Ethnic dining in Christchurch
Christchurch is spoilt for choice of international cuisines, but are we making the most of what's on offer?
A culinary journey
I suspect I'm not alone when I associate the words "eating Chinese" with takeaways and plastic containers of chicken chow mein, steak fried rice or sweet and sour pork. While a plastic pack of Chinese cheerfully fills a Friday night gap in the supermarket shopping for us, it hardly qualifies as expert advice on where to go for the very best Chinese food in Christchurch.
For help, I turned to someone much better informed than me. Grant Torrie, marketing manager at The Press, lived in China for two and a half years and is married to Jessie Wang, whose "home town" is the bustling city of Harbin (population: six million and rising).
Of the numerous Chinese eateries in Christchurch, this couple have a clear favourite - Daphne's Restaurant at Church Corner. Curious to know why this one is special, and to get a feel for the real deal, I joined Grant and Jessie for dinner there.
Over green tea, they told me Daphne's menu scores top marks for its authentic array of regional food, including hot and spicy Sichuan dishes from the southwest - popular throughout China - and also salty, pickled delicacies that echo the cuisine of Jessie's home province of Heilongjiang in northeast China. Harbin has a very cold winter so the local people preserve a lot of their food, using plenty of salt. Wheat is a more prominent part of their diet than rice, and is used in dumplings and pancakes.
"Just wait until you bite into a Sichuan peppercorn - it'll make your lips go numb!" Grant said as we sipped our tea. He was right, of course. It was to be a night of spicy discovery.
Starting with soup is not a northern tradition; Jessie prefers to kick things off with cold dishes. Tripe, beloved in the north, was on the menu, but instead we began with servings of pickled vegetables - cubes of salted turnip, dribbled with chilli oil - and sliced beef with chilli pepper dressing. The latter has a kind of fierce delayed heat to it, but is regarded by Jessie and Grant as merely "averagely spicy". I found it helped to have the green tea at hand to cool the mouth. Our third entrée roughly translated as "saliva chicken" - so tasty, one's mouth waters in anticipation of the next mouthful.
In Harbin, it is also customary to begin with a bowl of roasted peanuts in the centre of the table. "You know you've been in China for a long time if you prefer to eat your peanuts with chopsticks," observes Grant, (although I was personally relieved not to face that challenge).
Hot spicy flavours dominated the main course selections of Sichuan-style poached sliced beef in hot chilli oil, along with another fiery southern dish popular in Chongqing, griddle-cooked spicy chicken in a hot pot. Also on the table was a serving of a Daphne's house dish of deep-fried tofu on a sizzling plate with sweet chilli sauce. With a soft scrambled-egg consistency inside, these tofu bites were mercifully milder than the rest.
In short, it was Chinese food, but unlike anything from the corner Chinese takeaway - hot, full of chilli and not a noodle in sight. Dining at Daphne's reminds Grant and Jessie of memorable nights out on Beijing's celebrated "Ghost Street" or Gui Jie, home to more than 200 restaurants and some of the best specialty food in China.
Daphne's is well-priced, too, with our three entrees, three mains and tea costing just $70 in total.
For diners who don't like it hot, Daphne's does offer less challenging options. "Our goal is to bring real Chinese food to the local market, but if we have a group of Kiwis coming in, we do remind them that we can make it less hot and adjust the flavour if they wish," says Daphne Kiriaev, who owns and manages the restaurant. Daphne hails from mainland China, near Shanghai and her husband is Russian/Chinese.
Other Chinese restaurants rated highly by Grant and Jessie include The Big Chef Kitchen in Burnside, specialising in dry, hot and spicy food from China's south-central province of Hunan, and the Shanxi Noodle House in Addington.
Just like the plastic tub of Chinese takeaways, some of what passes for Indian food in Christchurch bears little resemblance to the original dishes, according to Bombay-born Aaron Sanchis, who has lived here for a decade. It can be difficult, for example, finding a good authentic butter chicken in Christchurch. Too much butter, cream and off-the-shelf tomato puree invariably spoils the flavour, he says. "Kiwis say they like the cream and butter, but the result is not butter chicken; it's more like a curry that is quite sweet and fatty."
For a true Indian-style butter chicken, he suggests a visit to Corianders Restaurant in Edgeware, his favourite destination for "a taste of home". "It's pretty much authentic and the ingredients are fresh." Corianders also serves up two other "must-haves", namely delicious Bombay chicken (diced chicken fillet with freshly ground spices and herbs) and murg kadai (chicken cooked in thick gravy with crushed tomatoes, cream and fresh coriander).
If seeking a hotter dish, he will sometimes order lamb rogan josh, (lamb chunks cooked in whole spices with onion, ginger and garlic, finished with a touch of coriander). "It's quite peppery and if you chew on the meat, you get the full flavour of the curry inside it."
Aaron says no Indian restaurant worthy of the name ought to be serving up naan flat bread, tandoori chicken or chicken tikka not prepared over charcoal in a tandoor oven. "If your naan has not come from a tandoor oven, don't order it - and herbs like coriander should be fresh, not from a packet."
