The Pan-Asian restaurant phenomenon

Last updated 11:08 23/05/2012

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...

Penang1Wellington - 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.

Penang2It'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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23 comments
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toni   #1   11:24 am May 23 2012

as a massive fan of Malaysian food - Chinese food has a huge place in Malaysian cuisine, have you been there?

Bob   #2   11:45 am May 23 2012

Not sure if this guy has been to Malaysia .... the Malaysia population is made up from mainly Malay, Chinese and Indian people. So it would make sense that a Malaysian restaurant in NZ may have a selection of food from all Malaysian cultures right ? Even in KL a Malaysian South Indian cafe will also serve Malaysian Chinese, Malay, Thai and even western food ..... This is what makes Malaysian food soooo good.

Johan   #3   11:53 am May 23 2012

As an aside to your article and various Asian food, The different country's regions have vastly difference styles. Thailand for example has 4 different styles from the malaysian influenced south to the chilli influenced North-east. Central Thailand food is derived from chinese to a certain extent as noodles were not the norm, only rice and the fact that Bangkok started life as a chinese trading port.

I think one of the reason for pan asian resturants is the availibility of ingredients in NZ and what you can produce if go for a totally authenic menu

brian   #4   12:10 pm May 23 2012

Malaysia is a melting pot of different cultures and races. Our food reflect all this. My mum's Malaysian satay and sauce always sells out at record time when we volunteer at school fairs. I hope more kiwis enjoy Malaysian food.

Ooi   #5   12:12 pm May 23 2012

At a young age my father use to cook traditional Sambal Chicken (Nasi Lemak), similar to that of Little Penang and after a week in Kaula Lumpur smashing nasi lemak breakfast, lunch and dinner I have to say this little eatery has nailed it! If you do one thing very well, people will come back for it again and again.

Brent   #6   12:23 pm May 23 2012

toni #1

I have lived in both Malaysia (2 years in Penang) and China (over 1 year). Sorry, what you say is completely incorrect. Malaysian food (even Malaysian Chinese food) is generally completely different to Chinese food. Sometimes they have EXACTLY the same thing (e.g. Hainan Chicken), but it is usually qualified with its place of origin in China, i.e. HAINAN chicken.

Interestingly a lot of Malaysian Chinese food is a fusion of old style Chinese food, malay food or just something that has just changed over the years. Mee Goreng, for instance (chow mein in China), is so different in both places that its virtually unrecognisable. Where it comes from in China they don't use half the ingredients, particularly the chilli. And all the food is like this. Its changed so much from its origins that it now has a new identity - Malaysian. That's what makes it different. Sure you can go to Chinese restaurants in Malaysia and get fairly authentic Chinese food, but this isn't the fair that most Malaysians like anymore. For example in China eating curry is virtually unheard of - most Chinese hate it. In Malaysia, curry laksa is a staple Chinese meal.

Regarding the article - it makes me want to go back and eat Malaysian food in Penang! Will definitely head to Little Penang when I am back.

Nic   #7   12:40 pm May 23 2012

It's disappointing that this blog has left out Satay Kingdom on Left Bank. Satay Kingdom is a magnificent restaurant situated in a truly stunning location. When I eat at Satay Kingdom, I believe I am experiencing the real Asia. This is an unrivalled experience which supersedes any other dining experience to be had in Wellington.

George   #8   12:41 pm May 23 2012

Yummy!! Little Penang rocks!!

Not only do they do the best nasi lemak in town, I believe they have daily specials of different dishes from penang as well.

I tried the Char Koay Teow on one saturday, and it brings tears to my eyes just thinking of being back in penang!!

As you mentioned, what they do, they do very well. I feel they are quite underrated due to their location, and would do best as a sit-down rather than a takeaway place

Just an FYI - Hainanese chicken rice is a staple in malaysia as well

2penny   #9   12:51 pm May 23 2012

None of the restaurants you describe are what I think of as a pan-asian restaurant. As previous commenters have said, Malaysian food encompasses a lot of different cuisines.

To me, a pan-asian restaurant is something like Monsoon Poon, where there are one or two dishes that are distinctively Indian, Northern Chinese, Thai, Singapore, Japanese etc - but no overall thrust or theme - and served in a heavily westernised context. If you see hainanese chicken rice, chilli crab and mee goreng on the menu, that's not pan-asian to me. Pan asian would be a menu that contained sushi and gyudon, Dhal and aloo gobi, Laksa, bibimbap and sweet and sour pork.

I don't mind pan-asian restaurants, provided the food is good. They can be a good option if you have a diverse group of people with different tastes.

dan   #10   01:25 pm May 23 2012

Hit up Little Penang on my last trip to wellington, it was a damn good meal and good price. The vegetable fritters were delish. I could tell straight away it was something a little more authentic as it didn't have the standard structure; the old pick rice or noddles, pick from 1 of the 8 dishes presented like a mall chinese place.

The staff were also outstandingly friendly, real service with a smile kind of place.

Would thouroughly recommend.


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