials which appear on untranslated signs, which no doubt contain items of exceptional interest, perhaps because they are things you can't normally get, or perhaps because a discount is in effect.  Long story short, although I love eating out at the various ethnic restaurants, I almost always feel like I am somehow missing out.

Sometimes it's not even enough to look right and to speak and read the language.  Some things you just have to know.  The other night, at a large family dinner, I was offered a 15% discount at a Chinese restaurant, which as far I know, was not advertised anywhere.  Against my mother's advice, I asked if I could pay by credit card, fully expecting a negative answer.  Instead, the lady paused, nodded, and proceeded to swipe my card through.  It was not until I checked the receipt afterwards that I realised this meant I did not receive the discount, which came to nearly $20.  Not the end of the world, but it's embarrassing when you pass it over in favour of what comes out to be $1.33 in reward points.

So, what's one to do?  If you don't have a "local" in your group, is it still possible to order special items, receive those free soups and desserts?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Nutty About Nuts

I love nuts.  Whole walnuts, freshly removed from their shells; boiled peanuts in Chinese soup; roasted chestnuts, hot from a street seller; the delicate fragrance of cashew butter—you name them, I love them.  Recently, a workmate introduced me to a new way of eating nuts, more specifically, eating raw almonds that have been soaked in water overnight.  Their texture becomes different, kind of springy rather than crunchy, and the skins just peel away effortlessly.  They taste sweeter too, without the mildly bitter brown skin.  I bet my parents would be able to make a really nice almond milk using these soaked and peeled almonds, creating a smooth and silky drink like their cashew milk, rather than their usual gritty almond milk.  The only thing I wonder about is whether I am missing out on valuable nutrients by not eating the skins, and not drinking the slightly cloudy water that I pour away.  For the refreshing flavour and texture combination though, I can definitely recommend trying this sometimes.

Natural almonds (left) and soaked and peeled almonds (right)

On the subject of nuts, and since it is getting close to Christmas time, I was wondering why those bags of unshelled nuts contain the nuts that they do, usually walnuts, almonds, brazil nuts and hazelnuts.  (As an aside, isn't English curious, since shelled nuts are the ones with the shells removed and unshelled nuts are the ones with the shells.  Also, apparently almonds, cashews, macadamias, peanuts, pistachios and some others are not true nuts in a botanical sense—in fact, only hazelnuts in my previous list would be classified as a nut.)  You can remove the shells of roasted peanuts and pistachios fairly easily, without special implements, while macadamias are probably not included in those bags of nuts because they would break your nutcracker rather than the other way round.  But why have I never seen a cashew nut in its shell?

It turns out that cashew nuts have a toxic shell.  And though I had never heard of it before, the fruit of a cashew tree, called the cashew apple, is actually edible, with a strong smell and sweet taste.  Some people even make alcohol from it!  Whatever next?

[Added 26 January 2011:

Tried to make my own almond milk the other day, after first blanching raw almonds in just-boiled water for one minute to remove the skins.  No matter how little water I added before blending the nuts, I couldn't seem to get a strong almond flavour, even after straining out the distracting gritty pulp.  Internet researched solved the mystery for me: the intense flavour from almond essence is actually produced from the oil of bitter almonds, not the sweet almonds you normally eat.  Eating bitter almonds could kill you though, as they contain amygdalin and the enzyme emulsin, which together in the presence of water produces cyanide.  I guess that's why I've never seen bitter almonds for sale in the supermarket!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Moore Wilson's Fresh, Wellington

If you drool (as this panda does) over the variety and quality of the goods available in Auckland in stores such as Nosh, Sabato and Farro Fresh, wait till you see the Fresh department of Moore Wilson's in Wellington. This food warehouse is the Disney World of food supplies, with a vast array of imported and local products, fresh orange juice squeezed in-store, live crayfish and unusual upmarket ingredients such broad bean flowers.  It also sells food-related items such as cookbooks and chopping boards.  The selection of sweet treats from Floriditas was more impressive than within the restaurant itself!

Some items will be available from your local supermarket also, while others may be too expensive to try (a packet of kumara chips for just under $8, anyone?), but there is certainly enough there that you will want to take home with you.  Happy shopping!

