Waikato Food Inc. News

Passage to Asia

Denise Irvine previews a Feast culinary treat

On a random Thursday night, our little party of four enjoys excellent food from north-east China, another dish from Lanzhou in north-west China, some spicy favourites from Sichuan province, and  fresh, aromatic offerings from Vietnam. And some gorgeous sweet baking that pulls together the best of East and West.

We’re eating Asia in Hamilton’s CBD, with a short amble between eateries a good way to gear up for the next round. We’re (very happily) trialling Amanda Graham’s Taste Asian Flavours Walking Tour, a culinary gem on the Feast Waikato programme.

Amanda is running the Feast tour under the umbrella of her Meet the Makers business, which offers themed trips to Raglan to meet the town’s talented artisans. The Asian eateries walking tour is a one-off by Amanda for Feast; it sold out early but it’s so darned good that I’m picking she may make it a regular event.  Put it on your watch list now!

Amanda earlier lived in Hong Kong, where she developed her love of Asian food. She says the CBD walk has been “percolating” in her head for a while. She’s worked with a clutch of restaurants to develop the idea; they’ll cook authentic food from their particular region of Asia, specialty dishes that people may not normally order from the menu.

Says Amanda:  “I want the restaurant owners to share the stories of the food as well.”

So tonight, she’s doing a dummy run to ensure the walk flows smoothly, in terms of timing, dish selection and a genuinely good time. Our tasting team comprises leader Amanda, Stu Smith, breakfast host at The Breeze, Julia Clarke, Waikato Food Inc’s project and events manager, and me.

We’re off to an excellent start at Dumpling House CBD Express, Bryce St, with plates from north-east China. This family-run business prides itself on its authentic, handmade food and tonight we taste deep-fried eggplant batons and finely sliced capsicum in a sweet and sour chilli sauce;  a salad of black fungi, onion and coriander with a sweet-sharp black vinegar dressing; signature dumplings; and a crispy pork dish with sticky-sweet sauce.

We dip in and out of the beautiful plates. I make the first “tour” mistake of going back for a little bit more of this, and that. (The lesson here is to pace yourself. It’s a tasting tour, not a full meal at each place).

We head to Garden Place Noodle Bar, to share a vast bowl of freshly made Lanzhou beef noodle soup, a specialty dish from the city of Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province in north-west China.

It is made with sliced beef cheek, and the flavoursome broth contains spring onion, leeks, sliced turnip and coriander. With chilli added according to personal taste. (Don’t hold back on this). The noodles are hand-pulled by dexterous chefs in the kitchen, we cut the long threads with special-issue scissors, and we slurp this umami treat.

Shallow Bakery & Café, on Alexandra St, is next, to meet owner Ashley Chen, who gives each of us each a takeaway meat floss roll. To snack on, Amanda says, as we head for the spicy Chilli House, on Victoria St, for Sichuan dishes. (We’re due back at Shallow for dessert).

We’re new to meat floss: the pork has been slow-cooked then dry-cooked until it becomes fluffy and “flossy” and it’s rolled in dough with other flavours including spring onion, sesame and mayo. I’m trying to pace myself, and my plan is to just nibble a corner of it. Curiously, it’s gone in a flash.

At The Chilli House, they specialise in bold, spicy food from Sichuan province, in south-western China. We share beef and coriander salad, Chilli House chicken, spring onion pancakes, and the star, the hugely colourful signature hotpot, brimming with vegetables, chilli, quail eggs, prawns, beef, sausage and noodles.

We dip and taste, go back for more, meet the staff, and then off we trot to Vietnam, in this case Saigon Noon, on Alexandra Street. There are light, fresh bowls of shredded vegetable and chicken salad, and lemongrass beef wrapped in kawakawa leaves. Vietnam is perfectly placed on the tour, balancing the stronger flavours that have gone before.

The Feast tour itinerary will also visit Sichuan Style, on Collingwood St, for a hot and spicy fish dish, and fried lamb with cumin. But due to time constraints tonight we’re leaving that for the tour proper and we cut back to Shallow Bakery & Café for dessert and an egg yolk pastry (to takeaway).

I’m at my limit, I go with a light-as-a-feather custard tart, and some of the others have a more substantial dessert. Shallow’s exquisite baking is now on my radar for a return visit.

After a suitable pause – a day or so – I enjoy Shallow’s sweet-savoury takeaway: salted egg yolk encased in sweetened red bean curd and wrapped in flaky pastry. Recommended with lemon and ginger tea.

The tour has been a total treat; the Asian tradition of sharing plates adds considerably to the warmth and pleasure of the evening and new friendships are always forged over food. I’ve eaten dishes I’d not normally ordered, as per Amanda’s plan, and it’s taken me out of my culinary comfort zone. All in my own city.

Thanks, Amanda, and Asian eatery owners. I hope you are up for repeat performances.