Sunday, August 28, 2011

Taiwan Cultural & Traditional Games Festival

I heard about the Taiwan Cultural & Traditional Games Festival, held in Aotea Square last weekend, a day before it took place.  As I would be spending the weekend in Wellington, I saved room for a tour of the food stalls on Friday afternoon.  I can only imagine how lively it would have been in the evening.

The Taiwan Cultural & Traditional Games Festival had food stalls right by the entrance
Many of the stalls were ones I had seen before at the Auckland Night Market in Pakuranga, with slightly higher prices, but hey, it's great to find them in a central location.

I managed to try the pancake ($5), which involved an elaborate performance that quickly drew in the crowds.  First, the lady spooned some batter onto what looked like a crêpe pan, and swirled it around with a little paddle until it formed a large circle.  Then she cracked an egg onto the pancake, spread it around, sprinkled chives and sesame seeds over the top, and flipped the sheet over.  Onto the plain side, she pasted on sauce, put some crispy squares on top, folded the pancake into a neat packet, and cut it into pieces.  Delicious as well as entertaining!

Savoury pancake with egg, chives and sesame, freshly made in front of you within two minutes
The dragon's beard candy ($5 for 5 pieces) was another item which I had seen at the Auckland Night Market before, which I now had for the first time.  It wasn't as sweet as I had expected, and took some skill to eat, as the sugary threads invariably stuck to your lips, so you ended up with white whiskers dangling from your mouth for the amusement of spectators.  If you weren't careful, you sometimes breathed in the finely chopped peanut and coconut filling as well, or else spilled it out onto the floor.

Dragon's beard candy, with chopped peanuts and coconut rolled within fine strands of sugar
Then there were stalls selling sausages made of glutinous rice, and savoury squares made from black rice, both served on a stick, neither of which I can recall having seen elsewhere before.

My most surprising discovery was probably the "chewy corn" ($3).  These cobs were larger than normal sweetcorn from the supermarket, and the purple, cream and yellow kernels were definitely chewy and not very sweet.  It was tasty with butter and seasoning, though I don't think the texture would agree with everybody.

Glutinous corn, optionally served with butter, salt and pepper
All in all, I was delighted by the food at the festival, though the interesting dishes were also accompanied by the usual dumplings, hot and sour soup, and even westernised Chinese takeaway options.  I only wish we had stalls like this in Aotea Square on a more frequent basis.


Poster 1
Poster 2

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Review: Fung Bar & Restaurant *CLOSED*

[Added 10 January 2013: I wondered if this place was just closed over the holidays, but it looks like it is well and truly closed.]

When we first came across Fung several months ago, we weren't too sure what to expect.  It had the same interior as its predecessor Jimmy Wong's, and while we'd never actually eaten there, we had the impression that it was expensive and maybe more Asian inspired than actually Asian.   Would this new restaurant be much the same?

Smart interior at Fung
The menu at the door had nothing obviously terrible.  Actually, it looked pretty interesting, especially that Special Menu which no longer seems to be available.  Although the main menu contained Chinese dishes that were more than I would normally want to pay for lunch, the lunch menu offered individual servings that were very reasonable.

We were tempted by the Crispy Pumpkin with Salty Buttered Yolk special, which at $14 must be the most expensive chips I have ever had.  I am glad we opted to try them, however, even though they cost nearly one and a half times the price of a lunch main, because we have not seen them offered again, and they were certainly unique and tasty.  I can't imagine how many Chinese salted eggs they would have needed to go through to make all the "breadcrumbs" for this dish.

Crispy Pumpkin with Salty Buttered Yolk

We also ordered off the lunch menu, and were suitably impressed by the taste, size and presentation of rice bowls, though we did have to send a bowl back because the vegetarian Ma-Poh Tofu came with mince.  A vegetarian replacement arrived quickly, however, so the incident did little to dent our opinion of the restaurant.

Ma-Poh Tofu on rice
The lunch bowls are great value and make delicious and balanced meals, but if you are prepared to splash out a little, there are more interesting items located in the many pages of the main menu.  It makes sense to get a group together to share these dishes, not just for the greater variety, but also because in true Asian style, nothing arrives at the same time.

