Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Banana Flowers @ Avondale Sunday Market

It seems that every time I go to the Avondale Sunday Market, I see something new and inspiring.  I'm not the only one bubbling with excitement, because a couple of other bloggers have already beaten me to a post.  I too bought the curious winged beans and fresh bamboo shoots that Lauraine Jacobs found, though I somehow managed to overlook other things she mentioned, like galangal (I've been searching for this for ages!) and kaffir limes.  I also failed to see the Black Doris plums that Anna King Shahab wrote about, but I did discover something neither of them mentioned, which I had no idea was available here: banana flowers!

Bamboo shoots, banana flowers, bitter melons, silk melons and more.
I find that a lot of the time, I have no idea what is being sold, because often there is no sign, or only a price, or only a description in a foreign language.  I was particularly embarrassed once, when I asked what a vegetable was called, only to be told it was watercress!  But I had seen the distinctive banana flowers (also called banana hearts, or inflorescence if you want to be scientific) before in Vietnam, so I knew what they were when I saw them (though I also asked just to be sure).

Banana flower with a couple of bracts taken off.
Preparing a banana flower was very educational and interesting in itself.  I did not realise how many of the purple bracts (often incorrectly called petals) you had to take remove before you reached the pale coloured edible portion.  There was a row of yellow flowers between underneath each bract I removed, the female ones of which could have developed into fruit.

The banana flower had significantly reduced in size by the time I reached a bract that only had a hint of purple.
I kind of wish I'd kept peeling (though it was getting pretty difficult to detach the bracts), because I would have quite liked to see what it looked like in the middle, but I decided to follow this recipe for a Vietnamese banana flower salad, which told me to thinly slice the flower into rings.  The cut surface oozed a sap, which is sticky and apparently turns black on exposure to air and can stain your hands, though I didn't try to confirm this.

The cut end of the flower oozed a sap.
The centre of the cut surface began to come off in little bits as I went along, which I removed as instructed.

Tiny rings in the centre of larger ones.
Then I discovered why I was told to stop slicing after getting three-quarters of the way down.  There were barely any out rings left at all by this stage.

Cross section of banana flower three-quartersof the way down.
Although placing the banana flower slices into diluted lemon/lime/tamarind juice was supposed to stop them turning brown, though they did darken noticeably anyway.  It also apparently removes the sticky juice and tart taste.

Banana flower slices floating in lemon juice and water.
Here is the finished product, served in one of the outer bracts, like a banana boat.  It was delicious, though the crisp banana flower slices were subtle in flavour and could probably have been substituted with julienned green papaya or choko.

Vietnamese banana flower salad, with mint and Thai basil, garnished with crispy fried shallots.
I threw away the tiny rows of flowers (the immature fruit), but I noticed afterwards that Indian recipes call for cooking them, and don't seem to use the inner bracts.  Maybe I'll try this next time, though a vazhaipoo curry is a rather unattractive name for a banana flower curry.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A week of surprises

It's been an exciting week for me, being able to try a number of different items I've never had before.  Who knew Auckland had so much to offer?

Mountain Caviar and Piko Piko @ Cocoro Degustation Dinner

I'd heard plenty of good things about the degustation dinner at Cocoro, so when Valentine's Day rolled around, it was the perfect opportunity to give it a go.  I usually find that such dinners present far too much food for one person to eat, and this was no exception.  The problem is, the dishes taste so good you don't want to let them go to waste.

The seafood, such as the blue fin tuna (sustainably farmed in Japan), was exceptional, but I was particularly happy to be able to taste some ingredients I have never seen before.  On top of the beautifully light and crispy courgette filo tempura, which looked like a bird's nest, there was some "mountain caviar".  The waitress assured us this was vegetarian, and the menu called it "belvedere fruit".  I didn't even know such a thing existed.  It didn't taste like much, but I guess it's used as a garnish (the Japanese call it tonburi and it's apparently a delicacy of the Akita prefecture) because of its caviar-like texture.

One third of the third course: Courgette filo tempura, Worcestersire sauce, egg tartare, belvedere fruit or "mountain caviar".
While Cocoro is a Japanese restaurant, the chef also uses plenty of New Zealand ingredients, from the karengo seaweed sprinkles to the whitebait in the chawanmushi.  For the first time ever, I was also able to try eating a piko piko frond.  This Maori fern shoot tasted like a bitter green bean or asparagus.

From the vegetarian degustation menu: Summer vegetable tempura of courgette flower, piko piko, eggplant and baby carrot with micro mizuna, karengo and cauliflower in white vinegar dressing.
6-course degustation dinner ($80) at
56a Brown Street, Ponsonby
(09) 360 0927
Sundays and Mondays closed.
Tuesdays to Saturdays 12 - 2pm and 5:30 - 10pm

Exotic Fruit @ Bhana Brothers

While wandering around the streets of Ponsonby, I found myself in what looked like a well presented dairy, with fresh flowers outside and spacious aisles inside.  It had no sign on the door, so it wasn't until I bought something that I discovered this was Bhana Brothers, a family business that has existed for over 70 years now.

