Meyer lemons

Growing up in Auckland we never bought lemons, there always seemed to be one on the tree in the garden – and when ours occasionally wasn’t fruiting, then someone else’s was.

By late winter in Auckland when the city’s suburbs are at their most colourless, trees stripped leafless under overcast skies, it’s the glow of citrus that stands out, laden on front garden fruit trees.

Lemons are forever current in cooking, but they’re also nostalgic. All those hundreds of thousands of lemon trees planted over decades in Kiwi gardens, still fulfilling the same job that they were planted for while home owners come and go, and the world changes around them.

Lemons grow well in our climate with the combination of sunshine, rain and being able to withstand cold snaps. This productiveness has made the lemon a staple New Zealand flavour.

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The lemon that reigns among others for me is the juicy lemon-mandarin cross known as Meyer. This super-fruiter is especially prominent in our kitchen heritage: various grandparents of mine put them into baking (madeira cake), preserves (lemon honey), served with dinghy-caught pan-fried snapper, and even turned into wine (yep). I like how the home garden, especially the fruit and vegetables, feels like a connection to my much-loved, industrious war-generation grandparents – all gardeners.

The Meyer originates from China and is named after the US agricultural explorer, Frank N. Meyer, who found it growing as an ornamental pot-plant near Peking (now Beijing) in 1908. At that stage the US Department of Agriculture sent these explorers to every corner of the earth and would then propagate the seeds of their discovery, sending out millions to farmers across the US to see what took. The Meyer did well in California, Florida and Texas. (It’s a key ingredient of California cuisine too, as popularised by chefs like Alice Waters from Chez Panisse – she has a seminal Meyer lemon cake which can be seen here).

Here in NZ, we have our own intrepid personality to thank for the arrival of Meyers to our country– Hayward Wright – who had orchards in Avondale, Auckland, and introduced fruit never before seen in NZ, including the Meyer lemon, the Satsuma mandarin and the Chinese gooseberry/kiwifruit. (Wright was so instrumental in developing kiwifruit cultivars the most common green kiwifruit is named the ‘Hayward’ after him).

An Auckland Star article from 1929 explains the popularity of Wright’s stand at the Auckland Winter Show – people were keen to save money by growing their own fruit, and found his trees reliable, climatised and prolific. (Auckland Star, 9 July 1929)

A NZ Herald article (14 August 1928) describes the emergence of the Meyer, foretelling the way it went on to punctuate our gardens…

“The Meyer lemon has attracted considerable attention during the past two to three years. The amazing fruiting abilities of one and two-year-old trees of this variety have evoked considerable favourable comment…. It seems as though it is merely a matter of time before the Meyer becomes the popular lemon on the market.” (These old newspapers are all searchable on the National Library’s Papers Past site – what an amazing portal into our heritage!)

While Meyers grow fantastically at home, they tend not to often be found in supermarkets (which may be part of their charm). Meyers actually don’t store that well once picked. The supermarkets need something tougher like the yen ben, which is also New Zealand’s main export lemon – it’s more sour, a duller yellow, and less generous with its juice (but to be fair probably has a stronger lemon flavour than the Meyer).

lemonhoneytoast

I decided to make my grandmother’s lemon honey because this was such a treat on toast for breakfast when I’d go and stay with her. I have some of her cookbooks as she passed away this June, and I came across a recipe for lemon honey in her NZ Truth cookbook. (The cookbook seems to be from around 1944, so note the wartime eggless version using marrow too – gag).  Lemon honey and lemon curd are basically the same thing, most people seem to use lemon curd these days, but I’m sticking with what Nana called it.

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Alphonso mangoes

In London in late spring boxes of Alphonso mangoes begin to stack up around the shop doors in the Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi precincts. Pretty tissue paper and shredded silver tinsel provide a nest for the fragrant treasures in each box, which are air-freighted from the sub-continent to be consumed within days if not hours of picking.

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The excitement over the arrival of these limited-season “king of fruits” is itself an import from India where quality, price and availability become a national obsession from April to June, especially in Mumbai where the Alphonso is the only variety many locals will bother with as a cut fruit.

The golden flesh is soft, creamy and sweet (unlike many of the more fibrous kinds we’re used to).

So it was a surprise to Indian growers and British fans when the EU put a sudden ban on imports of the fruit from May 1 this year, citing pests in some shipments – no threat to human health but potentially a threat to British glasshouse crops.

