Thursday, August 30, 2012

Capital Jealousy

I've always been somewhat envious of our capital city, with its artsy and compact centre, vibrant in a way that Auckland, even with its greater population, never is.  If I had to move to another city in New Zealand, Wellington would be it.  Oh, Auckland has a few things going for it, for sure: it's not wet and windy, it offers authentically delicious and inexpensive Asian food, and we can get freshly-shucked oysters all the time from the likes of Depot.  I even like the North Wharf area they developed for the Rugby World Cup last year.  But it never ceases to amaze me what things you can find in Wellington, which are not available here.  Heck, they even earn more than we do in the capital.  Here are some things I get particularly green-eyed over, though perhaps half the fun is having to make a trip down the country.

Cafes that Open Late

Who cares that it's freezing or bucketing down outside, when you can just duck into the nearest cafe and warm yourself with a hot drink, maybe even treat yourself to a bite?  If I think really hard, I can come up with maybe three cafes that are open after dinner time in Auckland: Frasers and Circus Circus (both in Mount Eden Village), and Revel on K'Road, if you count 10pm as being open late.  [Added 31 August 2012: okay, there seem to be a few more, but what's the point of having a cafe which opens late if everything around you is closed?]

In Wellington, you don't even have to try.  If you walk along the main streets of Courtenay Place or Cuba Street, you just stumble across inviting and relaxing cafes everywhere, even after dark, often with a vast selection of counter food to whet your appetite.  And they seem to be open till midnight, if not the wee hours of the morning.

Scrumptious options at Fidel's

Wellington on a Plate

Our most recent trip to Wellington was for a three-week foodfest known as Wellington on a Plate (WoaP).  We could only spare a weekend away, not wanting to use up all our annual leave, so we didn't actually end up participating in any of the events, many of which we would have been tempted by had they been set in Auckland.  We did, however, get some good eats in, including the wagyu burger WoaP special at The Tasting Room, and some fresh oysters at the pop-up raw bar from a food truck called the Oyster Saloon.

Wagyu burger - pity about the soggy duck fat fries.

Condiments to have with a variety of oysters, both raw and fried.
Auckland's best effort is the Auckland Restaurant Month, where the biggest draw (for me at least) is the chance to win $10,000 worth of dining.  What about getting some chefs to show you what they do?  The opportunity to try something you've never eaten before, such as muttonbird?  How about a themed dinner, along the lines of the last meal aboard the Titanic?  Or just something quietly over the top, like turduckenqua, four birds nested inside each other like Russian dolls?  No, no, no and no.  For these things, you will need to head to the capital.  But we live in hope.

Moore Wilson's Fresh

Auckland has seen a boom in gourmet food stores in recent years, with multiple branches of Farro Fresh and Nosh springing up seemingly left, right and centre.  These exciting places not only stock a good range of beautifully presented food, but often have items that are cheaper than the normal supermarket!

Much as I love them, Wellington's Moore Wilson's Fresh department reigns supreme.  Just last week, I found something called "salsify" for sale.  This was so foreign to me that I had no idea what it was or what one did with it.  If I had to use the word in a sentence, I would probably have made it as a verb, as in "those corn chips are pretty boring- I think you need to salsify them".  It must be a common problem, because the store helpfully placed a recipe suggestion next to the vegie box.

Box of salsify, along with recipe suggestion.
Then there are the things I have heard of before, but have never seen in real life, like horseradish.  It didn't look like horse, and it didn't look like radish.  If I hadn't read the sign, I might have called these thin brown roots "ginseng".

Produce available includes horseradish and both globe and Jerusalem artichokes.
At Moore Wilson's I also found fresh galangal for sale.  It was even grown in New Zealand.  I have searched high and low for this in Auckland, to no avail.  If we can ship blood oranges from the States over here, why can't we bring in some exotic flavours from the same country?

Basket of NZ grown galangal at the top of a pile of ginger.
As you can see from my previous post, this foodie haven also has a great range of cheeses, baked goods, and even live seafood.  How about alpaca pie?  Errm, worth considering.  Witloof?  Sure, why not?  Raw milk cheeses that look molten even when sitting in the refrigerator?  Why, yes!  Bring it on!

Sweet Mother's Kitchen (Cajun/Creole)

Wellington has a gem of an eatery called Sweet Mother's Kitchen (SMK).  People will complain about slow service, or being told off for sitting down instead of waiting to be seated, but whatever.  We love this place.  We love the garish decor, the knitted tea cozies, the huge range of dessert pies, the decadent deep-fried delights (think beignets, curly fries and fried chicken), and of course their peanut butter milkshake, which we have not found anywhere else.

Sweet Mother's Kitchen is a place of magic and delight.

Signature tea cozies, with curly fries and key lime pie in the background.

Peanut butter milkshake, and key lime pie.