Apart from the handmade tortas de aceite (Sevillian olive oil wafers) which Anna from Eats By Anna had raved about, and other upmarket products like Clevedon buffalo cheese, this shop has fruit I haven't seen for sale before, not even at my local Nosh Food Market.  I call them exotic for this reason, though plenty of New Zealand families have figs and cape gooseberries (I first knew of them as "physalis") growing in their (grandma's) backyards.  Presumably figs aren't often sold because they don't transport or keep well, and I had never come across the very sweet and green little spheres called greengages before.

Greengages, fresh fig and cape gooseberries from Bhana Brothers.
Other fruits on the shelf which I was impressed to see, but less excited by, included pomelos, kiwiberries and horned melons (or kiwanos), as well as fresh blueberries, raspberries and blackberries.  Not your average dairy, that's for sure!

[Added 3 March 2012: Found cape gooseberries and greengages slightly cheaper at a grocer called Kumeu Produce Market (407 State Highway 16, Kuneu) as well today.]

Bhana Brothers
129 Ponsonby Road, Ponsonby
(09) 376 5329
Mondays to Sundays 8am - 7p

Nettle Goats Cheese @ Crescent Dairy Goats

Someone told me about a little farm not far from central Auckland, where they make their own goats cheese, so I naturally had to check it out.  To get to Crescent Dairy Goats, you basically drive to the end of the Northwestern motorway and turn left before you get to Taupaki (turn off before Kumeu).  From there, it's pretty well signposted.

The softest cheese they had at this time of the year, which they called "Flat White", was delicious, creamy and mild.  They have a whole range of goats cheeses, including blue cheese, and I chose to try their "Farmhouse Sting" next, so named because the cheese is marbled with nettle leaves, which is apparently safe to eat in the cheese, though you shouldn't go around munching on fresh nettle.

Two of many varieties of goats cheese for sale at Crescent Dairy Goats.
They offer a tour of the farm for $15 (minimum of 10 people required), where you get to meet the goats, have a tour of the milking and cheese making areas, then sit down for a taste of at least ten of their cheeses with tasting notes and commentary from the cheesemaker.  I haven't got around to it yet, but I am definitely planning to round some people up for this!

Crescent Dairy Goats
177A Taupaki Road, Kumeu
(09) 412 2074
Mondays closed.
Tuesdays to Sundays 10am - 5pm

Molecular Gastronomy @ FISH

If you thought FISH was just a simple seafood restaurant, any such illusions are immediately dispelled when the waiter brings out ciabatta rolls with what looks like a pale green mousse on the side. This turns out to be a very soft and light spread made from olive oil emulsified overnight using the enzymes from some kind of tree sap.

From this beginning, the mouthful of brocolli soup served in a flat glass tube, or the oysters with balsamic and chilli sauce in eye droppers, or even the fish and chips with what looks like rice bubbles in the batter, should no longer be a surprise.

They really turned up the heat though, or cold, rather, when I ordered the nitro toffee & coffee mousse, which became a full scale performance.  A side table was set up so that we could see the swirling mist from the liquid nitrogen cooling a ball of mousse, injected with the filling before our eyes.  The outside of the ball solidified, while the inside was still gooey.

Preparing the nitro toffee & coffee mousse.
Mousse ball ripped apart.
Yes, it's gimmicky, but the flavours are right up there, and it's nice to try something like this at least once.

In related news, the first issue of the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science is out (you can download the electronic versions of the articles for free), and celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal has been asked to cook the first synthetic meat burger later this year.

Hilton Auckland, Princes Wharf, 147 Quay Street, Auckland Central
(09) 978 2020
Mondays to Saturdays 12 - 11pm
Sundays 12 - 10pm

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Lost in Mistranslation

Recently, a friend posted the following picture up on his Facebook page:

Interesting Taiwanese Milk Tea flavours
It took me a few seconds.  So "Red Bean" is incorrectly spelt as "Red Been", pretty standard stuff... oh wait, WHAT?  "Embryo Flavor"?!?!?!

Upon further research, I discovered that 胚芽奶茶 (pēi yá nǎi​ chá) is probably barley milk tea, though I have also seen "wheat" or "malt" printed on other menus.  胚芽 (pēi yá) translates to "embryo" or "germ" according to one online dictionary, so for instance 小麥胚芽 (xiǎo ​mài​ pēi​ yá) is wheat germ and 胚芽米 (pēi yá mǐ) is semi-polished rice, i.e. rice minus the husk, but including the germ.  It's not as daring as you think to take a sip of this drink!

