Chinese Walking Food Tour - Dominion Road
Honestly I feel like Jonathan Gold when I go on these tours - unassuming places that I pass, regularly, every other day - holding such amazing food treasures. Except that I haven't found them on my own - Anne-marie and Saaskia from Auckland Food Tours found them. And I wasn't the only familiar face on the tour - I recognised some familiar faces from previous adventures!!!
Amongst the rich offerings on Dominion Road - it would be difficult to guess especially to the untrained eye, well, I would never have picked these places out - or known what to order if I had found them...
The beauty in the Chinese Walking Food Tour is that you visit several, no actually lots, of different places and only eat their speciality. No menus - you simply arrive, pour each other some tea, divvy up the chopsticks (and forks where necessary) and one or two beautiful dishes will appear...
First stop was The Bun Hut - for a Chinese Breakfast Pancake. A 'pancake thin' mix of slightly beaten egg with spring onion and black sesame seeds sprinkled through it. There was a little heat in there somewhere and it was folded around a sheet of wonton, which gave it a crispy, crunchy interior.
This is originally from Tianjin (near Beijing) and became incredibly popular as a 'grab and go' street food to eat on the run. You will often find it with other fillings as people use it the way we would use a 'wrap' these fillings include deep fried 'long stick' donut savoury not sweet, sausages and sometimes extra eggs. My thoughts on this - is that it would be a perfect vehicle for some fried whitebait, rather than the thick slabs of white bread.....
I will definitely be looking this up for my 'breakfast on the run' - tasty, light and very interesting especially with the little bit of heat in it.
Next up was Flavour House - for the Dumplings - Roast Duck, Beef with Celery or Pork shrimp and chives. I thought that I had moved along in the world of knowledge when it came to dumplings - learnt how to make them, the various ways to cook them - but this was a surprise...
They were cooked in a pan and presented upside down with the prettiest 'lace' effect. In China it is referred to as 'Snowflake' I was intrigued and apparently at the end of the cooking, a little liquid with starch is added and it cooks out almost immediately to create this beautiful lace effect.
Saaskia mentioned that Dumplings were eaten in Northern China to celebrate 'winter beginning' - one of the 24 'seasons' familiar to Chinese (I found them fascinating and have listed them at the bottom of the blog if you are interested too). There is an old saying that if you eat the dumplings, your ears wouldn't be frozen and fall off in the cold Northern China winter. Sounded a lot like the sort of thing we tell our kids about what will happen if they don't eat their veges..... parents are the same everywhere!!
While different food would have been eaten at different times of the year - everything we ate today would be everyday foods now in China also. The exception being the Dumplings - they are the most meaningful food in China still today, and when Chinese New Year (or any important family event) comes around everyone will be making dumplings together - they represent happiness and luck.
Saaskia spoke of a small tradition where, in some areas, they put a small coin in one of the dumplings, and whoever found it in their dumpling would be the luckiest person in the next year. That sounded a little like the Christmas pudding tradition - so fascinating that there are so many similarities in the differences!!
Our next stop was Wang Wang Spring Pancake - at every stop, Saaskia would discuss a little overview of each restaurant, their speciality and where you expect to find this cuisine in China - or where it originally hailed from, sometimes a little about the neighbouring provinces, as sometimes this might add a little influence to the dish.
Spring Pancakes (note the seasons again) are paper thin - and a little stretchy - this is achieved by adding very hot water to the flour - then left for about an hour, before they start to make the pancakes. This brings out the gluten and protein in the flour and makes it very flexible to stretch out as thin as possible and roll by hand.
We had a choice of fillings - the braised pork with soy sauce - which was the more familiar choice for me, so that is where I started. I shouldn't have. The second dish was piled high with matchsticks of potato, eggplant and capsicum - I really didn't expect it to be as tasty as it was. I had to ask.... as there was an 'al dente' bite left in the potato but was completely cooked! The vegetables are stir-fried fast at a very high heat (so the potato keeps its crunch) and LOTS of minced fresh garlic, a little salt and a dash of soy sauce. This was a bit of a 'dark horse' dish for me - and definitely, what I will be ordering when I go back. A typical Northern dish also.
The best thing about doing this as a group is inevitable food lovers you meet - and the conversations that emerge - indian spices, where to get the best... particular restaurants that do particular dishes really well - it is a treasure trove of traded info. This type of tour is a real 'local food-lovers' rather than a tourist adventure (not saying that as a tourist I wouldn't ADORE doing this - in fact would hunt something like this out anywhere in the world) but the 'swapsies' of other food-lore that awaits amongst the other guests is a huge draw for me. We were pretty unanimous that had we been given menus, none of us would have ordered what we actually ate - we all would had played it 'safe' to some degree - and completely missed out.
From now on, when I am going to 'go it alone' - my biggest piece of advice, is to ask the restaurant for their speciality.
Next up was Jiuzhou BBQ for a bowl of hand pulled noodles with lamb. Now lamb is not the most common meat I come across in Chinese cuisine - but again, we were enlightened that people in Northwestern China eat more lamb than anywhere else in China. This is a dish from the Henan province (which is near Shanxi) so some of the foods are similar.
These noodles are served with lamb, seaweeds and coriander - in a broth made from slow cooking the lamb bones.
Saaskia also pointed out on the menu - that their braised chicken is worth a try (I definitely think that translates to very, very good) I noticed on the way out that you could buy them, packaged up like a smoked chicken from the supermarket - I think I might be back for one of those - that would make a killer replacement for smoked chicken!!
Nearing the end of the tour - and honestly, we have eaten a lot and learnt a lot. Our final stop is Xi'an Food Bar - and Annemarie is getting a little worried as 6pm rolls past - "if we don't get there it will be full" is music to my ears - not that it will be full and that we can't get in - that it is so popular and potentially full at 6pm - is always a promise of great food!!
The Cumin Lamb burger (think almost Morrocan flavours here) Xi'an is in the Shanxi Province - where the terracotta warriors are from.
Hand pulled noodles again, but this time as a dry dish with braised pork and lashings of chilli oil, garlic, spring onions, soy sauce, coriander - well you can see.....
As we finished we were each given a little package of Pandan Bread - from the Classic Bake House. This bread is very soft and fluffy as well as being distinctively sweet, coloured a light green or light purple as a result of the addition of leaf juice. Predominantly Southeast Asian - the owners being Malaysian Chinese - it is more a result of Chinese adopting some of Asia as many now live in Malaysia and Indonesia.
In old days - the people in China identified the weather and season by looking at the harvest of the grains and plants.
The 24 Solar Terms:
Clear and bright
Grain in ear
Stopping the heat