The debate has reached the highest levels of Anglo-Indian politics with British prime minister David Cameron receiving a box from British Asian Labour MP Keith Vaz days before the ban, and promising the issue was on the agenda for when he met the new Indian prime minister Narendra Modi (see this BBC article here).

The hope is the ban can be lifted in coming months with the EU sending an audit team in September to examine improved pest containment measures (see this Times of India article here). Devotees like Yotam Ottolenghi, who has produced incredible recipes with Alphonso mango like these ones in the Guardian and his incredible mango coconut rice from Plenty, republished here on epicurious, will be looking out for a win-win.

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Ottolenghi’s mango and coconut rice

Mangoes have been grown in India for centuries, cited in Hindi and Buddhist scripts and by European travellers. The Alphonso mango is the result of grafting techniques introduced to India by the Portuguese. There are other similar sweet cultivars in India but its the Alphonso that has captured the collective food psyche in India and abroad.

Here in Auckland, New Zealand, the joy in Alphonso mangoes is alive among the Indian diaspora in Auckland’s Sandringham, a hub of Indian food and culture. Shoppers from the breadths of greater Auckland are happily purchasing several boxes at a time at the bustling Spice Supermarket for $50/box as the season draws to a close.

In fact, it was only in recent years that the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade lifted a ban on Indian fruit and vegetables, allowing New Zealanders to share in international Alphonso mango bounty. Get in before the season ends!

 

 

Marmite

There’s a joke by English comedian Peter Kay that goes like this:

“I’m in a great mood tonight because the other day I entered a competition and I won a year’s supply of Marmite……… one jar.”

As long as Marmite has been around the problem for its marketeers has never been awareness – who doesn’t know Marmite? The problem has been how to sell more of it. Those thin dabs on toast once a day, and the scarcely diminishing jar…. It means that for all the Marmite love, sales in New Zealand are worth, at most, $10 million a year (or less than $2.50 per Kiwi!)

Not surprisingly in post-Marmageddon New Zealand (which was 2 years ago now, when the Christchurch Earthquake-damaged factory meant supply dwindled to a halt), Marmite’s advertisers have focused on diversifying use: imagery of Marmite with avocado slices, Marmite on pizza, in stir fry…. It’s a campaign that’s run extensively over bus shelters and billboards under the slogan ‘Made to Be Messed With.’

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On top of this, New Zealand got the “stuffed crust” Marmite pizza tie-in with Pizza Hut, which gained a lot of international social media attention, such as this on Buzzfeed. (Though who knows how many sales? )

Diversifying has worked for Marmite in the UK – certainly in terms of gaining attention. They have produced numerous brand extensions (potato crisps, rice cakes, crackers…) and then poked fun at *spreading themselves thin* by running billboard ads with fake adverts for Marmite shampoo and fabric conditioner. A (real) Marmite muesli bar was promoted under the slogan ‘Have we gone too far?’ with one ad featuring someone gagging as he tried it. Self-parody for a brand with self-assurance.

New Zealand Marmite is produced by Sanitarium, and British Marmite is now owned by Unilever. The two brands have had no link whatsoever for more than 100 years – but they remain the world’s only two official Marmites.

Marmite is an English product going back to 1902; in 1908 a NZ manufacturer bought the rights to sell it in Australia and NZ. It has remained this way ever since. (English Marmite can be found in NZ under the label ‘Our Mate’ – it isn’t allowed to be labeled ‘Marmite’.)

Marmite was invented by a German chemist in 1902, who realised that the yeast extract that was a byproduct of the brewing industry could be made into a flavoursome concentrate.

The Marmite factory was set up just two miles from the Bass brewery in Burton-on Trent in Staffordshire, and this brewery remains a supplier to British Marmite today. (This Guardian article has a lot more history).

And where does the brewer’s yeast for Kiwi Marmite – which makes up 80% of the finished product – come from then? This Marmageddon-era Otago Daily Times piece reveals Southern brewery Speights is at least one source, with spokesperson Jude Waite saying, “We would love to be giving them our yeast again…. Until the factory opens again, all our yeast is going out with the spare grain. We don’t know the exact details, but we understand it is largely used as animal feed in and around the wider Dunedin area.”