Don't be afraid to assert yourselves either, because it's not unknown for the waiters to walk straight past you in the busy lunch hour unless you are waving your arms around.  Well, that just makes it more Asian, doesn't it?

Panda Recommends

There are so many dishes here to try!  You're on your own with this one, I'm afraid (their main/dinner menu is available for lunch also).  If there are no more than a couple of you, you probably want to stick to the individual servings from the lunch menu.  If you have a proper group, you could eat the Chinese way and order several dishes from the more extensive (and expensive) main menu to share, but this does feel pretty pricey for what you get.

[Added 17 May 2012: Apparently, the lunch bowls with the fresh vegetables (which were their main point of difference for me) aren't really there anymore.  You could probably do better elsewhere.]

Vegie Pandas
Vegetarian items are clearly marked on the menu, but some dishes are vegetarian without being marked, such as the Beancurd Leaf Rolls.  If ordering the Ma-Poh Tofu on rice, make sure you stress the fact that you want the vegetarian version, as there is also a version with mince.

Lunch Menu - page 1

Lunch Menu - page 2
Special Menu - we haven't seen this one for a while
Restaurant Details

Fung Bar & Restaurant
5B Lorne Street, Auckland Central
(09) 300 6381

Opening hours:
Wednesdays to Mondays 11am - 9pm
Tuesdays closed

Fung is on a bustling part of Lorne St, nestled between the fancy La Couronne Cake Boutique and the upmarket Korean BBQ restaurant Faro

View Nom Nom Panda in a larger map

Friday, August 12, 2011

Notes: A Soupçon of Science: Creativity at the interface of chemistry and cuisine

Although I will be going down to Wellington for the tail end of their annual food festival Wellington on a Plate, I was sorely disappointed that I would miss out on the lecture by Professor Kent Kirschenbaum of New York University titled A Plate of Molecules: Chemical Gastronomy.  Quite apart from the fact that I am only spending a weekend in the capital, and the lecture is on a Wednesday, the tickets for the talk sold out months ago.  So, it was like all my Christmasses had come at once when I discovered only a few days ago that he would also be presenting in Auckland.  Unfortunately, there was so little advertising of the lecture, brought to us by the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry as part of the celebrations for the International Year of Chemistry 2011, that the room was less than half full!

No matter, for those of you that didn't manage to make it for whatever reason, I hereby give you my version of events.

A Dessert Topping and a Floor Wax?

Professor Kirschenbaum started off by playing a video of the New Shimmer commercial, a 1976 parody aired on Saturday Night Live.  You can watch it here (from 02:49).  In the skit, the same product is used both as a floor wax and a dessert topping.  Is this possible?

Basically, we are looking for a substance which is an edible soap.  Soap is an amphiphile, with both water-loving and fat-loving properties. It turns out there is a class of chemical compounds, called saponins, which suits our purposes exactly.  Saponins are phytochemicals, which means they can be extracted from plants.  In fact, the word "saponin" is derived from a plant called soapwort, a.k.a "Bouncing Bet".

The two major commercial sources of saponins are Quillaja saponaria (soapbark tree) and Yucca schidigera (another desert plant), but saponins can also be found in everyday food items, as you can see from the foam when you soak chickpes, for instance.  They are often added to drinks such as root beer to give them a foamy "head". 

Here is the saponin content of some selected plant materials (from Saponins: Properties, Applications and Processing, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, Volume 47, Issue 3, 2007):
SourceSaponin content (%)Reference
Soybean0.22–0.47Fenwick et al., 1991
Chickpea0.23Fenwick et al., 1991
Green pea0.18–4.2Price et al., 1987
Quillaja bark9–10San Martin and Briones, 1999
Yucca10Oleszek et al., 2001
Fenugreek4–6Sauvaire et al., 2000
Alfalfa0.14–1.71Fenwick et al., 1991
Licorice root22.2–32.3Fenwick et al., 1991
American ginseng (P. quinquefolium L).
Young leaves1.42–2.64Li et al., 1996
Mature leaves4.14–5.58Li et al., 1996
Roots (4 year old)2.44–3.88Li et al., 1996
Oat0.1–0.13Price et al., 1987
Horse chest nut3–6Price et al., 1987
Sugar beet leaves5.8Price et al., 1987
Quinoa0.14–2.3Fenwick et al., 1991

Professor Kirschenbaum proceeded to attempt to make his own "New Shimmer' using the following recipe:
    3mL Quillaja saponaria extract
    70mL water
    5mL lemon juice
When he whisked these things together in a bowl, it began to turn into foam.  This could be used as a mild cleanser or shampoo, as he demonstrated by smearing the bubbles onto his shirt and through his hair.

