The Pan-Asian restaurant phenomenon

23:08, May 22 2012

I've noticed recently a proliferation of, broadly speaking, "Pan-Asian" restaurants in this country. Restaurants that might be, broadly speaking, Chinese, or Malaysian, or Singaporean on the whole, but which, in actual fact, serve a variety of Asian dishes to greedy Kiwi diners. They have almost become a type unto themselves. And you know what? I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing. Let me explain myself...

Wellington - a far-flung outpost of Malaysia? You could be forgiven for thinking so, such are the number of excellent, cheap Malaysian restaurants. That said, even my faves - KK Malaysian in Ghuznee St, the slightly flasher Satay Kampong in Allen St - are not above having a few dishes on their menus that are not Malaysian in origin, from Hainanese Chicken Rice, Spring Rolls and Wontons, to Sweet and Sour Chicken. And I am not above ordering them, even if I do generally favour more traditional Malaysian fare such as Laksa or Mee Goreng. It's just - sometimes you just want Sweet and Sour Chicken...

Another few of my local faves, Rams, in Cuba Street, The Oaks Noodle House in the Oaks complex in Cuba Mall, and Lychee Café in Arthur St, take the brief even further, so much so that I am not entirely sure what type of Asian restaurants they actually are. They have Chinese dishes, Singaporean dishes, Thai dishes, hybrid dishes. They all have massive menus, which I normally regard as a bad thing, but in these three cases it's not a problem. They each serve good food, freshly made, at good prices, and are locally owned and run. I have enjoyed excellent food at each of them, without too much recourse to considering the genus of the food.

I think it's really important to remember that we are not in Kuala Lumpar, or Penang, or Beijing, or wherever, and that it is actually just fine for Asian restaurants in New Zealand to not be wholly "authentic". They need to turn tables; ergo, they need to offer food that appeals to the Kiwi palate, so, needs must, and good on them. It does mean that you need to figure out your faves from the menu and stick with them, as it is likely they will make some dishes much better than others. But even if a dish is not overwhelmingly "authentic" doesn't mean it is not delicious...

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However, on a completely apposite note, this week I ate at a Malaysian restaurant that was not at all like what I have just described. A friend mentioned a new(ish) place opposite the Dixon Street Deli in (duhh!) Dixon St, called Little Penang. Pretty fair dinkum "hawker" style food, with precious little concession to the "Pan-Asian" trend. Just the suggestion of it was so exciting to me that I cancelled a Vietnamese food lunch date and hotfooted it down there.

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It's one of those spots that has never really worked for anything much. Tucked into the side of the Oaks complex, it was recently, I think, a Lebanese restaurant (whose name momentarily escapes me), and has always seemed a bit doomed. A tad exposed to the elements, and just far enough off the Cuba/Manners main drag axis to preclude much foot traffic, maybe it has found a long-term resident.

Little Penang does their one thing - and does it very well. Sampling as much of their wares as my belt notches would allow, my friend Leila and I each put away a Chicken Nasi Lemak (choosing the hotter, tangier, spicier variety over the mellower, creamier chicken curry that the staff later brought over for us to try) - delicious coconut rice, cucumber slices, candied peanuts, half a boiled egg and, most intriguingly, an anchovy sambal - onions, anchovies - tart, salty, tangy, and usually absent from NZ Asian dishes, I guess on account of the fact that they don't for the most part appeal to the NZ palate.

And, while I am no anchovy devotee (see what I did there?), they do add an interesting supplementary flavour to the dish, which I think is best eaten in a mix and match fashion - a little of this, a little of that.

We also tried a curry puff (just a little underwhelming), a pork bun (light, flaky, sweet, delicious), and a vegetable fritter that was a bit like clumps of vegetable bhajee on a stick with a sticky sweet sauce - very good. We also tried a morsel of cassava cake: coconutty, and not overwhelmingly sweet - quite delicious.

On top of the food being really good - flavoursome, quick, filling, cheap - the staff were super-friendly, attentive and knowledgeable about their food, which I really appreciate. I want people to enjoy making it, and selling it. I want people to want me to enjoy their food!

Which I totally did. Especially when The Mexican swings by and whisks us next door for apre-lunch coffee at Memphis Belle - but that's a whole other story...

So, two sides of the Pan-Asian NZ restaurant debate - one that mixes and matches from Asian cuisine and presents it for a New Zealand palate, and one that asks you to take a bit of a trip with it. Both perfectly valid, both perfectly enjoyable - and both capable of feeding a rampantly hungry Omnivore.

How do you feel about the NZ Pan-Asian restaurant phenomenon? Do you dislike the mix-and-match approach? Do you favour it? And - anyone checked out Little Penang? What did you think? And for anyone who can make the comparison, how does it compare to hawker fare in Malaysia?

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