Should you be interested in making your own, the inimitable MsMarmiteLover – who blogs about many other things, but also really loves Marmite – managed to elicit some clues from Marmite’s Quality and Innovation expert in the UK. Here’s her recipe (it takes around 10 days and ends up tasting, “different…”)

 

 

 

 

Bean-to-bar chocolate (new bar on the block)

In 2012 I wrote about the emergence of bean-to-bar chocolate makers in New Zealand – a craft food movement that, similarly to good wine and coffee, is about developing a product that is defined by the origin of its main ingredient.

As an artisan food pursuit, the barriers to entry are steep – from sourcing the cacao beans to building the machinery used in the multiple steps from bean to smooth, glossy chocolate.

So I was surprised when my friend Charlotte from Kerikeri dropped by this summer and her husband, Jamie Andrews, left us two bars of his own-made, beautifully-packaged single origin chocolate.

Capt Pembleton chocolate

Capt Pembleton chocolate

The bars were professional, sleek and glossy, and the chocolate from each (Papua New Guinea) plantation tasted distinctly different: one full of citrus sours and one much more deep and earthy like floral chocolate mud cake. And that really is the point of single origin chocolate.

Here is how Northland’s Capt Pembleton craft chocolate began.

Sourcing the beans

Jamie’s first step in chocolate-making was finding a supplier that would sell a relatively small quantity of cacao beans, and his second was how to get them to New Zealand.

“Normally you have to buy in 5mT (metric tonne) contracts but I only wanted a few hundred kilos. My typical batch uses 5kg, making around 60 bars of chocolate.”

Jamie made a contact through a friend of his sister, who had lived in Papua New Guinea, with Kulili Estates, a plantation on a volcanic island off the mainland. Kulili was willing to sell smaller amounts. The Germans first introduced cocoa to PNG in the late 1800s and this plantation was founded in the early 1900s.

“This supplier warned me at the beginning that I should look into shipping as early as possible – which I didn’t listen to – and that was the most time-consuming part. I ended up contacting a friend who did logistics at my old work. He guided me through the world of shipping acronyms and importing the beans to Auckland.”

Jamie Andrews

Jamie Andrews, chocolate-maker

Flavour profile 

“I knew there would be differences in flavour between beans, but you have no idea what that difference will be until you actually taste them. Seasonal and environmental factors, and the fermenting and drying processes, have a big influence on the final flavour.”

Grinding

Grinding involves releasing the cocoa nibs down to a liquid form: cocoa liquor. Jamie is an industrial designer, so making smaller versions of machinery that large chocolate manufacturers use was the goal, and he pulled in his retired physicist dad, who happily immersed himself in the second-hand goods world of Ebay, tip shops and computer wreckers in the pursuit of motor and fan parts.

Tempering

Jamie calls this the biggest challenge of chocolate-making: growing the correct crystals through tempering.

“It is a science but at times seems more of a dark art. Your chocolate might look nice and shiny, but the only way to really know if it’s tempered is to snap the finished bar, destroying what you’ve just made. You don’t have to throw it away if it’s not tempered, but you do have to start again.”

Branding and packaging

“The thing I like about chocolate is its rich history and the fact it is made from beans from far-flung parts of the world, so I wanted the name to evoke that kind of nostalgia and romanticism, but also be a little bit whimsical. My wife and I had a cat called Pimbleton, and we thought the name variation Pembleton fit the bill pretty well. Then the “Captain” just popped into my head…”

“I wanted the packaging to reflect where the beans are from, so I got lots of images from Papua New Guinea. From that I decided to design a pattern rather than a single image, like a bird of paradise, so that it wasn’t an obvious link but more or a vibe.”

Future plans

So what is next for the brand, which is already stocked at stores in Auckland and Wellington, as well as available online?

“Make more chocolate, with more cocoa from the Pacific region, get into more stores and get the idea of single origin, bean-to-bar out there in NZ.”

Southern barbecue

Down-home Americana has become a firm trend in casual dining out. Southern barbecue, in all its slow-cooked, hickory-shrouded glory, is now commonplace across all sorts of menus from the numerous new Mexican/US-influenced eateries to upmarket pub grub. The king of this Southern feast is pulled pork.

Pulling the pork

Pulling the pork

Pulled pork is pig done well. A 4kg shoulder butt, the preferred meat, takes 7 or 8 hours to cook, with joints at some southern barbecues cooking in pits for up to 24 hours.