He then added a bit of sugar to make the foam more palatable, and gave it to an enthusiastic young volunteer from the room to sample.  Only then did he mention the bitter aftertaste.  The child pulled a face.

Actually, the idea of making a foamy dessert using a saponin is not new.  In Aleppo in the Middle East, they make a white, fluffy, meringue-like dip called natef, commonly eaten with a semolina cookie called karabij, using something commonly translated as soapwort root.

(As an aside, did you know that licorice is made from the root of Glycyrrhiza glabra? It contains glycyrrhizic acid which is 50 times sweeter than sugar.)

Can something further be done with the foam?  For instance, a NZ company called Angel Food sells a product called  Vegan Meringue Cookie Mix.  Could we also make an eggless meringue?  The answer is yes, though the result is not quite the same as a real meringue, and one of Professor Kirschenbaum's assistants in New York spent ages piping the foam and baking it for us to try. (Not sure how the speaker managed to bring so many over, but we ate some after the lecture and the "meringue" bites did indeed have a bitter aftertaste.  You also have to keep them dry as the ones I tried to take away melted into my hand.)  Professor Kirschenbaum was going to try to bake a pavlova with the foam in Wellington, but thought he was going to fail, because pavlova has a complex texture, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside (can anyone in Wellington let us know how that went?).

The Quillaja saponaria eggless meringue had a bitter aftertaste and drew moisture from my hand
 Liquid Smoke

natural.  Look at the popularity of the Slow Food Movement and the numbers of the farm-to-table advocates.  Just because something is natural, however, does not mean it is good for you.

Take smoke for instance.  We like the flavour of smoked fish, meats, and cheeses, so what is actually in smoke?  Molecules such as guaiacol, camphor and eugenol help provide an attractive flavour profile, but smoke also contains anthracene, pyrene and benzo(a)pyrene, which are not only 100% natural, but 100% carcinogenic.

If you live in an apartment, you wouldn't be able to use a smoker anyway.  You could, however, add a smoky flavour to your food using something called liquid smoke, a substance produced from passing smoke through water.  The flavour could then be concentrated using a rotovap, which speeds up evaporation by reducing the pressure, thus lowering the boiling point of water.  Although the safety of using liquid smoke as a food flavouring is still being assessed, it does seem as though it would be better for you than actual smoke, since some of the larger insoluble components that are bad for you would drop out as tar.


If you've been at all interested in the science of food, you will have heard of a cooking technique called sous-vide, which involves holding food in vacuum-sealed bags at a lower temperature for long periods of time.  This is to ensure that the food cooks evenly, rather than having the outsides done long before the insides come up to temperature.  It also means there is no chance of overcooking.  Eggs cooked at 63 degrees C for an hour will still be soft with a slow-running yolk, for instance.

The French Culinary Institute blog has some pretty amazing pictures of various foods cooked at different temperatures, such as this one of salmon, which interestingly has two temperatures resulting in goodness.  Cook between these temperatures, however, and the fish will squeak when you chew it.

One of the amazing pictures and diagrams from
Mango Caviar

The application of science can turn food into a delightful and magical experience.  One of the dishes produced in El Bulli, the most famous and widely respected restaurant in the world at the forefront of molecular gastronomy (unfortunately now closed), is their mango caviar.

Mango caviar from El Bulli restaurant, courtesy of
To make this, you mix mango juice and sodium alginate and put it into a dropper.  Then you squeeze out little pearls into a calcium chloride bath.  The calcium ions form a cross linked gel with the alginate ions in what is known as polymer ion exchange, and you end up with a liquid surrounded by a thin jelly coating.

Making mango caviar
Ferran Adrià of El Bulli has also used the same technique to make spherified pea soup, which apparently "explodes in your mouth like ravioli".  Cute.