Situated at the Embassy Theatre end of Courtney Place, SMK taunts you from across the road while you wait for the Airport Flyer.  It offers New Orleans-influenced Cajun and Creole food, as well as the usual Tex-Mex options (which we have mostly stayed clear of, though the taco soup they sometimes have sure sounds interesting).  And as with all popular casual eateries, they don't take bookings.

Fried chicken with dirty rice, coleslaw and sausage milk gravy.
Because we try to turn up at off-peak hours, we generally order the snacks.  We have tried their gumbo, jambalaya, corn bread and po-boys on occasion though, and can highly recommend these more substantial dishes also.

Little Penang (Malaysian)

I don't know much about the history of Wellington, but for some reason, the city seems to have a disproportionate number of Malaysian restaurants.  We've tried a number of them and been disappointed multiple times, but when we heard that a Malaysian friend-of-a-friend travels from Auckland to Wellington just to eat at Little Penang, we had to give this little eatery a try.  According to Man Behind Lens, the passionate people who run this place even go as far as to import bunga kantan, or ginger flower, into the country, for an authentic flavour!  And Shirley at Sugar and Spice raves about pretty much everything they offer.

We discovered authenticity even before we entered the little shop, because the owners obviously run on Malaysian time.  We stood outside the door just after 11am, staring in past the sign which claimed they open from 10:30am.  Fortunately, we only had to wait another ten minutes or so.

What sets Little Penang apart from other Malaysian restaurants is that apart from having great cooked dishes, they also offer street snacks like baked pork buns.  When we turned up, they also just brought out a tray of banana-leaf-wrapped pyramidal packets, which on enquiry turned out to be a fish cake known as otak otak.

Snacks, from curry puffs, to lobak, to baked pork buns.

Vegetable curry with roti canai, and a beautifully smoky char kuay teow.
There is a large variety of delights available in the dessert department also, with a range of bite-sized puddings called kueh, in addition to the more fluid sweet treats such as bubur cha cha, ais kacang and pulut hitam.

We love this place because of the food, but also because you can just drop in.  Well, as long as it's not too early in the morning and it's not Sunday, anyway.

Fisherman's Plate (Vietnamese)

There's a little fish and chip place tucked into a random street in Wellington, that also happens to sell Vietnamese food.  You would never guess it from the name, Fisherman's Plate, but this is the finest Vietnamese we have found in New Zealand, the one and only place we have been to that serves pho with a mountain of herbs, sprouts and other leaves. Not quite the same as what we had in Vietnam—I guess those herbs would be much more costly on this side of the world—but by far the closest we have seen to the real deal.

Beef pho with a satisfyingly large pile of leaves.
I'm not too sure why they bother with the fish and chips, really, but as long as they keep up the good Vietnamese, that's all that matters.


They say the grass is always greener on the other side.  Well, I can see there are plenty of great things in Auckland that aren't in Wellington as well.  I sure wish I could bring the treasures of our capital city home with me though.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Failing to Fast (and Panda Exposed)

It's been known for years, and mentioned more recently in BBC News, that fasting, or going without food for short periods of time, is actually good for you.  Not only does calorie restriction help you lose weight, but it has been shown to extend your life expectancy.  Researchers are now looking into the benefits of an Alternate Day Fasting diet, in which you eat whatever you like for one day, but have a very restricted diet the next, 500 - 600 calories a day depending on whether you are a woman or a man.

It doesn't actually sound too terrible.  Muslims around the world are currently fasting daily between sunrise and sunset, and they are not even drinking water in that time.  I had forgotten this fact until I returned to Holy Land Foods last evening, and saw the restaurant transformed.  There were bowls of dates on every table, and at the front of the room there was a veritable feast, with an assortment of Middle Eastern desserts on multiple platters.  "It's Ramadan," explained chef-owner Abrahim, as he smiled at the surprised look on my face.

An unbelievable amount and variety of desserts for Ramadan.

Now, I'd only meant to have a light salad for dinner, but I just couldn't resist trying all the new and unusual items on offer.  And so, in addition to the fattoush (فتوش), I ordered a selection of sweet treats: basbousa (بسبوسة), a warm semolina cake; qatayef (قطايف), a semi-circular dumpling filled with cream and sprinkled with nuts; and awwamat or awamat (عوامات), fried dough balls drizzled with sugar syrup.

Fattoush is a salad topped with crispy bread.  This one included cucumber, tomato, radish (I love radish!) and onion.

Basbousa, qatayef, and awwamat.
Apparently the latter literally means "buoys" in reference to the way in which these balls float to the top of the hot oil while cooking, and this is the term used in the Arabian Gulf.  In Egypt, they are called lokmet el adi or luqmat al-qadi (لقمه القاضى), meaning "judge's snack" (a light meal rather than the literal translation of "mouthful", according to blogger Coptic Dad and Mom.  It is a metaphor for judges being rich people who didn't eat the commoners' bread, adds the Naked Plate Blog.)  Despite the stories behind the name, my favourite dessert here is still the konafa (كنافة) which I praised in my previous post.