Pulled pork is pig with tradition. In the southern US states (like North and South Carolina) barbecue is a huge social occasion often at public events with legendary cook-offs. Rumour has it that guardians of the pit during these marathons start the day with coffee, move on to beer and finish off on the whisky as the meat gently tenderises and slowly falls apart in the gulf of sweet smoke.

Any outdoor barbecue celebration can be called a pig pickin’ – the point is meat is first pulled or shredded while a portion is left on the bone to be picked off with the fingers.

Pulled pork bun with coleslaw

Pulled pork bun with coleslaw

American food writer James Villas provocatively states in his book Pig, “Southern barbecue is probably the most controversial and misunderstood subject on earth.”

Villas offers up a few guiding principles so tourists of Southern cuisine don’t get themselves in too much hot water:

  • Southern barbecue is about using smoke and fire for prolonged cooking times. A “barbecue” of flashing meat or sausages on a hot flame grill this is not (in the US, that’s ‘grilling’).
  • Barbecue always refers to a specific food or event – not the metal contraption. (That’s the grill mentioned above).
  • 99% of the time in the South, barbecue refers to one meat only: pig. It involves slow-cooking in a pit or kettle drum. If you barbecue beef, you’re probably Texan.
  • What distinguishes pork barbecue styles is not so much the cooking times but the sauces and rubs that produce different flavours and wet or dry textures. Generally sauces in the eastern mid-Atlantic states are more spicy, vinegar-based clear emulsions and these gradually become thicker, more tomato and mustard-enriched, and sweeter, the further south and west you go.
  • Coleslaw, baked beans and French fries are almost universal as side dishes, and most states have local additions to this.
Barbecue on the truck

Preparing southern barbecue on the back of a truck for a wedding banquet in the US (photo thanks to Kurt Dyer)

The first pig was first introduced to the US by Spanish explorers in 1539. By the first half of the nineteenth century, as meat quality improved through rearing techniques, today’s barbecue traditions of the South were laid down. A barbecue became the primary feature of events such as church picnics and political rallies, and leading up to the Civil War, it was a major symbol of Southern regional identity.

In the racially segregated South, barbecue was a tradition that straddled black and white food cultures.  Plantation owners would hold a pig pickin’ for slaves, a rare festive occasion, and many of the most popular barbecue shacks were, and continue to be, owned by blacks and frequented by blacks and whites – more on the cultural ties of Southern barbecue is available on this University of Virginia history site.

Villas says of barbecue shacks today: “Barbecue houses are the most socially democratic institutions on the globe, and nothing indicates a great one like the presence of pickup trucks parked out front next to expensive Cadillacs and Mercedes.”

When we made this at home we didn’t venture far from the barbecue for 7 or 8 hours. Not too much hardship as the rich smells deepened, the sun shone and the amber ale ran.  We doused our 4kg piece of pig in Villas’ South Carolina sauce recipe and served it simply with coleslaw and buns.

What about this though?  Featured on a Southern food writer’s blog, the “barbecue sundae” consists of pulled pork, slaw and baked beans layered in a mason jar with dill pickle.

Lobster Thermidor

We recently cooked the richly extravagant Lobster Thermidor for a French dinner (and ate peasantly meals for the rest of the week). Our grocery budget liquefied into succulent mouthfuls of lobster, butter, cream and cognac.

Preparing lobster tails

Preparing lobster tails

After all, the cuisine of France wears many hats, and two of them are decadence and a kind of nourishing, rustic frugality.

Lobster Thermidor tasted divine, but it is not something I’ll be making again in a hurry. It’s a dish that has a retro feel these days: full of expensive ingredients, a rigid methodology, and heavy on the butter and cream.

I can embrace calorific overindulgence every so often, but it’s the elitism of French haute cuisine (high cuisine) I find off-putting, no matter how good the food is.

Dishes like Lobster Thermidor were the pinnacle of fine dining through much of the 20th Century. It was invented at Marie’s restaurant in Paris in 1894 and named in honour of a play about the French Revolution, which had opened at a theatre near the restaurant. The play was so controversial that it was pulled after just three nights – 100 years after the revolution the subject was still that divisive.  ‘Thermidor’ is  the name of a month in the short-lived Revolutionary Calendar, which was designed to replace the calendar of the old regime. Lobster Thermidor, very much not a dish of the people, lived on.