Stretchy Icecream

The concept of stretchy icecream wasn't invented by a mad scientist.  Salep dondurma has been made in Turkey for 300 years already, and is believed to have originated in the southeastern part of the country.  Made from milk, salep (a flour made from the tubers of the wild purple orchids of the Orchis species) and mastic (a resin from the mastic tree, Pistacia lentiscus), the icecream is denser, more elastic and slower to melt than Western icecream.  In some places, it is eaten with knife and fork, and it has a "pillowy", marshmallow flavour.

Turkish icecream sellers even make a whole show around the properties of their product:

Here is a recipe for maraş dondurması, a variety which has more salep than usual:
    3 Tbsp salep
    5 cups milk
    1 cup sugar
    1 small piece mastic, ground
    other flavour ingredients, e.g. pistachio

"Salep" comes from the Arabic for "fox testicle", and can refer to the orchid as well as the flour made from it, which is also used to make a popular Turkish beverage.  It contains glucommannans, chain molecules which contribute to the unique texture of Turkish icecream.
Salep increases viscosity
As for mastic, it is a tree resin or sap which has been used in food for over 2000 years.  It may even have been found in an ancient shipwreck in the seabed of the Mediterranean.  Only in 1998 was this resin identified as Cis-1,4-poly-β-myrcene, and it is one of the original chewing gums.  Not too sure whether it is added to dondurma just for its flavour, or whether there is also a functional component.  (Professor Kirschenbaum was planning to investigate Kauri gum in New Zealand, as the resin from the Agathis australis tree has also been used as chewing gum in the past.)

A tin containing pieces of mastic, and a box of salep flour

It is now forbidden to export salep, as the purple orchids it comes from is not a sustainable ingredient.  Fortunately, it is possible to make stretchy icecream using a similar ingredient instead.  The konjac plant, from the tubers of which shiritaki noodles are made, is also high in glucommannans.  A number of people have now tried making "konjac dondurma", and it seems to be pretty successful, by all accounts.  Professor Kirschenbaum's recipe went something like this:
    2g mastic (Chios Gum Mastic, Large Tears)
    8g konjac flour
    dry ice
    1.6L milk
    400g sugar
Cool with liquid nitrogen.

Experimental Cuisine Collective

Professor Kirchenbaum is a founder of the Experimental Cuisine Collective, along with pastry chef and former dessert restaurant owner Will Goldfarb, and Amy Bentley of the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University.  The group was founded in 2007 and now has over 1,800 members.  Its mission is to advance delicious cuisine while educating students in the natural sciences.

One inspiring young person Professor Kirschenbaum mentioned is Lauren Hodge, the winner of the inaugural Google Science Fair 2011 in the 13-14 year old age group.  She studied the effect of marinades on the amount of carcinogens produced by barbecuing chicken and discovered that having a more acidic marinade component (lemon juice) inhibited the production of a carcinogenic compound, while soy sauce actually increased it.

Suggestions for Chemists and Chefs:
Be creative

Recommended reading:
Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking
Jeff Potter, Cooking for Geeks
Hervé This, Molecular Gastronomy
Myhrvold et al., Modernist Cuisine

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Stretchy Icecream and More

So, I realised I should have posted this way sooner, but in case anyone is watching, there is another free lecture in less than 24 hours at The University of Auckland, and it sounds so much more awesome than the ones I've mentioned before.

Titled Creativity at the interface of chemistry and cuisine: A plate of molecules, it promises "science, food and showmanship in a multisensory display that utilises sight, taste, texture, and aroma," and an investigation of the chemistry behind such crazy sounding things as "stretchy ice cream, mango caviar, liquid smoke, and an exotic hybrid dessert topping/floor wax".  *swoon*  See you there!

Auckland Night Market, Pakuranga

If you love street food, the closest you can get to the experience in Auckland is at the Auckland Night Market, held weekly in Pakuranga on Saturday evenings. We first discovered this thriving bunch of stalls (not so much on the street as in the covered parking area of the Westfield mall, underneath The Warehouse) nearly half a year ago, and were totally blown away by the variety of food available.  From Philippine meals to Italian desserts, to all sorts of Chinese snacks, you couldn't help but get excited.

Lots of people at the Auckland Night Market, especially if you go at dinner time
We returned again last evening, and while some stalls have changed, there were just as many people as ever. There was even a live musical performance.

