Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sohan (سوهان) or Iranian Saffron Brittle @ Persian Network *CLOSED*

[Added 30 January 2017: Note that Persian Network closed several years ago amidst accusations of fraud]

There was an Iranian girl in my class at primary school.  She was loud and cheeky, and I didn't try very hard to get to know her, but I admired the flowing lines of the Arabic script on her plastic stencil ruler.  I didn't understand how she could tell the characters apart, because they looked nearly the same to me.  I also discovered that her language was called Farsi, not Iranian, and you write it from right to left.  That was the extent of my knowledge of her world.

And so it was that when I came across Persian Network, one of the many interesting shops on Dominion Road, I wondered why it was painted in the Italian colours of green, white, and red.  As you might have guessed, it wasn't becaused someone had confused Iranian with Italian.  When the tri-color stripes run horizontally rather than vertically, that is in fact the Iranian flag.

This shop isn't crammed full, but there is a good range of things for sale, from sweets, breads and spices, to rugs, trinkets and utensils.  As you can tell from their website, they are not dumbing things down for tourists like me.  Although there is an English label for most things, you need to use your powers of deduction to work out that the reddish powder labelled "dried nuts and fruits" is in fact sumac, and the box of confectionery made of sugar, egg whites, rose water and pistachios holds Persian nougat, or gaz (گز).

I decided to purchase a beautiful tin box containing what looked like crunchy biscuits, which the Iranian owner warned me would be very sweet.  This dessert, called sohan (سوهان) is essentially a brittle toffee made of wheat sprouts, saffron, flour, sugar, pistachios, butter, cardamom, egg yolks, and rose water.  Not unexpectedly sweet, but quite oily or syrupy.  Somehow, it manages to be crumbly and leave a chewy lump stuck to your teeth at the same time, an enjoyable mix of flavours and textures.

Sohan in a detailed and embossed tin.
From what I can see, I have purchased sohan qom (سوهان قم), which is primarily produced in the city of Qom and is a common souvenir from the place.  It is quite different from sohan asali (سوهان عسلي), a honey-based toffee usually with slivers of almond, which is a harder and shinier candy, often eaten for Nowruz, the Iranian New Year.  A variant of the honey-almond toffee is sohan konjedi (سوهان کنجدی), which instead has sesame seeds set in the honey and saffron translucent brittle.

Does anyone have a recipe for this delicious sweet, or shirini (شیرینی) which I have bought? The closest one I could find on the web is in this video from a TV cooking show, which makes use of honey and corn syrup in addition to sugar, but no egg yolks.  It also uses whole wheat flour instead of wheat sprouts, if indeed that was the correct translation.  According to this video of sohan qom production, the brittle shouldn't stick to your teeth either.

Whatever the secret, this is why I love living in Auckland, having the opportunity to taste exotic flavours from around the world without needing to leave the country.  I am looking forward to tomorrow too, not because it will be April Fools' Day, or because Daylight Saving will be over (yay for an extra hour's sleep), but because the Auckland International Cultural Festival will be on (bring on the Ethiopean, Croatian and Burmese food!).

Store Details

Persian Network
1/718 Dominion Road, Mount Eden, Auckland
(09) 623 0070

Persian Network is on the corner of Balmoral Road and Kensington Avenue.

Monday, March 19, 2012

D. H. Supermarket (大華超市), Mount Eden (or Eggy Experiences)

I've already waxed lyrical about the Avondale Sunday Market, but on other days, or if I don't want to venture so far for fresh and inexpensive vegetables, I head to the D. H. Supermarket (also called Dahua), a Chinese supermarket which was formerly Silver Bell.  The specials they have at the moment, for instance, are two (that's 2) small watermelons for 99c (!!! - we tried them and they were juicy and sweet too), and gala apples for 49c a kilogram!  The place is not as big and clean as the Tai Ping quite a bit up the road in Mount Roskill, but you can pick up some good bargains and they even accept credit cards for payments over something like $20.

Shelf of Asian vegetables, close to closing time.
Like other Chinese supermarkets, they have a separate meat and fish section, and you can buy groceries from other Asian cuisines like Korean and Japanese as well.  There is also a separate room for the grains and another for the alcohol (this is where you look for the Chinese cooking wine).  By the back entrance leading to the small carpark, there are mini shops within the supermarket, selling things like roast meat and Chinese street food, where you pay separately from the main supermarket cashier.