He says New Zealanders also tend to think of "hot and spicy" as one and the same, where a lot of Indian food might be "hot or spicy". It is a mistake to think Indian food consists only of hot curry flavours.
Other favourite dining destinations for Aaron are Two Fat Indians in Merivale - "again, it's beautiful food" - and Bombay Butler on Colombo St, which has "butler's venison" flavoured with Indian whole spices and herbs, along with a tasty chicken biryani and a good selection of vegetarian curries.
He also recommends the Maharaja on Papanui Rd, Indian Sumner and the Indian Ocean in Ferrymead.
Japanese-born Koji Miyazaki, owner of Form Gallery @ 468 Colombo St, has lived in New Zealand for more than 20 years, but still enjoys the flavours with which he grew up. His leading tip for finding a good Japanese restaurant is to simply ask where the chef is from. If they're from Japan, chances are they'll know how it's done.
His top pick is Riccarton's Cookai, which brings "a little twist" to traditional Japanese food. "I like the way they present their food, the sushi and tempura," says Koji, who enjoys starting with sashimi. "It is simple fresh food - really nice." His recommendations from the a la carte menu include crispy tempura chicken with lemon soy sauce, and ginger pork. Donburi rice dishes - beef or chicken and egg - also feature on his list of favourites.
For something a little more traditional, Koji suggests dining at Kinji Japanese Restaurant on Greers Rd, while a good lunch spot is the Samurai Bowl on Colombo St. "Try the beef gyudon for something a bit different."
For tips on the best Thai restaurants in Christchurch, we went to Khunita Khemarangsan (Kang), 27, who is from Thailand and has lived in New Zealand for 12 years. She and her husband, Boris Kang, dine out for lunch most days and for dinner twice a week. One of their regular destinations is Thai fusion restaurant Spice Paragon, owned by Khunita's brother, Titi Khemarangsan. Spice Paragon mixes up the flavours of Thai cuisine with influences from this country's modern cooking style and is popular with both Kiwi and Thai diners.
"There's a bit of Kiwi food in there, too, so, for example, the menu might include lamb shank mussaman curry and mashed potato, as well as fish green curry and rice," Khunita says. "My favourite starter would be the miang spinach leaf, which is topped with prawn or crispy belly pork or smoked salmon. We order that every time we go there. For the main, we always order the mussaman curry of slow-braised lamb shank on Asian sweet potato mash or the pad thai in egg net with free-range chicken, tamarind sauce, peanuts and lime."
For a real taste of authentic Thai flavours, Khunita also loves dining at Hammersley's Thai restaurant (Shirley Rd). "They can make it pretty hot if you like lots of chilli! For Thai people, the food there is really spicy, though they usually tone it down for Kiwi clientele. It tastes a lot like the food I'd eat back in Thailand, so I'd recommend it if you're looking for that genuine taste of Thailand." Her "must-try" recommendation from Hammersley's is the tom yum chicken noodle soup.
Sema's Thai Cuisine in Richmond is another favourite. "It's another fusion restaurant where a lot of Kiwi and Thai people go. It's really popular and the prices are very reasonable."
She suggests trying the pad thai (stir-fry rice noodles) from any of these restaurants.
For insight on the finer points of Italian food, I headed to Massimiliano Capocaccia's architecture studio in Sumner. Massimiliano, also known as Max, was born in Rome and has lived in Sumner for five years. He eats out several times a week, but finds many restaurants claiming to be Italian lack the authentic touch. He says Italian food sold here is frequently "over-complicated", weighed down with too many ingredients and flavours.
Pizza is a big problem, Max says. "Take the margherita pizza. It should just have tomato and mozzarella, but instead I often find the topping is quite overwhelming and has lots of ingredients - and, unfortunately, the base is usually more like pie than pizza!"
Similarly, too much sauce tends to be served with pasta and the sauce itself is often overloaded with too many ingredients and flavours. Max says Italians love to keep it "quite simple" with the four essentials: garlic, olive oil, chilli and tomato.
For a true taste of Italy, Max heads to Tutto Bene in Merivale. "There I can speak Italian with the waiters and the owners and taste some real Italian food." His favourites include best-ever lasagne (with Tuscan rich meat sauce, vegetable and cheese sauce); mixed gnocchi (served with Napoli sauce or rich meat sauce); and bistecca florentina, (grilled T-bone steak served with rosemary and garlic vino rosso sauce or mushroom sauce).
"It even looks very Italian there and they often play Italian music."
Freemans Dining Room in Lyttelton gets rated highly, too, even though it is not a specialty Italian restaurant. "I've tried both their cannelloni and ravioli - delicious."
I asked Max if he had a favourite dish from his days in Rome. He had to spell it out for me - salti in bocca alla romana - which is veal with ham and sage tied together with a toothpick. The name of the dish apparently translates as "jump in the mouth".
And so ends my international food journey. All that remains is to decide which of these recommended dishes will "jump into your mouth" on your next dinner date.