Unique Offerings

Here are some things I saw for sale yesterday, which I have not seen anywhere else in Auckland:

1) Goose eggs
[Added 14 January 2012: I have since seen goose eggs for sale elsewhere, from Dahua (79-83 Dominion Road) to the Avondale Sunday Market.]

Large goose eggs in a basket
2) Freshly pressed sugarcane juice, available for $4 a cup at a stall selling a strange mix of snacks.

Man squeezing sugarcane through a pressing machine
3) Hong Kong style gai daan jai (雞蛋仔), a.k.a. eggettes, egg puffs, bubble waffles, HK cakes, Chinese egg balls, etc.  These could do with a bit more crunch, like the best ones in Hong Kong, sold from a little store in North Point, but they had the right flavour.  Yours to try for $3.

Egg waffles as sold in Hong Kong

[Added 14 January 2012: I have now discovered these for sale in town also, from a little shop in the Mid-City Arcade called Citizen Ice Shop.  There, they charge $4 for these "QQ Egg Cakes", which were unfortunately filled with raw doughy bits.  I guess they need a bit more practice in the cooking of these waffles, but at least they cooked them to order.]

[Added 26 Feb 2013: Errm, and the Citizen Ice Shop is no more.]

[Added 20 April 2014: You can now buy "Egg Puffs" for $4 from Togoo on Lorne St. They are a bit more spongey than I am used to, but they still taste pretty good, with a bit of crunch at the edges, and an optional sprinkling of black sesame seeds.]

4) Dragon's beard candy (龍鬚糖), a.k.a. Chinese candy floss; sugar pulled into tiny strands, in this case rolled and filled with chopped nuts, dessicated coconut, etc. in front of you ($4 for a box).

Freshly rolled dragon's beard candy

You don't actually get to see the formation of the sugar strands at the market, but YouTube has an amazing video of the Korean version of this candy being made:

A Fantastic Range of Foods

Of course, there were also many items which could be found elsewhere, but which you perhaps wouldn't normally go out of your way for.  Although many of the stalls at the market were Chinese, there was a good range of specialties from different ethnic groups:

1) Sri Lankan appa, thin, bowl-shaped pancakes made from a fermented batter of rice flour and coconut milk, and filled with a topping of your choice.  These were made by the people of 7 Siri, a restaurant in Mount Roskill.  I ordered the egg one ($3), and watched as the lady oiled the pan, swirled the batter around to coat it, then cracked an egg inside.  It was delicious with the spicy sauces served on top.

Egg appa, topped with delicious spicy sauces
2) Steamed rice noodle rolls (豬腸粉), a Cantonese dish served with sesame paste, sweetened soy sauce and optionally chilli sauce ($3).  I love sesame paste!  The same stall offered combos with hot and sour soup (which was also delicious), as well as soy sauce chicken wings and fish balls, which we didn't manage to try.

Steamed rice noodle rolls, simple yet satisfying
3) Japanese takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and obanyaki; octopus balls, savoury pancakes and filled sweet cakes respectively.  There was sushi for sale too, but I guess people prefer to eat more interesting hot foods, given the option.

Piping hot takoyaki balls
4) Maori hangi, and rewena bread; a smoky mix of root vegetables, chicken, beef and pork ($8.50), and potato bread ($1 per slice).  The hangi had unique flavours, for sure, but having food pre-packaged in plastic boxes and reheated in the microwave didn't really help to sell it.  The bread was fresh and moist, but not something you really want to fill up on when there were so many other things to taste.

Hangi food stall
5) Lángos, Hungarian deep-fried flatbread ($5 - $9).  I've seen this stall before at the Grey Lynn Park Festival, and even at the Opening Day of Wynyard Quarter earlier on in the day, and it's always had huge queues.  Not here at the Auckland Night Market however, even with free samples offered, perhaps because you could buy Chinese deep-fried bread sticks for less money just a few stalls down.

Man offering a sample of langos
6)  The Chinese deep-fried bread sticks, mentioned above
It was fascinating watching the dough expanding and being twirled around in the hot oil
7) German style sausages from Fritz's Wieners, served in a bun with onion or sauerkraut. I'd noticed that their tiny Customs Street shop was no longer around, so it's good to see that they are still trading from a mobile stall.