A nameless shop within the supermarket, selling such items as fried bread sticks (yóu tiáo, 油條) and sweet and savoury stuffed glutinous rice packets wrapped in bamboo leaves (zòng ​zi, 粽子).

Make sure you check what you are buying, because something which is being discounted may be expired or about to expire, and turn up early to avoid the crowds, get the best pick of produce, and perhaps breakfast on a Chinese crepe.

Highlight: Jianbing or Chinese Crepe (jiān​ bing guǒ​ zi, 煎餅果子)

[Added 4 August 2013: Sadly, this stall disappeared some time ago now.]

You go to D. H. Supermarket for your fresh vegies, mainly, but I also like the jianbing I had from one of the nameless shops there the other day.  I first ate one of these Chinese crepes at the Taiwan Cultural and Traditional Games Festival (see my previous post for a video of this being made) and have been on the lookout for it ever since.  Basically a very thin pancake with an egg cracked into it, in this case wrapping two squares of crunchy wonton wrapper, brushed with hoisin and chilli sauce, and garnished with spring onions and black sesame seeds, it is the perfect mix of sweet and savoury, softness and crunch.

A half-eaten jianbing.
Eat it immediately, while it is hot and the cracker still crisp.  Well, maybe exit the supermarket first, but don't dilly-dally.  It is such a delicious and filling meal for only $4.50 ($5 if you get it with soymilk as a combo).  The sign for the jianbing shows a photo of a multitude of grains that presumably went into the batter, so I guess you can claim it is healthy as well.

My only reservation was to do with hygiene, but I have the same concerns when I go to an icecream store and see the scoops sitting in a container of murky water.  Let me assure you that there were no unfortunate consequences to my breakfast (other than an overly full belly), and in any case, the thing is cooked for a good few minutes.

To order, point to the menu item labelled "Pan-fried roll", or look for a photo which includes an egg in it, at the stall pictured above.  A1 is currently the variety with a fried bread stick inside, while A2 is the option with the crispy wonton wrapper.  You will also be asked whether you want it spicy.  You do, because that chilli sauce is lovely.

I have seen jianbing for sale at the Pakuranga Night Market as well, but this place at D. H. Supermarket is closer and available daily.  I am tempted to say it is also more delicious, but I would have to go to the night market to verify.  In any case, I really enjoyed my crepe here.  Give it a go, even if it is weird ordering hot food from a supermarket stall.

Highlight: Eggs, Wondrous Eggs

Another great thing about D. H. Supermarket is the variety of eggs they sell.  I have seen fresh goose, duck and quail eggs here, in addition to the usual chicken variety, including free range chicken eggs.  The more exotic eggs aren't cheap, but I do an internal happy dance every time I find something novel for sale.

Fresh goose eggs for sale, when in season.
Being a Chinese supermarket, preserved or century eggs are also available.  There are two types for sale, one with what looks like a coating of clay and rice husk, and another with a smooth, blue-greyish shell.  I am not sure yet if are any flavour differences, but I will find out and let you know.

Quail eggs and two sorts of preserved eggs.
Unfortunately, they didn't appear to have any salted eggs on my last visit, which led me to purchase some  "fresh" duck eggs instead...

Lowlight: Exploding Rotten Duck Egg

What you want to do is to buy the things that everyone else buys, which are replaced regularly.  Those Asian greens are fantastic.  Avoid the things which look like they have been sitting there for a while, like the duck eggs in the fridge, which I have seen the last few times I went to the shop, but finally decided to try anyway.  I thought they were dodgy looking, the last four in the same tray for the past few weeks or longer, but there were no salted eggs for sale, and I had the idea that I would make my own.

The fact that the cashier had to leave the counter to check the price of them should have been ample warning, but I bought my duck eggs anyway.  They felt well chilled; what could be wrong?  I discovered the answer when I sat down in the car.  Just as we were about to drive home, there was a sound like a gunshot.  Something wet hit my face and the horrible sulphurous smell of rotten egg spread through the car.

The case of the exploding egg.
So there you have it.  There's good and there's bad, not to mention plenty of eggs-citement to be had at your local D. H. Supermarket.

