31 Aug 2015

Culture on a plate - secret dining Chinese

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 31 August 2015

Spicy Pigs ear and one hundred year-old egg can be surprisingly delicious.

Lynda Chanwai-Earle joins other foodies on the secret dining trail as part of the Wellington on a Plate festival to learn about Chinese culture through their traditional dishes. The Chinese secret trail starts with ingredients and preparation and ends with calligraphy and deserts - Asian style.

By Lynda Chanwai-Earle

It was so popular it sold out three weeks before the event. 'Secret Dining Trail – Chinese' was the name given to the event by the Visa Wellington on a Plate Festival which saw around 30 patrons walk the streets of Wellington in search of some culture on a plate 'Chinese' style.

When I arrive I spend a few panicky minutes trying to find the meeting point with the group. It’s meant to be at the Sichuan Spice Truck among the many stalls at the Harbourside Markets on Wellington’s waterfront but the whereabouts of the Sichuan Spice Truck was proving elusive. A secret dining trail means that you don’t really know where you’re going next, so it’s imperative to find the group and stick with them.

Having had the pleasure of trying their very spicy Sichuan style dumplings and noodles along with the famous tongue numbing Sichuan peppercorn – I already knew what the patrons would experience at the Spice Truck.

Green grocer Tom Young points me towards the food stalls and I’m off hunting for the foodies. Luckily for me Vicky Ha’s strident voice rises above the crowd as she explains to the group the best Chinese vegetables to use and why. The foodies are easy to spot as they’re all carrying their signature Asia New Zealand Foundation bags, the key sponsor for the three Asian Secret Dining Trails (Malaysian and Vietnamese being the other two).   

Originally from Hong Kong, Vicky Ha is taking the group through the uses of Shanghai cabbage, bok-choi, choi-sum and kai-lan (Chinese broccoli) among other popular Chinese vegetables in the preparation and ingredients side of cooking.

We use a lot of Chinese cabbage, it has high water content and we use it in pickles. Kai-lan is very flavorsome, my mum always stir fries with this ...

Highly energetic and ever entertaining, Chinese New Zealander Linda Lim (Asian Events Trust) is our tour guide. Gum or Gam is the Cantonese name for gold and also the name given to mandarins, considered good luck and eaten lots around Chinese New Year and other special occasions.

We’re heading towards Vicky’s House of Dumplings the second tasting stop on this trail. Her famous home-made dumplings with are very popular with the group, everything created with organic ingredients. A patron asks Vicky what the dumpling skins are made from; “Very simple; flour and water. Turmeric and carrots are in the pastry as well, for colour and flavour, all made from scratch.”

I ask Linda Lim what her favourite Vicky Ha dumpling is:

I’m a Shanghai cabbage and pork – it reminds me of mum and home. But I love the new ones; Japanese six mushroom ...

One patron, Margaret Brooker is an award winning food writer herself and really enjoys Vicky’s dumplings. As a mother Margaret tells me that Vicky’s dumpling making sessions for children really appeals. She’s finding this Chinese trail illuminating and Linda’s little gems of cultural information that accompany the tastings fascinating.

The group are off to Moore Wilsons Supermarket and Catering Supplies next, in the heart of Tory Street. The Chook Wagon, famous for its French Rotisserie chicken has also been roasting Peking duck for the last three years.

Everyone crowds round for the small packages of duck and cucumber wrapped in its little pancake and drizzled with hoisin sauce. Linda Lim tells the group that pasta in the form of noodles, pancakes and even roasting were actually Western influences with the arrival of Marco Polo in China in 1271 to 1368 during the Yuan Dynasty. Peking Duck became one of the most famous dishes in the Yuan Dynasty and later became very popular in Beijing, these days Peking Duck is so iconic a dish it's almost the national symbol of China.

Then it’s time to cross the road to the Grand Century Restaurant for yum-char (drink tea), the classic Cantonese lunch with its plethora of dim-sum served on spinning lazy-susans.