A wide selection of fresh produce, baked goods and deli items are for sale at Moore Wilson's Fresh department
Enough cheese to kill someone, or at least dent their wallet

Live crayfish

Station for freshly squeezed orange juice

Caters for both trade and personal customers.  Credit cards are not accepted.

Store Details

Moore Wilson's Fresh
93 Tory Street, Te Aro, Wellington
(04) 384 9906

Opening hours:
Mondays to Fridays 7:30am - 7pm
Saturdays 7:30am - 6pm
Sundays 9am - 5pm

Moore Wilson's is situated on the corner of Tory St and College St

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Review: Ras Vatika

We first discovered Ras Vatika several years ago, after passing by the brightly lit window and having a spontaneous curiosity about Indian vegetarian food. Fortunately there were not many other customers, as we were faced with a vast array of options from the wall menu and needed the hostess to explain nearly everything.  After asking vague questions about what to eat, we chose the Special Thali (selection of different dishes served in small bowls on a round tray) which she suggested we order, as we could then have a little bit of everything.  The Faluda (a delicious drink with icecream and vermicelli available in three different flavours back then: rose, pistachio and saffron), which we also sampled, was a visual feast as well as a great taste sensation, and made sure we returned with friends in tow, even the self-professed carnivores.

Wall menu that had us at a loss as to what to order
Special Thali - 5 roti, 3 curries, rice, dhal (lentil soup; could also have chosen khadi, or yoghurt soup), salad, poppadom, pickle, gulab jamun (milky balls in syrup) - too much food even for two people
Rose Flavoured Faluda
While the curries have great flavour without the heavy creaminess offered by many other restaurants (though sometimes a little too salty), we have decided that this little restaurant particularly excels at dishes made to order, settling on the dosa (fermented rice and lentil crepe), uttapam (Indian pizza) and a couple of other dishes as firm favourites.

Dosa served with coconut chutney and sambhar
Chole Bhature - bread puffs served with chickpea curry, yoghurt, onion salad, poppadom and pickle
Pullav and side salad.  The slab of butter and fresh coriander made it even more delicious.
A couple of months ago, the restaurant introduced printed menus, which came with descriptions of each dish, helping with the decision making process without making the items any less exotic.  Perhaps we will choose new favourites as we try more dishes, or perhaps not.  Service can be slow in this homely eatery, but in any case, we will be coming back for more.

Panda Recommends

Mains: Chole Bhature ($10.00); any of the Dosa and Uttapam variations ($7.00 - $13.50), especially Mysore Masala Dosa ($12.00) and Tomato and Onion Uttapam ($10.50)
Sides: Dhai Poori ($7.50), Chili Pakoda ($1.50)
Drink: Rose Faluda ($7.00), if you are very hungry
Avoid the thalis - they aren't bad, but the curries from the warming drawers are definitely not as good as the freshly made dishes!

[Added 26 July 2015: I am still recommending this restaurant after all these years!]

Vegie Pandas
You are in vegie heaven!  Everything in the store is vegetarian, and there is just so much to choose from!

Menu Flyer - Page 1
Menu Flyer - Page 2
Restaurant Details

Ras Vatika
596 Dominion Road, Balmoral, Auckland
(09) 623 2145

Opening hours:
Mondays closed.
Tuesdays to Sundays 11:30am - 10pm

Ras Vatika: cheap and cheerful, and absolutely delicious

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Review: Shaolin Kung Fu Noodle (少林面馆), Balmoral

[Added 18 May 2014: This eatery has now been renovated, and even has branches in the city and in Howick.]

The first thing that drew us to Shaolin Kung Fu Noodle was the name of the eatery. What on earth might martial arts have to do with food? The movie Kung Fu Panda sprang to mind. After driving past several times asking the same question, we eventually found the courage to investigate.  The place was full (always a good sign), the items pictured in the window looked interesting, and we entered.

The star attraction, the item after which the restaurant is named, are the freshly made noodles pulled to order. The chefs, with closely cropped hair in keeping with the theme, pound and stretch the noodles behind a booth in the dining area. The smell of cumin permeates the air. As soon as a table became free, we eagerly perused the menu, which fortunately had reasonable English translations, though what was written on the specials board remains a mystery.