The late 19th/early 20th Century was the era of Georges Auguste Escoffier, the chef who redefined French cuisine to see it become the last word on luxury.  He took many French peasant or cuisine bourgeois (middle class family cooking) dishes and turned these into luxurious haute cuisine. For example, he’d take a Provencal dish of potatoes and artichokes, remove the olive oil and garlic and substitute in butter and truffles.

Just how much Escoffier and French nationals before him contributed to the history of gastronomy is extraordinary. Our kitchen language is laden with French terminology because of all the techniques invented and codified in France. The French stopped using sugar throughout the meal, placed it at the end, and called that le dessert, and redirected the sugar to refining patisserie… In culinary terms, France is the motherland.

And yet, part of this legacy leaves me cold: the ruthless obsession with Michelin stars, a patriarchal kitchen culture and starchy waiters all seem rather joyless.

In the 2009 book ‘Au Revoir to All That: Food Wine and the End of France,’ journalist Michael Steinberger argues this culture has dated badly:

“Those [Michelin] stars now seemed more like emblems of a bygone era of fine dining than symbols of France’s gastronomic élan.”

He argues that for the first time in modern history France has lost its place at the pinnacle of cuisine, that Paris is lagging behind other world cities as gastronomic capitals and that France’s chauvinistic chef culture is an anachronism.

The France of cheerful neighbourhood bistros, serving decent steak frites or slow-cooked stews, with music and local wine, or of simple picnics with excellent bread,  cheese and chacuterie, just seems much more alluring to a lot of us.

My Lobster Thermidor

My homely Lobster Thermidor

Despite following my Julia Child recipe, through some sloppy technique, lots of wine and intense Edith Piaf, I think I managed to turn my Lobster Thermidor from haute cuisine to something much more cuisine bourgeois. Nonetheless, lobster, butter, cream, cognac – it’s definitely worth trying once in your life.

Baguette

With a fresh baguette and a wedge of cheese you can feel like a king for a couple of euros in any town in France. Remarkably consistent across the country (the recipe is standardised), la baguette is the most democratic of foods – as fitting alongside haute cuisine as it is under a smear of jam.

baguette

La baguette

But low-carb diets, time-poor lifestyles and the rise of packaged breakfast cereals have taken their toll on consumption.

It’s hardly at extinction levels – the average French adult is still eating a half-baguette a day. But this compares to a whole one in 1970, and to three baguettes a day in 1900, according to this Daily Telegraph article.

The l’Observatoire du Pain, the French bread promotion group, has launched a huge campaign (7000 billboards) countering the anti-carb arguments with a “slow-burning carbs are good for you” message, and also that a fresh baguette at dinner is a simple way of showing your loved ones you have been thinking about them.

And why shouldn’t the French get emotionally roused about bread?

Bastille Day (this Sunday July 14) commemorates the people’s uprising against the aristocracy and monarchy in France. Bread is central to it. Through most of the 1700s the average worker spent half their wages on bread. A failure in the wheat crops in 1788 and 1789 pushed this up to 88%. Bread was life. [See this Smithsonian Mag piece  on when food changed history.]

The French had been famous for their long thin loaves since at least the time of the French revolution, though the word baguette stems from the early 20th Century, and means baton or wand . The distinctive shape may be due to the seeking of a flavourful crust– the word croustillant refers to the crunch and flavour depth of the crust – and the baguette captures a high crust-to-crumb ratio. More history on the baguette can be found at the Chez Jim site.

Where to buy baguettes in Auckland

Auckland now has a number of fine purveyors of crunchy, chewy, burnished, bubbled baguettes so there’s really no reason to brandish a supermarket stick.

My pick is:

La Voie Française, 875 Dominion Road, Mt Roskill, ph (09) 620 5947. A baguette is $3.

(See  review in The Denizen here).

Xinjiang kebabs

Western diners are scratching the surface of Chinese cuisine, awakening to the incredible diversity of China’s regional cooking.

It’s a development that Aucklanders can run with – we are a city that has grown rapidly to become one-fifth Chinese. From inner-city holes-in-the-wall to the banqueting halls of outskirt suburbs, Auckland is home to a spectrum of Chinese regional cuisine. (Not that this choice is easy to navigate – often when the primary market is local Chinese who know what they want, menus don’t provide any context, or do justice to the distinctiveness of a dish….)

One extreme of the spectrum of Chinese food styles is the cuisine of Chinese Muslims in the north-west province of Xinjiang. It is shrouded in the flavours of central Asia, particularly pungent is that most un-Chinese spice, cumin seed.