This confusion reminded me of the menu I saw at a Chinese restaurant on Dominion Road.  We first went to 羊先生 (which we shall translate as "Mr. Yang's") because the English part of the sign displayed "steamboat", and we were looking for a steamboat (a.k.a. hot pot) restaurant in the area.  Well, there was no steamboat in sight.  Instead, we found a menu which looked like this:

Page out of the menu at Mr. Yang's
It might be difficult to see this in the picture, but one dish on offer was "牛肉刀削面 Beef knife bevel" which is actually knife-shaved noodles (sliced into strips), a Shanxi specialty.  In the following documentary (from 1:20), a young man demonstrates the slicing of noodles while balanced on a unicycle, and he manages to flick the pieces of dough from his head into a pot of boiling water too!

Another item you can get at Mr. Yang's is "上汤菜心 On the soup vegetable heart".  You could be easily excused for not knowing that this is choy sum served in broth.

Yet another offering which flummoxed us was "清炒荷兰豆(豆干/蒜茸/腊肉) Fries without additional ingredients the peas (dried beans/garlic deer velvet/cured meat)".  Is this beans or peas?  And could you really get it with deer velvet (surely not for the price of $16)?  For your peace of mind, although New Zealand is a major exporter of deer velvet, 蒜茸 (suàn róng) is actually simply garlic, crushed.  茸 (róng) on its own means something like "soft" or "fluffy", which I suppose is the texture of crushed garlic.  Actual deer velvet used in traditional Chinese medicine would be 鹿茸 (lù​ róng).  What this dish turns out to be is plain fried snowpeas, optionally with dried bean curd (a firm tofu), crushed garlic, or preserved meat.  Phew!

By the way, "回锅肉包子 Recooks the meat dumpling" is a steamed bun filled with twice cooked pork, and "鸡蛋韭菜盒子 Egg fragrant-flowered garlic box" is a savoury pancake pocket filled with egg and garlic chives (pictured in the bottom right of the menu page above).

They actually did pretty well with some of the translations too.  For instance, "鱼香茄子煲 Eggplant with chilil" is often literally given as "fish fragrant eggplant" in other restaurants, and for years I thought there was actually some kind of fish or fish sauce in it.  In fact, there is traditionally no fish at all in this dish.  It is so called because the sauce (made with chilli bean paste, soy sauce, ginger, garlic and Chinese black vinegar) is also frequently used to cook fish in Sichuan cuisine.

Engrish.com has a great collection of dubious menu (and other) translations.  What other oddities have you come across?  Was it just funny, or did you actually think you were eating something completely different?

[Added  15 February 2012:

Come to think of it, English is full of traps for the language learner too.  Sweetbreads are neither sweet nor bread, and black forest cake and black pudding are two very different things.  I hadn't heard of bubble and squeak until recently and had no idea what it was.  You wouldn't want to translate "hot dog" or "toad in the hole" word for word either.  Oh, and don't forget the confusion when someone from outside NZ/Australia is invited to "bring a plate".

Monday, February 6, 2012

Review: Depot Eatery and Oyster Bar

I'm not the first blogger to write about Depot, and I am sure I will not be the last.  This newish eatery by NZ celebrity chef Al Brown (of Logan Brown fame) is one of our favourite spots to eat in Auckland, though we don't go as often as we would like, because the place is understandably almost always full, as it has been from day one (August last year), even now that the Rugby World Cup is over.

The quality of the food is way up there, but we also love the deliberate casualness of the place.  From the paper menus (which apparently you are allowed to keep) to the knick-knacks around the room to the cutlery left in tins, you just feel invited to drop in.  There are little hints of a nostalgia for a bygone era, with the signage above the front door lettered in gold leaf, the waiters wearing aprons which look like suspenders from the back, old pictures of New Zealand boys on the backs of the menus (eating fish and chips, gathering shellfish, or saying their prayers), and pseudo-historic labels on the sugar tins and cutlery holders.  But it is also modern, and if you are lucky, you can sit on bar stools overlooking one of the food prep areas.

Antique looking front doors, opening to a full restaurant.
Diners overlooking the main kitchen.
Sugar tin, as if from a bygone era.
Bar area next to where the oysters are prepared, unusually empty as we were there in the morning for a change.
While you are waiting for your meal, they bring out a complimentary plate of warmed pita bread for you to nibble on, most recently served with baba ghanoush, though I think I preferred the hummus with paprika oil they used to have.  You can also purchase Tuatara beer and a couple of wines on tap, from a small glass for the more restrained, to a jug to share.

Pita bread and baba ghanoush.  Jug of Tuatara beer.
One of the major selling points of Depot is its raw bar, where you can choose from a selection of oysters and clams, freshly shucked to order.  Where else have you seen such a thing in Auckland, I ask?

