Sunday, March 04, 2012

Chinese whispers

Michal Haines has the insider's guide to Auckland's best Chinese destinations, from yum cha to Sichuan.
by Michael Haines | Cuisine issue #148 | Tuesday, 1 November, 2011
Chinese whispersPhoto by Kieran Scott

When I was a child, I remember often hearing people say that their favourite food was Chinese. Of course, they meant dishes such as the ubiquitous sweet and sour pork drenched in fluorescent orange, mouth-numbing vinegar sauce, purchased from the takeaway shop in Beach Haven, near where I grew up on Auckland’s North Shore.

My grandfather moved to New Zealand from China as a young man, and my mother learnt many classic Cantonese dishes from him. As a result, my experience of Chinese food has always been rather different. However, it’s interesting to look at how New Zealanders’ perceptions of the cuisine have also changed dramatically in the last 20 years. In Auckland, the abundance of locally grown Chinese vegetables, the vast array of baked and steamed goods, and the choice of restaurants, noodle bars and cafes has now become almost overwhelming.

Chinese immigrants arriving in Auckland in the 20th century often simply continued with businesses they knew: restaurants, laundries, fruit shops, market gardens and grocers. Auckland’s legendary Wah Lee grocer was established by the Lee family in the 1970s. It was originally run by George Wah Lee, one of the most generous-spirited gentlemen I’ve ever met. The wonderment of going to Wah Lee’s as a pre-schooler is one of my fondest childhood memories – if I was lucky, I’d be given haw flakes and dried banana slices to eat while my mother sipped tea with George. It all seemed so other-worldly at the time but after travelling to China as an adult, I realised the Lees had merely transplanted a genuine Chinese grocer to 1970s Auckland.

By the 1980s, a different kind of Chinese immigrant was arriving on our shores, bringing educated sons and daughters, money and business with them. A number of restaurants popped up to cater for this new population, with notable Cantonese chefs brought in to cook authentic food. Vast, ear-shatteringly noisy venues appeared, featuring carts filled with congee and towers of steaming baskets. These first yum cha restaurants marked the beginning of a new love affair for Aucklanders, that’s still ongoing today.

Sun World Chinese Restaurant was one of the first to offer yum cha in Auckland. Now in Newmarket, it does good traditional dishes, such as sui mai (pork in wonton-like wrappers with shiitake mushrooms and prawns), har gow (prawns in translucent wrappers), ham sui gok (chewy, pork-filled fried dumplings), and even a spring roll or two.

It’s worth venturing out east to Botany’s Star Cafe Seafood Restaurant to enjoy well-made classics. A highlight is the array of steamed dumplings filled almost to bursting with good-quality prawns, while the mochi-style coconut balls, filled with peanuts and sesame seeds, are truly the best I’ve tried.

If you’re looking for yum cha in the city you’re spoilt for choice, but Crystal Harbour offers a level of service that matches its superior offerings. It serves mostly classics with a few more unusual dishes appearing from time to time, such as the Hong Kong pancakes studded with dried shrimps and chives. Crystal Harbour also excels in steamed goods, all fantastically hot with expertly made dumpling skins that are never too thick or too firm, due to the speedy turnover.

Grand Park at the Alexandra racecourse seems a fitting venue for yum cha. Squint and you can almost imagine you’re in Hong Kong, placing a bet on a horse or two while you eat. Frequented by an older crowd, the tables of grandmas and grandads with babies add to the atmosphere. And it does offer some spectacular seafood dumplings – perfectly formed, really well seasoned and filled with quality ingredients.

For another out-of-the-city experience, Golden Phoenix in Birkenhead specialises in seafood, making it a good option if you don’t eat meat. All dishes taste properly homemade, packed with fresh flavours. The coriander and prawn dumplings are a must-try.

It’s only been in about the last 10 years that more Auckland restaurants have started offering the kind of food that appeared at my grandparents’ table: more traditional, more homely and less Westernised. The balance between non-Cantonese and Cantonese will perhaps never be evened up, but now we do have the luxury of deciding not just where to eat Chinese, but what regional cuisine we are looking for.

The tastes of Shanghai that are so new to us in Auckland make use of sharp, sweet and hot flavours. Preserved vegetables are a good example – tart vinegars preserve or pickle the vegetables while sesame or chilli oils lubricate them and chilli pastes give them a bang. Meanwhile, Sichuan food has the characteristic mouth tingle of Sichuan peppercorns and, as the region is a rich growing area, a wide variety of dried flowers, nuts and vegetables also feature heavily. The intense tingling heat and tart vinegar sauces of Sichuan dishes are also seen in Hunanese cuisine.

Dominion Rd is perhaps the best place to find more regional takes on dishes, although they’re not always listed on menus. It can help to express an interest in where your hosts are from and ask what they recommend, rather than simply hoping to randomly hit menu gold.