Linda tells us that yum-char originates from the tea houses of Guangdong (Canton) in Southern China as a late morning tea-lunch with many small dishes with bite size morsels. Rice is a staple in Chinese cuisine but also represents fertility, luck and wealth and is also one of the 12 symbols of imperial authority and will appear on the emperors’ robes, the rice or grain representing the emperor’s capacity to feed the people.

The owner Judy Tai has organised four very traditional rice based dishes (all perfect for gluten-free consumers). Steaming bowls of congee or “jook” is first up, a rice based savoury broth, next is "lor-mai-gai" or sticky, glutinous savoury rice packages steamed in lotus leaves, and then cheung-faan (steamed rice noodle rolls) with their variations of shrimp, BBQ pork or beef fillings. Finally a sweet baat-tung-gao or Chinese sugar rice cakes made with ground glutinous rice and also steamed finishes off the yum-char tasting.

The baat-tung-gao is very fluffy in consistency and very popular with a young French patron by the name of Matt. It turns out Matt’s a chef from a famous hotel in Wellington... Mat tells me he loves shopping at Moore Wilson and Yan’s supermarket for ingredients and this secret trail is covering all of his favourite spots.

After yum-char we stop off at Haining Street (a good way to walk off very full tums) and Linda covers the history of Wellington’s earliest China town, named “tung-yin-gai” or “Chinese people street” but was also the site of the 1905 tragic murder of Jo Kum Yung by Lionel Terry in his crusade to rid New Zealand of Chinese people.

Haining Street was also the site of opium dens and paka-poo or gambling was a popular destination for many early sojourners and existed as Wellington’s China town until around the 1970’s.

Next stop Yan’s supermarket to try spicy pig ear and pork belly. Linda tells us that the Chinese will eat anything with four legs except tables and everything that flies except airplanes. It’s a truism; fish heads, pigs trotters and chicken’s feet ... the fact that no food is ever wasted is probably quintessential to being Chinese (having been brought up on my own Chinese mother’s spicy pigs trotters - yum!).

Alice hails from Hong Kong and is a regular at Yan’s Supermarket. Spicy pigs ear is her favourite dish. Alice grew up with food being central to the family unit and central to Chinese culture;

Everything centres around the family meal - if I don't feed everybody then I feel like I haven't been a good host.

Alice even has a yum-char group that go around Wellington's Chinese restaurants each month - "sharing the love." Alice even gives me a great recipe involving; peanut butter, chilli oil and soya-sauce wrapped in rice rolls ... a recipe which will remain secret.

Pat has a distinctly British accent. He's another patron who gladly consumes the spicy pigs ear. Pat and his wife are well seasoned travellers and lovers of all Asian foods. Pat tells me that Pudong in Shanghai was one of their favourite destinations, reminding them of scenes out of the classic film Blade Runner with it's extravagant skyscrapers and French-Chinese cuisine. For Pat and his wife this secret dining trail is like a taste of Shanghai, a lovely culinary and fact learning adventure - and all within walking distance.

The troupe of foodies are off to Stan Chan’s Ink Link Calligraphy studio in Cuba Mall next, for a treat of classic mystery Chinese flavoured gelato prepared by Graham Joe, owner of Gelissimo Gelatto Ltd.

Stan Chan is a natural entertainer as he paints clues for the patrons to guess the flavour of the (lucky number) 3 distinctly Chinese flavoured gelattos; lychee, ginger and five spice and damson plum. In 2011 NZ Ice Cream Awards Gelissimo won 2 Gold Medals, and 1 Silver Medal in their first ever event. In the 2012 NZ Ice Cream Awards, we followed this up with another Gold Medal, and 3 Silver Medals. With a new Gelateria on Wellington’s Waterfront, Graham’s small team are now sharing their passion for gelato with all. Every visitor, big or small, retail or wholesale is welcomed to the Gelissimo family.

Final stop is Moonsoon Poon in Blair Street for a really welcome and refreshing gin cocktail made from Asian herbs; Vietnamese mint and coriander – and then it’s a chorus of “yum-sings” (the traditional Chinese drinking toast – the longer the yuuuuu-um, the more good luck!).

The perfectly satiating end to a secret trail that’s not so secret now, taking us to some hidden gems around Wellington’s CBD for a taste of culture on a plate.

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