Bavarian style sausage stand
8) Korean pancakes, at two for $5, even cheaper than the hugely popular No. 1 Pancake corner shop in town.  A variety of fillings are available, from the sweet (choco, red bean paste) to the savoury (beef, pork, potato & cheese).
Korean pancakes are tasty fresh and hot
9) Wok-fried seafood.  Not sure what kind of food this was supposed to be or whether it tasted any good, but the flames and action of the cooking definitely drew the punters in.

A dash of fire with your mussels?
Let me tell you there were many, many other stalls that I have not described.  I tried to ignore the desserts (profiteroles, cakes, frozen yoghurt with fresh fruit) and baked goods, as well as the fairground junk food like popcorn, candyfloss, potato chips, deep-fried spring rolls and mini donuts, and there were still many dishes to be tasted.

Products From Past Visits

Given the huge amount of items on offer, we weren't able to try everything that we wanted to.  Choose wisely, because something you are saving for your next visit may not be available then.  Here are some dishes that we have seen before, but which we were not able to find last night.

1) Hand-pulled noodles
Man pulling noodles for beef noodle soup
2) Fresh Malaysian satay

Malaysian satay stall
3) Chinese sticky rice dumplings (糉子), a.k.a. zongzi, wrapped in bamboo leaves.  You could choose to buy them hot (for eating immediately) or cold (for taking home) and they came in both the sweet (plain glutinous rice treated with lye water) and savoury (filled with mung beans and pork) varieties.  Unfortunately, I didn't manage to take a photo.

4) Bibimbap from a van, oddly enough sold with coffee.  I was hoping to try this last night to see how it compares to those from Korean eateries around town, but it was not there this time.

Unusual food van offering of bibimbap and coffee
5) Skewers of chocolate coated fresh fruit pieces, not that it was particularly amazing, but variety is always good.

Possible Improvements
I think the Auckland Night Market at Pakuranga is great already, but there are some things that would make it even better:

1) The atmosphere of the venue could be improved
If this could be held outdoors, or somewhere that doesn't look like a garage, it would be that much more pleasant to eat there

2) More vegetables in the offerings
Yes, there are already vegie stalls, but I am thinking a bit of greens for dinner.  The stand selling three ripe avocados for $3 made me wish for a bit of Mexican street food!  At least let me pretend I am having a somewhat balanced meal, please.

A Great Experience

Overall, I would highly recommend a trip to the Auckland Night Market.  Parking isn't an issue, as long as you are happy to walk a little, and it is definitely an experience that you won't find anywhere else in Auckland.  Don't forget to bring lots of cash (although some stalls offer Eftpos), and go with a group of friends so you can share the food and try more dishes (finding a table to sit together at could be difficult though)!  I can't tell you what stalls will be there when you visit, but you will be sure to find something interesting and delicious.

Market Details

Auckland Night Market
Westfield Pakuranga, 2 Aylesbury Street, Pakuranga

Market hours:
Saturdays 6pm - midnight

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Food Show: Auckland 2011

I went to the Food Show at the ASB Showgrounds in the weekend.  I hadn't been planning to go, as past experience told me that I would be paying too much money for the pleasure of subjecting myself to a lot of queues and advertising.  However, I discovered that I had won free tickets from an online restaurant review site, and who am I to say no to a freebie?  I figured that if I went to some cooking demonstrations rather than just wandering around the various stalls, it would feel more like a worthwhile activity.

I had planned to go to every single cooking session (!), but after two of them, I decided my weekend was more valuable than that.  Recipes and cooking tips can be had from a gazillion websites, and while I learnt some new things (did you know you can cure raw salmon by packing it in grated beetroot and copious amount of salt and sugar for a day or two?), I didn't really see myself making anything from the sessions.  For goodness sake, Anabelle White didn't even cook in her demo.  She just told funny stories and plugged her book and other products for sale, while her assistant Nancy did everything in the background without saying a word.
Cooking demonstration by Richard Till
I did take something wonderful away from Richard Till's demo though, quite literally.  By asking questions, I was awarded with some manuka smoked eggs from the NZ Manuka Eggs Company.  That you can smoke eggs is quite new to me, even though I have come across many types of flavoured eggs already, from Chinese salted eggs, to tea eggs, to century eggs.  While fascinating, I probably would not have bought these amazing looking inventions with their blackened tops ($5 for 6 at the show), simply because there were so many other products for sale, and it was unlikely that I would ever crave smoked eggs, or know where to buy them from once the show had ended.  So thank you, Mr. Till, for letting me taste the subtle flavour of these cold-smoked eggs at leisure in my own home, even though it seemed awfully wasteful of you to have thrown the whites away when you used the yolks for your aioli.  I would have appreciated having had a taste of said aioli to see if I could discern any smoky flavour, but I guess there is never enough for food to go around after a demo, so you might as well not start offering samples.

