AUCKLAND, JULY 30 — Walk into any hipster café these days and you’ll likely see a strong Antipodean influence.
New Zealand and Australia are proudly the originators of avocado toast and flat whites, brunch staples and artisanal coffee culture — though the jury’s still out on which country came up with which first.
Little surprise then that these items are firm favourites on Kiwi and Aussie menus. Yet after one plate of Eggs Benedict too many, one hankers for something with a bit more of a kick after bungee jumping off Auckland’s Sky Tower or a ride on Melbourne’s City Circle Tram.
Something sweet, sour, savoury and spicy — the flavours of South-east Asia, whose thriving migrant communities have made homes for themselves Down Under.
Songs of the elephant in Auckland
Hidden behind the row of historic Parnell shops is The Elephant House, a Kiwi crafts haven. It is here — ensconced amidst greenery and next to stores offering art, woodwork, pounamu (the Maori name for greenstone) and bone carvings — we find Blue Elephant, a charming Thai restaurant run by Kaenjan (Karen) Nungtaisong and Wayne Bevins.
We begin with a platter of Blue Elephant’s most popular entrées. The Aroi Dee Thai herb wraps turn out to be prawns and barbecued duck wrapped in fresh spinach leaves with a heady blend of finely chopped capsicum, roasted peanuts, lemon and toasted coconut.
Topped with a slightly sourish tamarind sauce, every mouthful is a rainbow burst of flavours.
Thai street fare is well represented with skewers of marinated yellow curry chicken and grilled sausages made from minced pork and Thai herbs.
In true northern Thai style, these are served with pickled vegetables freshened up with young ginger and raw red onion.
When Karen discovers we are Malaysians, she sends over a dish of cili padi in soy sauce for dipping. So thoughtful!
For something more refined, Blue Elephant’s prawn cakes are nuggets of pleasure spiked with red curry paste, kaffir lime leaves and sliced green beans.
Their grilled scallops are treasures waiting inside coconut cream baskets, succulent and rich. Every table orders a bowl of Blue Elephant’s splendid tom yum talay; expect generous amounts of seafood in the ubiquitous spicy-sour soup.
Don’t miss the chef’s specials; we enjoy two of them after asking for recommendations. The Blue Elephant Spicy Crispy Pork is stir-fried with basil leaves, broccoli, bamboo shoots, green beans, capsicum, garlic and fresh chillies, of course, for the heat.
The Blue Elephant Curry hails from northern Thailand: a traditional curry of slowly cooked pork belly with peanuts, finished with sliced fresh ginger. (The use of the latter is prominent on the menu and much appreciated.)
We are serenaded with “live” music as we dine, courtesy of Thai musician Ketkaew Bunrattanang, who plays the khim, a traditional Thai harp, at Blue Elephant several days a week.
In her thrilling melodies we can hear the songs of Thailand, of the floating markets and the Buddhist temples, of the warm people and their amazing cooking. Indeed, every dish prepared with love is a song of this beautiful country.
A ‘pho-nomenal’ bowl in Melbourne
Pho Dzung City Noodle Shop doesn’t seem like much from the outside: just another nondescript diner on Melbourne’s bustling Russell Street.
Décor isn’t its strong suit but why should it be? Judging by the number of office workers busily tucking into their steaming bowls, Pho Dzung’s customers come here for a hearty, tasty and quickly dispatched meal.
Pho, of course, is that quintessential Vietnamese one-bowl dish of soulful broth, flat rice noodles (known as bánh phở), fresh herbs and thin cuts of beef.
This particular shop started life as an all-family affair in Ho Chi Minh City where the Pho Dzung matriarch ran a wooden food cart selling bowls of pho in the Tanh Dinh district.
When the Vietnam War broke out, the family made their way to Australia and restarted the pho business.
Popularised by war refugees, pho is no longer just a Vietnamese street food but also a Melburnian street food judging by the number of pho shops found at every city block.
While pho originated in northern Vietnam, the southern Vietnamese version that is served here has more variety.