Holy Land also had a special menu for the month of Ramadan (today is day 19 already, and it only goes to day 30, so hurry if you want to try it!), with a set menu for each day of the week, three courses for $25 (choice of chicken or lamb for the main dish).  Abrahim saw me taking a picture of this menu, and asked if that was really what I was doing.
Me (guiltily): Yes.  Is that okay?
Abrahim: Are you the person who took pictures of our food and put it on the internet?
Me: Yes.  Uh-oh, busted.  Is that okay?
Abrahim (smiling): Of course. Thank you.  Thank you for doing that.
Phew!  With that blessing, I hereby present the Ramadan Menu at Holy Land.  Although I did not manage to have it last night, I can highly recommend the lentil soup they make.  There are a few other things I would love to try too.  And you can still order off their normal menu.  Just be aware that their opening hours are 3pm - 1am for this special month (maybe subtract an hour or so on each end to be on the safe side), before going back to 9am - 9pm after the end of Ramadan.

Ramadan menu at Holy Land Foods.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Food Show: Auckland 2012

Every year I complain about how much The Food Show costs, and every year I go anyway.  The thing is, despite having to pay for the privilege of being advertised at, having to walk a long way to get there (or spending $6 to park closer), and having to push your way through throngs of people, there's just something about the promise of delicious food samples, interesting products and cooking demos all under one roof.

While you may have come across many show items before at a gourmet food store or local market, if not a supermarket, the Food Show also lets you watch your favourite New Zealand celebrity chef in action, taste test something you wouldn't normally buy, and get a discount on products you already know you like.  Theoretically, you have a chance to chat to the local producers as well, but I didn't feel comfortable doing this, especially at popular stalls where everyone is trying to get to the food and you just have to dive in and out quickly to avoid holding everyone up.


Going through the hundreds of stalls, you start to glaze over and stop really paying attention to everything on offer.  Here are some things that stood out for us though.
  • Cultured butter from Lewis Road Creamery. Actually, I discovered these guys a little while ago, and already knew their butter was an excellent local version of my previous favourite butter Lurpak (which I have been known to eat thick slices of on bread, as if it were cheese).  The main reason for us coming to the Food Show was so we could sample Lewis Road's artisan butter without going to a high-end restaurant.  It's made from 100% Jersey cow milk, unlike their supermarket premium butters, which are just made from the usual Fonterra mix.  Unfortunately, I wasn't really able to taste the difference, mainly because the bread they served the butters on was so flavourful.
Butter sculptures advertising Lewis Road Creamery.
  • Curried lamb pies from Leelands.  You might have to wait a bit before they are heated through, but they are oh-so-delicious!  It's a pity we have no idea where you would be able to buy one of these after the Food Show, but here's a list of Auckland's best pies.
  • Festivals, or Jamacian deep fried corn bread from West Indies Spice Traders.  These hot and tasty delights with a crunchy crust were only there to help sell the sauces, but they really stole the show for us.  Freshly shaped and fried at the back of the stall, they are apparently made from equal amounts of corn meal and plain white flour, and mixed with a bit of sugar, milk and eggs.  The man I spoke to claimed the recipe was on their website, but I couldn't find it.  Their stall also stood out for generating a lot of smoke from cooking their chicken on the side.
The sauces are the things for sale, but it was the corn bread from the man in the background that blew me away.


Here are some suggestions on how to enjoy the Food Show as much as possible.
  • Work out your schedule beforehand.  Make sure you see all the cooking demonstrations that you want to see, and visit all the stalls you particularly care about.
  • Don't turn up starving hungry.  You want to be able to be discerning in what you try, not stuff yourself full of the first packet biscuits or bread and dips that you see.
  • Hold on to your largest cup.  Walking around can be thirsty work. You may want to help yourself to some water and discover that every dispenser has run out of cups.
  • Bring cash. Queuing at the ATM is not a particularly fun activity.  You have plenty of opportunity for queues already.
  • Bring a large bag, maybe even one of those tow-along ones on wheels.  There are some good offers at the show.  You won't be able to take full advantage of them if you are unable to carry the products out with you. Drinks and bottled sauces start feeling uncomfortably heavy, and you might also want a special holder for the purchases you want to keep cold (butter, clams, icecream).
  • Be nice to others.  In those mad crowds, it's easy to bump into somebody by mistake, or get impatient at someone loitering in front of a stall.  Just be polite and laid back about it.  Everyone is here to have a good time.
  • Be careful what you eat.  Just because something is free doesn't mean you should have it. By all means give items the benefit of the doubt, but you could end up feeling sickly from too much sugar or alcohol, or even, as one member of our party found, mild food poisoning.
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