The noodles we saw being made were fantastic, served in soup that tasted like real stock rather than MSG water and garnished with fresh coriander, but what blew us away was actually the cheapest item on the menu: fried bread pieces, brought out with a shaker labelled "Oregano", which in fact contained cumin. The bread was perfectly fried, crispy but not oily, and as you can see from the picture below, we tore through most of it before we managed to take a photograph.

Deep Fried Chinese Bread Patty
Kung Fu Beef Noodles

We were so enthused we invited friends to Shaolin Kung Fu Noodle just a few days later, this time to try the lamb kebabs and other items. Again, there was a small wait for a table, which was well worth it.  There was minor confusion on our part, because the filling for the chapati (in case you were wondering, these are soft bread rounds like the wrappers for Peking duck) was brought out well before the flat breads arrived, and we had to ask for the cumin shaker for the fried bread this time. We also discovered that there are at least two different types of noodles on the premises, in addition to the hand-pulled ones, so make sure you specify Kung Fu noodles if you want to have the noodles the chefs stretch to order.

Selection of dishes at Shaolin Kung Fu Noodle - Cleaver Sliced Beef Noodles, Yummy Lamb Kebabs, Chapati with Braised Lamb and Spring Onion Filling

This was unlike any Chinese food we had had before, featuring lamb, cumin and hand-pulled noodles, so as soon as we got home, we did a bit of research online.  One forum participant referred to this eatery as serving Xi'an food, and the menu of the Xi'an restaurants in America certainly appears to have the same sorts of dishes. Xi'an is about 550km west of Zhengzhou, where the Shaolin monastery can be found. Below is a video of Shaolin Kung Fu Noodle making in Zhengzhou, which is a lot more spectacular than in our recommended little New Zealand store. Lamb kebabs with hand-pulled noodles also seem to be associated with the Muslim Uighur people of the Xingjiang region in northwestern China, so perhaps this is eaten throughout the north of China?  Resident experts please enlighten us.

[Added 8 Feb 2014: A fellow blogger named Lucy has a newer review (with great pictures).]

Panda Recommends

Mains: any dish with Kung Fu Noodles ($6.50 - $9.80)
Sides: Deep Fried Chinese Bread Patty ($2.00)

Avoid dishes that look like they might have been put there to appeal to a Western audience, such as Stir Fried Chicken with Cashews and Veges ($13.00).

Vegie Pandas
The fake meat of the Vegetarian Chicken Noodles was not so inspiring, and the soup it came in was probably not really vegetarian.  Have the Kung Fu Dry Noodles with Eggs instead.  You also have a selection of bread, tofu and vegetable based options.

[Added 10 July 2011:

The menu below is out-of-date. In their updated menu, they have done away with the Vegetarian Chicken and the Chapati, but added other items, like fried rice and chicken kebabs (the lamb ones are better though).  Prices have been revised upwards for some dishes but not for others, and this place is just as popular as ever.  Oh, and the fried bread patty is no longer the cheapest item.

Added 13 January 2013:

The latest menu nearly doubles the number of offerings, with more seafood dishes (including fish, prawns, shrimps, crab and scampi in addition to the squid that was previously available), new sweet and sour meat dishes and a greater range of tofu dishes.

Added 4 January 2014:

The updated menu now contains colour pictures, an enhanced selection of dumplings, more kebab options (including skewers of chicken gizzards and hearts), whole blue cod (I saw this being brought out to a table and it looked great), and of course, higher prices.

Menu - page 1
Menu - page 2


Groups larger than 4 people will have difficulty finding a table.

[Added 26 December 2013: They have opened up the upstairs area some time ago, and can now also cater for larger groups.]

Restaurant Details

Shaolin Kung Fu Noodle
636 Dominion Rd, Balmoral, Auckland
(09) 623 6298

Opening hours:
Fridays to Wednesdays 11:30am - 11:30pm
Thursdays 5pm - 11:30pm

[Added 24 February 2013: They've updated their signage since I posted the photo below.  You can see a picture of the new shopfront here.]
Shaolin Kung Fu Noodle is located on the corner of cormer of Dominion Rd and Rocklands Ave

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