My award for asking questions
The manuka smoked eggs had blackened tops
The demonstrations at the baking theatre, in contrast, were less well attended (perhaps because seating was not available), more informal (you didn't get told off for leaving halfway), and also more interesting.  Sean Armstrong not only took us through the making of bread, but also passed around bits of dough which were at the right consistency, for us to squeeze, stretch and learn from.  Instead of a household oven, he and his assistants churned out a great number of loaves from a commercial setup, which in itself was interesting to be able to see.

Maybe I've talked myself around to the viewpoint that the show is worth the $25 entrance fee.  If you were not organised enough to attend demonstrations though, you would have to console yourself with trying to eat your money's worth in free samples from the various stalls. This is only a good idea if you have the self control not to eat too much of the supermarket biscuits and bread-and-dips type offerings, and instead save room for the more gourmet items, the meats and cheeses (and wines, if you are that way inclined, which I generally am not... but I recommend the Japanese plum wine!).

One of my gripes is that there were not so many things that were new and exciting.  Not only are Chop Chop Chicken and Easiyo products things that I have already seen in the supermarket, but why would I want to waste my calories tasting them, even if they were free (which they were)?  Seriously, a huge stall for Pam's products?  What's with all these packet soups and instant meals?  And Pic's Peanut Butter may be good, but I already knew that from trying it at the La Cigale French Style Market.

Other stalls served samples that tasted amazing, such as the paw paw salad from True Pacific, a programme being driven by the Pacific Cooperation Foundation.  They didn't have a shop, though, and couldn't tell me where I could buy their yummy food!  What's the point of raising my awareness if my only source of the item is at the Food Show?

I guess I am being a bit harsh.  There are definitely reasons for checking out the Food Show.  Many stalls offered good discounts for their wares.  For instance, the delicious Native Infusions drinks, which I first came across at Serafin, were available at $1 a bottle, or $3.50 for four.  That's a third of the usual price at New World.  I would have gone on a shopping binge if I had had a shopping cart, or stronger arm muscles.

Delicious drinks, at a third of the retail price at a supermarket

Perhaps my favourite stall of the day was at the Farro Fresh booth, where Neil Willman of The New Zealand Cheese School showed us how to make halloumi in less than 10 minutes.  I was unsure about his choice of Chux cloths for use as cheesecloth, as I have washed my dishes with those before and seen how the colours came out of them, but his halloumi was indeed delicious (yes, we got to taste it).  Unfortunately, we missed his other demonstration, in which he claimed to have made mozzarella in under a minute.

All in all, I think the Food Show can be worth a visit, but you have to put up with endless amounts of blatant advertising and borings bits before you find some good stuff.  And you need to be at the right place at the right time.  If patience is your virtue, if you love throngs of people, free samples and bargain hunting, then this show is for you.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Notes: Diet and Obesity: down a road less travelled

I'm interested in food in lots of ways.  I like knowing where I can eat great meals, I enjoy understanding the science behind how dishes are made (though not enough to purchase a copy of Nathan Myrvold's 5+ volumes of Modernist Cuisine), and I also care about the effect of food on my body (not that it stops me from indulging in fries far too often).  In the first lecture of the 2011 Vice Chancellor's Lecture Series: Good Food, Good Health held last Thursday, Professor Mike Gibney, Professor of Food and Health at University College Dublin, explored issues around obesity which are not often discussed.  I thought I'd put a summary here, in case anyone else was interested.

