Kebabs, Provisions, and the muttonbird mystery

When we wandered into Christchurch there was no doubt thatwe were there for the night only because taking the road into Fox Glacier wouldhave been a terrible mistake in the snow storm that blew through the West coastthat July. We were drivers who had never driven in snow, and the mere idea of“chaining the tires”, as you had to in snow conditions, excited us like kids.We actually looked forward to it (we didn’t in the end, since the East coastwas both rainy and sunny).

We’d stayed at the Jailhouse backpacker place onrecommendation that night, having had no research about Christchurch. Mostly,we heard that many hostels and backpacker places downtown had closed forbusiness in light of the quake. It was a contradictory sight, when we arrivedin the city in the evening. Amid shambles of buildings and churches, peoplewere going about their lives. There was no sense of gloom in the city despitethe recent happenings – it was an optimism that was rather uplifting, despitethe sense of quiet in the city.

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Middle Eastern cuisine, Christchurch

There was no expectation of good meals when we arrived, sans research into the area. Late night and all, we decided to stroll around the area where the Jailhouse was located. The hotel is an actual converted jailhouse, and done up pretty cool, I must say. On the street adjacent to the Jailhouse Accommodation (turn left as you walkout of the hostel compound), we wandered into a MiddleEastern eatery run by a friendly Middle Easterner, who served up an amazing kebab on rice. He dusted spice and a touch of raisin powder (?) – and it was amazing. Like, hold your horses! I’m going to have a second or third plate of this.It was a larger serving than we could manage, but there was no complaining after that, even when we lay slack on our beds, heavy with sleep as our stomachs worked overtime.

Provisions, Arrowtown

It snowed on the last stop of our journey, towards Queenstown.It was here that we drove out of the city to explore the quaint, historicArrowtown, which used to be a gold mining stop for all sorts. Struck gold wedid not, but Provisions, we did. It was the sort of store I’d wish to open if Iever could, in a spot as sweet and quaint as this. It was half a store, half acafé. Sticky buns, hearty breakfasts of sausages, smoked salmon, scrambled eggsand the like were promised on their menu, as we browsed their lovely homemadegoods. We had a plain breakfast of eggs, sausages and toast, but that’s notwhat we’re here for. I bought from the store a lovely package of mixed herbs(which I’ve yet to try), and a bottle of Boysenberry-Garlic marinade. Thatstuff is seriously awesome. I personally have an aversion to fruit in mysavoury, but this marinade blew our socks off when we got home and marinatedeverything from pork chops to chicken fillets, which we then grilled toperfectly charred heaven. Their experiments with jams and marinades are enviously brilliant, such as the Apricot BBQ sauce below that I had to forgo for another. I especially love their packaging, which comes with thecutest symbols identifying jams, jellies and vinegars and more.

What is Muttonbird?

Aggus Shack, Queenstown

If you’ve never heard about this before I don’t blame you,because neither did we when we arrived in Queenstown, hungry for food and for adventure. The muttonbird doesn’t disappoint, in fact it scores high points on being food and food for the adventurous, but that’s where it actually ends.
The muttonbird is a Kiwi indigenous delicacy. The term refers to seabirds, so the most specific breed I believe I was eating, was the Sooty Shearwater, known by its Māori name “tītī”. When we saw it being offered in on the menu in Queenstown, nestled unassumingly amongst items like fried calamari and fish & chips, how could we resist.
The muttonbird is oily. It has fat two inches thick on its meat, which is dark. When we first laid eyes on the served bird, my partner and I chortled for a good 5 minutes. It wasn’t what we expected, and we certainly didn’t knowhow to eat it. We poked it with our plastic forks. It didn’t punk’d us.  Then I volunteered to pick it apart so we could figure out some way of eating it.

I peeled off the skin, and fat, with my fingers. For a good half day later, the smell of bird, fish, oil and something akin to sweat, lingered on my fingers. Once we got all of the fat and skin off, the meat was hard. If dark meat has a smell you recognise, this one smelled strongly of it. Once we got down to the eating, muttonbird tastes closely of cardboard, and a bit of duck.Once in a while thereafter, for no reason midway in silence, one of us would remember, and shout “muttonbird!”, and enjoy a good laugh while we watched the duck-spotted lake and snow-capped mountains.

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these burgers

I originally wrote this as part of a lengthier post to come, but I felt it was best to pay tribute to the burgers that made our trip – Fergberger and Velvet. These are the 2 to make mention of for having the tenacity of sneaking into our dreams and into our cravings weeks after we’d long left New Zealand.