Spicy Joint is predominantly Sichuan-style, though a few dishes hint at Cantonese tastes and there are also several Hakka offerings. Clean, well-formed flavours in marinated cold dishes feature heavily: the marinated pigs’ ears are a triumph of texture and taste, while the special duck is flavoured with aromatic five-spice, cooked twice then served cold.

The arrival in Auckland of the legendary Lanzhou noodles seems to have made quite an impact – the soft handmade noodles now feature in flavourful soups on menus all around town. Spicy Joint’s version (pictured above) comes with a generous serve of beef, swimming in a lightly peppered broth with plenty of coriander.

Tasty Noodles, right outside the treasure trove of Tai Ping Trading Company, is a total winner. Its handmade noodles are wonderfully smooth, swimming in a rich paste made from fermented soy beans, while the toppings are intense and rich. A large serving is almost impossible to finish so I go for the small at just $8, with the addition of preserved cabbage and a good chilli heat.

Kung Fu Noodle is also a good bet for great noodles and dumplings, in always-busy surrounds.

I enjoy the authentic dishes at Shanghai ShiKuMen Restaurant, at the Eden Quarter end of Dominion Rd. Uyghur-style lamb cooked with cumin seeds and served with buns to wrap the meat in is a favourite. The wonderful hosts will talk you through anything you are not sure of and they have some of the best Shanghai–style buns I’ve found outside Shanghai.

Bun Hut, in the Balmoral shops, is a great place to go when you’re on a budget. For around $12 you can get more dumplings than it’s possible to eat in a single sitting and they’re good quality as well as being extremely flavoursome. Also in this area is San Bao, which has many fans and does excellent crispy rice.

Jolin Shanghai Restaurant offers some seriously “Chinese” food, intestines and all. The flavours are entirely of Shanghai with nice sharp-sweet contrasts, good use of Sichuan peppercorns and an array of cold dishes to choose from.

Homeworld, just up from the Civic Theatre in central Auckland, offers home-cooked treats such as salted fish with pork, belly pork cooked with shrimp paste, and spare ribs in a clay pot. It’s also worth a visit if you want a plate of really good fried rice.

Taller Park is another city stalwart delivering perfect fried rice, egg-noodle soup with wontons and other classics, such as beef and black bean.

Modern takes on Chinese eating have seen the emergence of some great restaurants and the Red Guard Cafe is the kind of place you’d find in any large Chinese city. It has a mix-up of Cantonese dishes and those from other cuisines (the menu includes laksa, condensed milk toast and bolognese), but I keep going back to the salted fish with pork on aubergine. If you want something that’s simply delicious with no fuss, Red Guard Cafe is a real find.

Destinations such as Momo Tea (branches throughout Auckland) offer small eats that are a great way to stave off hunger late at night. A skewer or two of chargrilled meats are just what you need at 2am, served in noisy, busy surrounds that make you feel as if you’re in another city altogether.

LFZ on Anzac Ave is a relative newcomer, offering skewers and flavourful dishes that, when paired with a beer, make for a good night out. If you are not so keen on the more unusual cuts of meat and offal, they also have a range of prime cuts.

Chinese cuisine in Auckland has certainly come a long way since my grandparents’ day and it’s exciting to see so many new places offering authentic dishes. Every restaurant offers a different culinary adventure – all a far cry from the sweet and sour pork of my friends’ childhoods.

Bun Hut 563 Dominion Rd, ph: 09-638 8898
Crystal Harbour 39 Market Pl, City, ph: 09-377 3773
Golden Phoenix Level 1, 63 Mokoia Rd, Birkenhead, ph: 09-480 6806
Grand Park Alexandra Raceway, Epsom, ph: 09-638 6998
Homeworld BBQ Restaurant 34 Wellesley St, City, ph: 09-369 1238
Jolin Shanghai Restaurant 248 Dominion Rd, ph: 09-631 5575
Kung Fu Noodle 636 Dominion Rd, ph: 09-630 6090
LFZ 49-55 Anzac Ave, City, ph: 09-373 2213
Red Guard Cafe 155 Queen St, City, ph: 09-302 3322
San Bao 708 Dominion Rd, ph: 09-630 9633
Shanghai ShiKuMen Restaurant 307 Dominion Rd, ph: 09-623 2855
Spicy Joint 533 Dominion Rd, ph: 09-623 4938
Star Cafe Seafood Restaurant 345 Chapel Rd, East Tamaki, ph: 09-271 1698
Sun World 2 York St, Newmarket, ph: 09-520 3218
Tai Ping 911 Dominion Rd, ph: 09-629 0340
Taller Park 12 Wyndham St, City, ph: 09-303 0661
Tasty Noodles 919 Dominion Rd, ph: 09-620 5618
Wah Lee 220 Hobson St, City, ph: 09-373 4583

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