1) People are putting on more and more weight, but this increase is not linear
Two groups of people were studied over two different periods in time.  In both cases, their average Body Mass Index (BMI) increased over time, but this was not in a straight line.  Rather, it plateaued before increasing again, as shown below. I'm not too sure what the significance of this is, and it was not explained why this happened, so I will skip over this one.

2) Fidgeting can improve your cardiovascular fitness and help with weight loss
I don't know about you, but the only time I've gone to a gym was when I bought membership for a semester while at university, and I never managed to work out.  I looked around, decided it was all too hard, and never made it back again.

It's important to be fit though. Fat people who exercise have better cardiovascular fitness than thin people who just sit around.  And apparently, the risk of mortality is the same for fit people, regardless of whether they are overweight or not, while the risk of type 2 diabetes increases for sedentary people.

Fortunately, we don't necessarily need to go to the gym.  Minor activity that we don't consider exercise, such as walking to the water cooler, can also be beneficial.  Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic investigated the role of this incidental activity, or NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis), in reducing fat gain.

Even when we are not doing what we consider physical activity, we are expending energy.  It takes energy to digest and absorb food.  Resting energy makes up about 85% of where our calories go, while physical activity accounts for only 12 - 15%.  The rest is consumed by non-exercise activity that we can call fidgeting.

ActivityEnergy expended (kJ/min)
Sitting motionless5.6
Sitting fidgeting8.2
Standing motionless6.1
Standing fidgeting10.3
Walking (stop/start)13.7
Walking (stroll)16.4

A study found that fat people who were slimmed down sat still more than naturally lean people.  In another study, non-obese subjects were overfed 1000 kcal/day for 8 weeks, with restrictions on what they could do.  Those who gained more weight were those who did less non-exercise activity.

Over the past 50 years, people have shifted away from work in production and agriculture, towards service jobs, which have become more and more sedentary.  Maybe we can address this by encouraging ourselves to move more, even in minor ways.  (Another great idea which wasn't discussed in the lecture, but which I have read elsewhere, is making sure you get enough sleep, since you are still burning calories, while not being tempted by food, when you are sleeping.)

3) Nature vs. nurture: your genes interact with your environment in influencing your weight
There isn't one gene for obesity, but multiple risk alleles.  Some researchers narrowed these down to looking at 5 genes, and tested 101 Caucasian women for 3 genotypes after randomly assigning them diets over a year:
  • low CHO responsive genotype
  • low fat genotype
  • balanced diet genotype
They were able to predict weight loss for those who had been assigned the right diet for their genotype.

In another study, children were followed from the age of 4 to the age of 11.  In the children of non-obese parents, the environmental factors seemed to make little difference.  They were lean whether they belonged to a poor family or not.  However, children of obese parents were much more likely to be obese if they also had a lower social economic status.

The take-home message is that we shouldn't blame our weight on our genes, and give up on eating well, though genetics certainly play a role.  Rather, we can apply science to target an optimal diet for the genes that we have.

4) The Pinocchio factor: food intake is often under-reported to researchers, adding complexity to any study
In dietary surveys, energy under-reporting ranges from 30% - 50%.  This applies not just to "bad" foods, but anything the subjects have been eating.  Females are more likely to under-report, overweight females more so, and smoking overweight females even more so.

Misrepresentation can occur in three different ways:
  • Denial, e.g. "I never eat chocolate"
  • Frequency, e.g. "I only eat chocolate at Easter"
  • Portion, e.g. " I only have a small square of chocolate"
It is diffiicult to know which foods have been lied about, and which form of falsehood has been used.

5) Reflections and projections
There are four challenges in the fight against obesity:
  • Prevention of initial weight gain
  • Prevention of progressive weight gain
  • Managing the metabolic syndrome
  • Maintaining weight loss

Obesity is often politicised.  For instance, if 20% of professionals and 30% of unskilled workers are obese, this would be reported as "obesity rate 50% higher in unskilled workers".  These statistics are much less dramatic if you look at them from the opposite view: 80% of professionals and 70% of unskilled workers are not obese.

People will make sweeping statements against fast food giants like McDonald's.  But why? Is it because chips are bad for you?  If so, shouldn't the corner cafe or local fish and chip store, which also sell chips, also be banned?

Any public policy to address obesity will require long term planning, not random rules based on irrational fears.
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