Xinjiang kebabs

Xinjiang kebabs

The Turkish-style lamb kebabs that can be found in Xinjiang are flecked in cumin and chilli and served with a flat round bread called nan. These kebabs have become a popular street food throughout China as emigrants from this impoverished desert province have taken the distinctive dish to China’s booming cities.

Legend is that Persian soldiers used to grill meat on their swords, beginning the tradition of skewering meat into kebabs that spread through the Middle East, the Balkans and into Asia over the last few millennia.

The infamous Silk Road, which ran from China to the West until the 15th Century, passed through Xinjiang, and many influences were left behind.

Fuschia Dunlop, a contemporary English food writer, recounts a visit to Xinjiang in her memoir Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper:

“The crowds milled around, talking and shouting in a melodic, guttural tongue that sounded like Turkish. The air was filled with the punchy scent of cumin from sizzling kebabs…. I found it hard to believe that I was still in China. The only reminder was the occasional street or shop sign, with Chinese characters alongside the local, Arabic-based script.”

Dunlop has spent long periods in China, including training as a chef (the first ever foreigner) at the elite Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine.

The Uyghur people of the Xinjiang province are one of China’s official ‘ethnic minorities.’ Dunlop says they have more in common with central Asians of Turk descent than with the Han Chinese though both food cultures are present in Xinjiang’s towns and cities.

“The spice stalls sell the familiar aromatics of Chinese cookery – Sichuan pepper, star anise, Chinese cardamom and fennel – but they also dispense herbs and flavourings redolent of central Asia: saffron, green cardamom, safflower and rose petals. And while they drink tea, constantly, like the Chinese, they show their nomadic heritage in their liking for yoghurt or other dairy foods,” says Dunlop.

Because the Uyghurs are Islamic, their food doesn’t feature pork, which is China’s most popular meat. Lamb is used a lot, unusual in Chinese cuisine.

In recent years China has pushed a flow of investment into these poorer western regions. Dunlop says increasingly the towns are now looking, “like anywhere else in China, with its dull apartment blocks and shopping malls, its karaoke bars and mobile phone stores…” But the ancient bazaars with the Arabic script and smells of cumin, for now, feel, “More like Marrakech than Beijing.”

(You can read more about Xinjiang by Fuschia Dunlop in this article from Gourmet magazine.)

Where to eat Xinjiang kebabs in Auckland

Shaolin Kung Fu Noodle Bar on Dominion Road is certainly pungent with cumin seed. They do a plate of the lamb kebabs (12 for $10).

They also have another Uyghur specialty, hand-pulled noodles – which are irregular-width dense noodle strands also served with lamb, cumin and chilli. And they do a ‘Chinese burger’, a small thick flatbread, stuffed with lamb and similar flavours.

Dining guide Eat Here Now, which is a real asset in navigating Asian cuisine in Auckland, called the burger one of their best finds of 2012.

Shaolin Kung Fu Noodle Bar

636 Dominion Road, Balmoral, ph (09) 623 6298

How to make Xinxiang kebabs

At its most basic, lamb pieces are doused with chilli flakes, cumin seed, salt and pepper, skewered and chargrilled. Fuschia Dunlop says a little of the fat from the lamb’s tail is a delicacy included on the skewer in Xinjiang.

Here is a recipe for the kebabs on The Hungry Australian blog, which has a few more spices thrown in, including Sichuan pepper. The Hungry Australian’s description of how these were a favourite takeaway food when living as an expat in Shanghai brings the story of this travelling street food full circle.

Tacos

You’ve probably noticed tacos are being reinvented for us – from the hard shells stuffed with chilli and cheese of our 1980s family dinners back to something more like the Mexican original – fresher flavours atop a soft-shell tortilla.

Taco with prawn and avocado

Taco with prawn and avocado

This post isn’t just about tacos; it’s also an excuse to talk about food trucks. Because the soft taco trend hasn’t trickled down to us from chefs, it’s one that’s come from the street – and in particular, out of food trucks.

Food trucks – as distinct from your average greasy burger van – have become an icon of urban renewal in the United States.

Clusters of trucks selling affordable but original street food parked up in disused city spaces have brought in people (yes, hipster-type people) in many US inner-cities – a kind of prelude to gentrification. It’s destination dining – food you travel for: interesting, ethnic, artisan – served on the street.