Store Details

D. H. Supermarket (大華超市)
83 Dominion Road, Mount Eden, Auckland
(09) 630 2900

Opening hours:
Mondays to Sundays 9am - 7pm (inner shops close 6:30pm)

D. H. Supermarket is at the city end of Dominion Road.

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Monday, March 12, 2012

Foodie Excursion: Tour & Tasting @ Crescent Dairy Goats

A month ago, I hadn't even heard of the place.  But as soon as I discovered that Crescent Dairy Goats offers a farm tour combined with a cheese tasting, all for $15 (minimum of 10 people, by appointment) and only a short drive away from central Auckland, I just had to check it out.  Reports of an impending "weather bomb"  last Saturday meant that we had to reschedule, but I was determined to enjoy it this weekend, rain or shine.  I was not disappointed.

It turns out that their award winning cheeses are produced from a herd of only 25 goats.  Run by a husband, wife and daughter team (Jan and John Walter, and Emily Ward), they won their first cheese award back in 2001, when they were at their old Albany property, mainly selling goat's milk to people who had trouble digesting cow's milk.  Less than a fortnight ago, their achievements were recognised again, with one gold, six silver and four bronze awards at the Cuisine NZ Champions of Cheese Awards 2012.

Awards and range of goat's cheeses on display.
The family (including the dog and cat) met us at the front of their house, and John gave us an introduction to their business, which began as a hobby.  They don't sell goat's milk anymore, as all of the milk goes into cheesemaking these days, and they have an impressive list of restaurant customers, including The Grove, Mudbrick, Sidart, The Tasting Shed and Huka Lodge.

We were then taken to meet the new season's kids, cute little things that greeted us enthusiastically.  Each of them had a name, and their full names are said with their family names first, like in Chinese, as in "Crescent Jude" or "Crescent Nesta".  Apparently the floppy eared goats produce creamier milk, but in smaller quantities, and the farm has a mix of breeds.

Cute kids!

After quickly walking past the stinging nettle bush by a wall (the leaves of which are used in their Farmhouse Sting cheese), we were taken to the barn and milking shed.  The adult goats were much bigger, but equally friendly, and a bunch of them walked up for cuddles.  We probably saw more of them because it was raining lightly outside, and it was really interesting being introduced to the goats, because they had such different personalities from each other.

Goats hiding out from the rain.
John showed us the milking machine, and we were even able to put a finger inside one of the suction tubes to experience what it would feel like to be milked.  Apparently, they used to milk the goats by hand after the machine was used, to get every little bit out, though they don't bother with that now.

John demonstrates the suction tubes on the milking machine.

Animal visit over, we sanitised our hands, removed our shoes, and entered the cheesemaking area.  Here, Jan the cheesemaker took over the narrative and explained the process behind their various cheeses.  We saw the vats of milk being gently pasteurised on the side (apparently it is too hard for a small scale producer to make unpasteurised cheese, as regulations mean you would need to send samples off to the lab every day), admired the homemade cheese moulds, and walked into the temperature- and humidity-controlled cellar where we both viewed and smelled the cheeses being aged.  It was amazing how much milk went into making a round of cheese.

More mature cheeses at the back.
Smaller cheeses in the cellar.

Finally, the cheese tasting!  We sampled eleven types of cheese, and they all had unique flavours, despite being made from the same basic ingredients.  Some were soft, others more mature; the blue had Roquefort culture introduced, another was washed daily in a salt solution before having an alcohol applied in the final days.  Some cheeses contained additions, such as fenugreek or stinging nettle.  Most of them didn't have any salt added.  It was a varied, insightful and delicious ending to the tour.

Cheese tasting platter.
That was not their entire repertoire either!  I bought some extra cheeses before I left, ones we did not have the opportunity to try, and there were also goat's yoghurt and goat's colostrum for sale.  You can sample their cheeses without doing the farm tour, but I would highly recommend making the trip out with friends so that you can have the full experience.