Orongo Bay oysters and Tio Point oysters, optionally with chardonnay vinegar & shallots, or bloody Mary ice.
Little neck clams, optionally with rock sugar ginger syrup.
Their cooked dishes are fantastic too.  We were sad to see that some items we really enjoyed were no longer on the menu:

Battered snapper tortillas with slaw, coriander and green tomato salsa (from old menu).
Skirt steak with tobacco onions and habenera mustard, which we scooped from a little glass jar (from old menu).
But their current menu offers much to drool over also!  The clam broth was full of buttery goodness, the turbot sliders were light and refreshing, the pork hock very skilfully cooked (though not something you can eat much of), and the potato skins were delicious with chevrego cheese and porcini salt (the flavour of which we mistook for truffle oil).  We haven't tried everything on the menu yet, but we are confident that they are all good.

Steamed Cloudy Bay tuatua clams with garlic herb broth and ciabatta.

Turbot sliders with preserved lemon and watercress.
Crisp pork hock with apple & horseradish salsa verde and parsnip puree.
Potato skins with chevrego and porcini salt.
To balance out your meal though, you really need to order some vegetables as well.  The courgette flowers dish was particularly superb, especially the juicy courgette strips, as parts of the flower with more tempura batter can be quite oily.  The chargrilled corn was also very tasty, with a delightful lime flavour in the dipping sauce.  The beets were interesting in that they tasted like your usual purple beetroot, but were yellow and orange.

Epicurean courgette flowers with Persian feta and Pinoli pinenuts.

Chargrilled corn with chilli and lime creme fraiche.
Clydes beets with kohlrabi sticks, Castlepoint feta and purple walnuts, garnished with baby watercress.
I would also highly recommend their desserts.  The sugar pie was not nearly as sweet as it sounds (especially as it is served with unsweetened whipped cream), and was soft and caramelly, and reminded me of American pumpkin pie.  The cherry tumbler was beautiful with sherry zabaglione and espresso crunch.  The other dessert special was nearly as good, hot honey glazed apricots with homemade vanilla icecream and amaretti.

Sugar pie with whipped cream.
Cherry tumbler with sabaglione and espresso crunch.
Grilled apricots with vanilla icecream and amaretti.
Most times we've visited, Al Brown has been there as well, sometimes helping take a dish out, sometimes chatting to customers.  The one time we had breakfast at Depot (you can have bacon butties or beignets dusted with icing sugar for a decadent start to the day), he sat at the next table, working on his laptop. It's great to see so much involvement from the owner, and the positive influence of this really shows.

Al hard at work in his own eatery.
Depot's unique offerings, high quality of food focussed on local seasonal ingredients, and its central location make it one of the top places to eat in Auckland.  Sometimes it can be slow, and one time our potato skins came out nearly burnt and rather soggy, but overall the standards here are excellent.  And it's open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, great for those random times when you need a bite.  At conventional meal times, be prepared to have to wait, but hey, it's worth it.

Panda Recommends

Depot's menu is seasonal and regularly changing.  At the moment, though...

Raw Bar:  Tio Point oysters ($6.00 each)
Share Plates: Steamed Cloudy Bay Tuatua Clams with garlic herb broth and ciabatta ($22.00), Grilled Green Lipped Mussels with Akaroa chorizo, garlic and tarragon ($12.00), Epicurean Courgette Flowers with Persian feta and Pinoli pinenuts ($15.50)
Sides: Chargrilled Corn with chilli and lime creme fraiche ($6.00), Potato Skins with Ellersmere chevrego and porcini salt ($10.00) [Added 14 May 2012: corn is now off the menu, but the Brussels Sprouts with Salash Pancetta and Walnut Crumbs ($8.00) is well worth trying.]
Dessert: Sugar Pie with whipped cream ($9.00), Cherry Tumbler with sherry sabaglione and espresso crunch ($8.00) [Added 14 May 2012: the Tamarillo Bomb ($8) is like the Cherry Tumbler but nowhere near as good, as it doesn't really go with the coffee chunks; the Quince Tart ($22.00) is an unusual old-fashioned dessert, fantastic with the vanilla ice cream of which there is not quite enough, though they give you a large ball]

Vegie Pandas
There is generally only one of the smaller sharing plates which you can eat.  This used to be Falafel with Goat's Curd and Harissa ($14.00), which was fresh and not too salty, unlike the kebab shop variety.  In the latest menu, it is Epicurean Courgette Flowers with Persian feta and Pinoli pinenuts ($15.50), which were amazing.  You can also partake of practically all the side dishes.


Dessert menu

Depot does not take bookings.  Turn up before the crowd hits, or leave your name and wait for a table.

Restaurant Details

Depot Eatery and Oyster Bar
86 Federal Street, Auckland Central
(09) 363 7048

Opening Hours:
Mondays to Sundays 7am - late

Depot is a casual eatery directly opposite the Auckland Sky Tower.

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