[See this gallery of the 20 best food trucks in the US in Smithsonian mag].

Portland, Oregon was the birthplace of the food truck scene over a decade ago. Now there are more than 450 ‘food carts,’ and local government welcomes the role they have played in revitalising and rebranding the city. [See this food cartology pdf article on the state government site].

And when Campbell’s Soup cites food trucks as an inspiration in their bid to win back young consumers, you know the food truck idea has tipped into mass culture.

Here in Auckland we now have our own mobile taco trucks, The Lucky Taco, which opened in May, and Pacific-Mexican truck MexiKai, which has been doing festivals for the last couple of years. In April Michael van Elzen’s The Food Truck Garage moved to a permanent home in the former industrial space of the City Works Depot. These outlets share the aesthetic of the US movement with retro vans and vibrant, healthy food, and an emphasis on responsible-sourcing.

Parallel to the food truck trend has been the boom in Mexican food – the taco has featured large among US food trucks (the fresh soft-shell one that is).

The hard shell U-shaped variety of taco was an invention by Mexican-American businessmen in the 1940s. It was a way of pre-making tortillas so they would keep, and could be quickly reheated and sold as fast food, according to Jeffrey Pilcher (author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food) in this interview in Smithsonian magazine.

He says the soft-shell taco does not actually go back to time immemorial – but probably as far as the mines of 18th Century Mexico. A taco was a paper wrap of explosives that silver miners put into the ore to extract the mineral – a deft analogy for spicy filling in a soft tortilla. (A tortilla – the corn-based bread does go back to time immemorial…)

As the children of early 20th Century Mexican migrants to the US grew up they still wanted to eat Mexican food but needed to adapt it to American ingredients. So to make tacos they used hamburger mince instead of offal, iceberg lettuce, cheddar cheese and tomatoes (similar to hamburger fillings).

It was this concept that was taken to the mass market in the US by the Taco Bell chain in the 1950s.

“It is hard to pin down experts and restaurateurs as to what happened to Mexican food when it crossed the border. The best explanation is perhaps the most inelegant: it got cheesier, chili-er and meatier,” according to this article in The New York Times.

By all means keep eating the crunchy Tex-Mex tacos, but get into soft-shell too, preferably standing outside in the sunshine, with a dribble of delicious meat juice running down your wrist as you cast your shadow over an old Bedford van.

Where to eat tacos in Auckland

See The Lucky Taco food truck for dates and locations.

Mexican Specialties in Ellerslie is lauded as an exotic suburban hideaway of Mexicana with its Day of the Dead decorations, extensive Mexican provisions and delicious menu (on the 3 days a week it opens for meals).
5/92 Marua Road, Ellerslie ph (09) 580 2497

Montreal bagels

The City Works Depot is Auckland’s newest nook of regeneration, a municipal hangar on Wellesley Street West given over to casually artisan eating and drinking. Chef Al Brown has taken a chunk of the site for a Montreal-style bagel bakery called Best Ugly. The distinctive features of a Montreal bagel – over the more common New York one – include the slightly thinner, rougher form (less plump and uniform), a sweeter dough (boiled in honey water), and most importantly, being cooked in a wood-fired oven – which gives a crunchy almost smoky exterior.

New York style bagels and Montreal-style bagels

New York style bagels (left) and Montreal-style bagels (right)

At Best Ugly the blazing furnace forms a dramatic centrepiece for the high-ceilinged space while sleeve-tattooed arms rolling bagels from a heaving mass of dough behind the counter are the image of urban artisanship.

Montreal bagels are different to New York bagels rather than better – but saying that, fresh from the oven the Best Ugly version are easily the best bagels in Auckland at the moment.

Being hand-rolled and wood-fired the Montreal bagel is more authentic than bagels that are are machine-shaped and baked in stainless steel ovens. It is believed that historic New York laws restricting wood fired ovens meant New York bakers dropped this tradition.

According to Maria Balinska who wrote The Bagel: the Surprising History of a Modest Bread the bagel was first produced by Jewish communities in Poland, possibly based on the German pretzel. Polish Jews brought the bagel to North America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries where they started as a cheap ethnic streetfood that grew to mainstream popularity. There are two historic and rival stores in Montreal started by Polish immigrants selling the classic Montreal bagel that Best Ugly’s is based on.