Fergberger

Queenstown is home to the best – and you must take it from me – burgers. I’ll share with you why you have to believe me, simply because I’m the sort of person who doesn’t really like burgers. I enjoy the good chomp into a stack of meat and buns, but that’s as far as the craving goes. I’m not a burger person, by that admission neither a sandwich person, but oh boy. These burgers. Are crazy.

(Song pairing: Moldy Peaches: These Burgers).

Google this. I did when I returned from Queenstown, and apparently everybody else in the world thinks the same way I do. My partner was fascinated by everything about it. The burger, the brand, the people who love the burger. The walls inside the small Queenstown store are peppered with framed photographs of fans. My partner was especially tickled by one, a black & white image taken of a man and his bulldog, captioned: “Me and Arsehole”. He also learnt, and told me, that someone once dislocated his jaw from trying to take a chomp out of an entire burger.

The queues in Fergberger get really crazy during ski season, when everybody descends onto the town. We spent a day a half in Queenstown, and ate Fergberger for our dinner, dessert, and supper. There’s only one store in all of New Zealand, bless their heart. We tried the original Fergburger, Cocakadoodle Oink, and the Bulls Eye. In memory it seems like we may have eaten much more than that, but that’s the Fergburger experience.

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Velvet Burger

An impressive chain is Velvet Burger, whose brand is quirky, whose own history boasts a hilariously fictional heritage dating back to the birth of the Long White Cloud. When in Auckland, we fell hard for their burgers, trying the Velvet Burger (venison) where we substituted the pineapple for beetroot instead; and the Goneburger.

Fergburger gets the top dog position for having not only tasty, ingenious fillings, but also excellent buns. Those buns are the stuff that fantasies are made of, and no – ahem – not those types of fantasies. But any burger that makes a good bun to hold its stacked load, and still hold its weight in taste and texture, really has my vote. The Fergburger is solid. Firm, and solid. The Velvet Burger choices were smaller, and their buns were softer and tasted more generic. For our next trip to Auckland (to watch the qualifying round, Rugby World Cup!) I’m more keen to look into niches or hole in the wall cafes where similarly indulgent burgers can be found. I wonder if the same can be said of a New Zealand staple, the fish and chips, which just seems to be crazy good everywhere.

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foodie plans

Before hitting New Zealand, I spent quite a bit of time trawling through food blogs and sites, hoping to unearth magical eateries to feed my curious soul. I came across places like Matterhorn and many other cafés scattered along the North and South islands. And of course by the time it was time to travel I had clean forgotten to bring the list with me.

A few names stuck to me, such as Matterhorn, but by the time we hit these spots – for one reason or the other – the places would be closed. We found to our pleasurable delight, however, that most everything in New Zealand was simply awesome. There’s something incredible about cooking the most delicious foods with just fresh produce. They weren’t Michelin material, just plain rustic, good food for the soul, just the way I like it.

We ate our way through pubs, where the food was wholesome; we ate our way through cafés, stores in the middle of nowhere, and in every takeaway where possible. For some strange reason, we ate a lot of chicken chow mein throughout the entire trip – it was our go-to supper for at least half the trip. The only trip-up in the entire menu was a less than stunning kebab we tried in Wellington, along Courtenay Place (there are two places in the world we’ve tried, where late night kebabs absolutely rule, and that’s in Hong Kong and Byron Bay, Australia.)

After discounting a great number of snacks (“just one more burger”, I begged, “just one more noodle, we can finish it, really!”), here’s a quick – and rather brief, in hindsight – foodie rundown of what we ate.

Corned Beef and Hash with sourdough toast and poached eggs,  Devonport
Posted about this previously here.

Chicken Pot Pie with Mash & Veggies
Café near the Waitomo Caves
This café takes the cake for serving portions that were absolutely massive. This plate was as large as my head and completely filled from side to side. My partner and I both succumbed to this, and it was just nice. We watched as families filled their tables with multiple orders of towering burgers and heapings of onion rings and fries. I’d never seen such gravity-defying rings and fries atop a rather deep bowl.

Breakfast at the café inside the Dominion Post building, Wellington
We ate here only because the recommended restaurant near by was closed when we visited. It seems rather dull to include this breakfast plate but I thought it was worth highlighting that most breakfasts that we enjoyed in NZ was pretty much of equal or higher calibre. In almost all places where you just walked in you could lift something off the menu and be tucking into a pretty hearty breakfast.

Did not eat here (Wellington) – but how good is this menu!

Brat Pack, Wellington, outside the cinema on Courtenay Place
We had the red wine and currywurst, really awesome stuff as we stood outside the cinema chomping away. I had the nonsense idea of eating the hot dog without the bun to save space for more carbo-laden foods later. It didn’t bode me well; I think I ate a bit of tissue in the process. The hot dogs were smothered in a heady, spicy BBQ sauce and caramelised onions. Minimal effort – the chatty guy behind the counter was frying it up on the grill and talking night out of day.