Beyond beef, chicken and pork are also used. Chicken pho or phở tái, in particular, is popular with strict Buddhist customers who abstain from eating beef.
While we wait for our pho, we are presented with a generous platter of garnishes typical of the southern version: sprigs of Thai basil, wedges of lime or lemon, crunchy bean sprouts and aromatic cilantro.
Condiments include nước chấm (Vietnamese fish sauce), Hoisin sauce and spicy sriracha sauce.
When our bowls of pho arrive — one with thin, almost rare slices of beef; the other with grilled pork — we are astounded by the large, Aussie-sized portions.
Compared to pho I’ve had in Vietnam, the beef here is of higher quality (Australia is cattle country, after all) and the soup more flavourful, almost gelatinous from hours of slowly simmered beef bones, spices and charred onions.
Topped with plenty of chopped green onion, these bowls promise to cure any ills. (Especially hunger.)
Every spoonful of nourishing broth, every strand of slippery-smooth bánh phở, every slice of melt-in-your-mouth beef, is a testament to the culinary culture of a people who survived the worst in their homeland and who thrived, making a new home for themselves.
A little Penang in Wellington
What’s a taste of South-east Asia without some real Malaysian flavours? We head to Little Penang in the Kiwi coffee capital of Wellington for authentic street fare from our beloved Pearl of the Orient.
Little Penang is run by a Penangite Peranakan couple, Tee Chiew Phee and her husband Keith Cheah, who had migrated to New Zealand for a slower pace of life.
Located on Dixon Street, where colourful murals add a vibrant energy, Little Penang has a welcoming ambience.
Something as simple as the plates used — the sort that are patterned after banana leaves — remind one of home and hint at the Malaysian delicacies to come.
These dishes, from roti canai to nasi lemak, are often taken for granted... until one is abroad long enough that even a cup of frothy teh tarik tastes like manna from heaven.
Malaysians can be very fussy, exacting eaters when it comes to food they’ve been eating since young.
Therefore Tee and Cheah have sourced ingredients directly from their hometown. Herbs and spices, pastes and sauces, even the ikan bilis (dried anchovies) are imported from Penang.
The goal is so that every bite would taste as though you’ve had it at a roadside hawker stall in George Town, rather than a bland imitation of it.
We begin with a pot of Chinese tea to warm our throats (and in anticipation of deliciously greasy dishes to come). The best test of true Penangite hawker fare, we decide, isn’t the slowly prepared broth of asam laksa or the steamed marinated fish fillets of otak-otak. Something faster would be more of a challenge, something that has to be fried in a hurry.
To this end, we order a plate each of char mee (fried yellow noodles with prawns) and nasi goreng (fried rice with egg and prawns). What arrives minutes later is hot and aromatic, full of true wok hei (“breath of the wok”). Each grain of rice, each sauce-slicked strand of noodle, bears the fiery breath of a wok wielded well.
Regulars apparently come here for the Malaysian teatime snacks such as curry puffs, siew bao (roast pork buns), assorted Nyonya kuih and Penang-style lor bak (deep-fried mincemeat rolled in soybean sheets).
Daily specials such as bak kut teh (simmered pork ribs in herbal broth) and nasi Tok Ma (rice served with spiced braised beef, stir-fried vegetables, hard-boiled egg, sambal and a crunchy pappadom). Simple food that tastes of Penang, of Malaysia, and for the lucky ones amongst us, of home.
237 Parnell Road, Auckland, New Zealand
Open Sun-Wed 5:30pm–10:30pm; Thu-Fri 11:30am-2:30pm & 5:30pm–10:30pm
Tel: +64 9-358 3095
Pho Dzung City Noodle Shop
234B Russell Street, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Open daily 9am-10pm
Tel: +61 3 9663 8885
40 Dixon Street, Te Aro, Wellington, New Zealand
Open Mon-Sat 11am-3pm & 5pm-9pm; Sun closed
Tel: +64 4-382 9818