Catherine Downes at Cha

Last updated 05:00 18/04/2012
Catherine Downes
CRAIG SIMCOX/FAIRFAX NZ

CATHERINE DOWNES: I think Taiwanese food is the new Thai.

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Name Cha
Region Wellington Central
Suburb Wellington Central
Price Low
Vegetarian Options Yes

Restaurant: I live on Waiheke Island now, so I'm a bit out of the loop with Wellington restaurants. My friend, Helen, said, "Let's have a meal. Let's go to Cha." I didn't know it was Taiwanese, but was very pleased when I found it was.

I want to go back lots of times. I had dumplings in chilli oil, then deep-fried fish balls. They were delicious. Helen had seasonal vegetables with mushrooms and bean curd. It looked fantastic. Next time I'll have dumplings, which I love, and something stir-fried or steamed.

I love the space in Cha. It's interesting, because when you are at the entrance, it looks like a cake shop, then you step in the door and it's this enchanting little Taiwanese cafe. You're stepping into Taiwan.

Cha has a massive menu, with hundreds of dishes and hundreds of teas. I suspect it could be called a tea house. They are a huge part of Taiwanese life.

A couple of years ago, I might have said my favourite food was Thai cuisine. They are quite similar. I like the way they steam food and the particular sauces they use. I think Taiwanese food is the new Thai.

I cook a little Taiwanese food at home. I google recipes. You can get some of the ingredients here, at the supermarket on Waiheke Island, or you have to get on the ferry and go to town, to Auckland.

There are a few Taiwanese restaurants in Auckland, but I haven't seen anything as authentic and tasty in New Zealand as Cha.

My experience of Asian food when I was a student was fried cabbage with an egg on top. You used to get those in the milk bars around Courtenay Place, where Cha is now.

Things have improved, but it wasn't until I went to Taiwan that I understood how delicious the food is. It tends to be anglicised here, or taste-budded down to what they think we like, but Cha is the real thing.

I'm more of a foodie-eatie, not so much a foodie-cookie. Now that I'm a freelancer, I have more time and I'm thoroughly enjoying having a go at cooking. Before, when I managed theatres, I didn't have any time.

I will look at some of the recipes in Cha's menu, and ask them for their secrets. In Taiwan, I did that. They had some fabulous sauces and I asked the restaurants what they used. Usually they'd tell me. While I'm here, I might terrify my parents with some Taiwanese cooking.

Lately I've been making Thai green chicken curry and Balinese curry. Bali is my favourite place to go on holiday. I've been there more than 20 times. I think travelling and eating are my two favourite hobbies.

As told to KIMBERLEY ROTHWELL

Cha - 37 Courtenay Place Wellington

Ph 043853860

Open daily 11am to midnight

Catherine Downes is appearing in Roger Hall's A Shortcut to Happiness, at Circa till May 26. Tickets, $25-$46, from circa.co.nz.

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