Chow, Wellington
(Thai Food)
They have a chi-chi bar on the side of the restaurant built like a library and cigar room, very chic. We tried the red curry, which was thick and plenty filling, nothing quite unlike what we’ve had before but just of a really good quality. This place was recommended to us as an evening haunt for drinks and tasty food. The fried chicken wings were all right, I daresay nothing special.

We had the Fisherman’s Platter at this forlorn little pub while driving down from Picton, towards Christchurch. I can’t for the life of me remember the area we passed by, but it was touted to be great for freshly caught seafood, clams, mussels and the like. We spotted road-side stores as we drove into town but alas, they were closed. For god reason, too, since New Zealand was spotting some pretty heavy snow and rainy weather in July.
Tomorrow! More food from the rest of bright New Zealand.

good things. Auckland, New Zealand

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For a good long time after returning from New Zealand, I avoided the photographs I’d taken. It was a constant reminder of how much I missed its cities, lush fields, amazing food, and staring cows, sheep and horses. Since returning home, I’ve read two books, cooked new dishes and remade a whole bunch of others, the whole world tuned in to watch the Rugby World Cup kick off, and I was due again in Auckland in just a few weeks. As the day of my returning to Auckland for the rugby qualifying games neared, I thought to revisit these images again, to remind myself of what I might have missed the first time round.

My partner and I drove – first in a Holden, then a Toyota Camry – from the North island to the South. We crossed Auckland, Hamilton, Rotoroa, got lost somewhere between one lush field to another lush field, then on to Christchurch, Wellington and Queenstown. In between New Zealand we flew out to Fiji for a few days, experiencing a completely different culture. Oh, to have had to switch from boots, leggings and coat to trekking in dusty slippers and Bermudas! Made for some tricky packing.

Since there were so many photos from so many different places, and each place as striking to me as the last, I thought I’d start off with our first stop. Auckland is a lovely walking city with a desirable 14 degree chill in July, and pretty soon after a few days we found ourselves traipsing through familiar streets, rounding corners to seek out our favourite eateries and popping into every pub we saw. We drank and ate our way through many a pub and café, and my lack of food photographs seems to validate my lack of self-control in the face of a raging traveller’s curiosity and appetite.

We popped into Devonport and spent a lovely afternoon there, and ate the most delectable corned beef hash with two poached eggs. How glorious it is to just pop by for an afternoon whenever you wished! We strolled to the top of the peak (or little dormant volcanoes), and overlooked the town and waters, including the street where you drove into Auckland.

I can see the allure of tranquil ferry rides breaking across the chilly waters, to pop into The Patriot pub (below top left) for a pint and some blood pudding. If you’re hankering for those hash potatoes, they’re from the café right across from the Patriot. If there’s one thing about food in New Zealand, you’re really spoilt for choice. Not to mention, the portions are so large that we constantly (sometimes to my chagrin) had to share single meals.

just right

Flavour, to the best of my opinion, has always had to be “bursting” or “invigorating” or something similarly bombastic. All the light-hearted dishes I made could fall somewhere along this end of the spectrum. While I always welcome a dish that’s refreshingly light, such as a crunchy, wilted salad no more than raw and touched no more than a drizzle (in the true meaning of the word) I rather fancy my light meals with a heartier cheer. This dish is not particularly preppy, nor does it really pack a punch. What I felt in its taste, what I loved, was how clean on the palate it was, no matter its spices. The dish intoxicates the tastebuds, and you could forgive the spices’ pungency on the tongue with its deep textures and blooming warmth.

Spiced Vegetable & Brown Rice Salad
Serves 2

2 cups of cooked unpolished brown rice (or any type of brown rice you like)
1 large firm tofu / beancurd, cubed
6 button mushrooms, sliced
1 tbsp sherry cooking wine
3 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
1 tbsp cumin
2 tsp garam masala
1 tbsp chilli powder
1 tsp ground coriander
3 leaves fresh basil, julienned
1 tbsp olive oil salt & black pepper

1. In a pan, heat the olive oil. Toss in the tofu and fry till slightly browned, then remove.
2. Toss in the garlic (and more oil if necessary) and fry till fragrant.
3 Toss in the mushrooms and sherry cooking wine. Season well, and remove from the pan.
4. Warm the rice in the pan. Stir in the cumin, garam masala, chilli powder, ground coriander. When close to being done, toss in the mushrooms, tofu, and basil.
5. Serve warm.

**Update: I made this with chopped cilantro instead of fresh basil, another favourite!