Farm Details

Crescent Dairy Goats
177A Taupaki Road, Kumeu
(09) 412 2074

Opening hours:
Mondays closed.
Tuesdays to Sundays 10am - 5pm (tours begin at 11am)

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Favourite Recipes: Gordon Ramsay's Cheese and Leek Quiche

Gordon Ramsay is in Auckland, but unfortunately, we missed his tableware launch at Smith and Caughey's yesterday.  Apparently though, he advised a teenager that he shouldn't get a girlfriend, because they steal all your recipes.  Well, I have stolen a fantastic recipe of Gordon's, which appeared on the New York Times website, but no longer seems to be available.  I used up some fresh goat's cheese that was starting to go mouldy, rather than the cheeses he suggested, and the quiche was just amazing. If you don't have a food processor, I recommend grating the cold butter.

Beautifully soft, light and delicate quiche.

Cheese and Leek Quiche
by Gordon Ramsay
Retrieved from on 1 July 2011

Serves 6-8

The quiche we enjoyed in Champagne was made with Chaource, a speciality cheese from the region that’s difficult to find here, so instead I’ve used Reblochon, an unpasteurised cheese from the Haute-Savoie region. Its creamy, nutty flavour goes well with the leeks.

For the shortcrust pastry

225g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
1 tsp fine sea salt
140g cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
4-5 Tbsp ice-cold water

For the filling

20g butter
300g leeks, trimmed, and white part finely sliced
Few sprigs of thyme, leaves stripped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 large eggs
2 egg yolks
200mlL double cream
200m full-fat milk
4 Tbsp grated parmesan
150g Reblochon, rind removed


  1. Make the pastry: put the flour, salt and butter into a food processor and whiz for 10 seconds until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs.
  2. Tip the mixture into a bowl. Add 4 tablespoons of ice-cold water and stir the mixture with a knife. Add another tablespoon of water if the mixture is too dry and does not come together. (Don’t add too much water because a crumbly pastry results in a lighter crust.) Press the mixture into a dough and wrap in clingfilm. Chill for at least 30 minutes.
  3. On a lightly floured board, roll out the pastry thinly and use to line a deep 20cm tart tin with a removable base, leaving the excess pastry overhanging the sides of the tin. Place the tart shell on a baking sheet and prick lightly with a metal skewer or fork. Chill for 20 minutes.
  4. Melt the butter in a pan and add the leeks, thyme and seasoning. Cook over a medium heat for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until the leeks are soft and translucent. Leave to cool.
  5. Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas 6. Line the tart shell with foil and baking beans and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the beans and lining and return to the oven for another 5-10 minutes until the pastry is lightly golden and there is no greyness left. Using a small sharp knife, trim off the excess pastry level to the top of the tin. Reduce the oven to 170C/Gas 3.
  6. Whisk together the eggs and the yolks followed by the cream and milk. Strain into a jug and stir in the parmesan. Season with the salt and black pepper.
  7. Spread the softened leeks over the base of the tart. Cut or tear the cheese into small pieces and scatter all over the leeks. Pour in enough of the egg and cream mixture to fill the pastry case to the rim. (To make it easier, half fill the tart and place on the bottom shelf of the oven. Pull the shelf out halfway, making sure the tart is still level, and pour in the rest of the filling.) Bake for 35-45 minutes until the quiche is set and golden on top. It should still have a slight wobble in the middle. Leave to cool slightly before serving.
The first time I made this, I wondered why the pastry was baked with overhanging edges.  Surely it is easier to cut while it is still raw?  I think I now have the answer though: it stops the edges from caving in or shrinking away from the tin, and it means the bits you cut off are golden and crisp (yummy butteriness to munch on while you wait).

It's tempting to cut back on the chilling time, or the coldness of the water added to the pastry, but from what I've read, it's important that everything is kept cold to produce a flaky pastry.  According to Shirley O. Corriher in her book Cookwise, "a fat must remain solid in the hot oven long enough for the dough on either side of it to begin to set.[...] Butter must be very cold going into the oven to hold up long enough."  Letting the dough rest in the refrigerator also helps to "relax any gluten that you developed in pushing and pulling the crust into shape."

Imagine my surprise, then, to see that you can make a good tart shell using melted butter, and some people even prefer an oil pastry over a cold butter pastry!  No chilling required either.

I have made Gordon's quiche a couple of times now, and each time I was surprised by how great it tasted. I love the recipe the way it is, but I have to say I am tempted to try these other pastries out too (minus the sugar, of course).  In the interest of my waistline, this won't be happening just yet.  I'm too busy enjoying the tried and true.
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