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.

Jerk chicken

In London the Notting Hill Carnival is an annual end-of-summer festival of Caribbean culture giving Londoners a reason to dance, drink a little rum and eat jerk in this gentrified suburb (bomb-ridden and rundown after WWII, many Caribbean immigrants found accommodation here when they were unwelcome elsewhere; a 2-bed pad now sells for around £1 million).

For the best view

Best seats

At carnival, floats saunter along the parade carrying the beautiful, the flouro and the feathered; visitors strut to makeshift sound systems, while more spectators angle for views from the window sills of Regency townhouses. And floating among it all is the veil of blue-hued smoke from jerk chicken cooking on steel drums.

In the United States jerk barbecue has become a flavour of summer too: see this article on jerk in the New York Times.

Plate of Jamaican food

A plate of jerk chicken and jerk fish with rice and peas, plantain, mango and pineapple salsa, coleslaw and a dumpling

Jerk chicken is a product of beautiful Jamaica’s tormented history. The Spanish introduced slavery when they started bringing captured Africans to work on plantations in the 1500s. This appalling system was then continued by the British after they ruled Jamaica from 1655.

When slaves occasionally managed to escape the plantations they headed for the Blue Mountains to avoid recapture. Known as maroons and living an elusive existence, they are widely credited with developing jerk. (Earlier inhabitants of the island, the Taino, largely wiped out by European diseases, also had smoking techniques for preserving meat).

Wild hogs lived in the forests and these were hunted, seasoned and barbecued by maroons. They used the ingredients available in the island’s interior to develop the combination of pepper heat, spice, sweetness and smoke that sets jerk apart.

jerk on weber

Jerk chicken on the barbecue

The heat in the sauce comes from the Scotch bonnet, a chilli pepper found in the West Indies with a rating of up to 350,000 units on the Scoville heat scale (compared to 8000 for a jalapeno). It’s also meant to have a sweet fruitiness (although through that burn factor, who’s picking this out?)

The other essential seasoning is allspice, so-named because of the cinnamon, clove and nutmeg flavours the little berries bundle. Most of the world’s allspice (from the pimento tree) comes from Jamaica.

Thyme and a range of other seasonings at the disposal of the cook make up a jerk sauce, which is then used to marinate and baste the meat.

Meat was historically cooked over a lattice of pimento wood, imbuing the spicy notes through the smoke (see this article on fieryfoods.com with visiting writers’ observations of jerk barbecues through the centuries).

How to make jerk chicken

We had a Jamaican barbecue to celebrate our national day, Waitangi Day (February 6). On this cloudless high summer holiday the distance between New Zealand and the Caribbean didn’t feel so far…

The jerk chicken we made, like everything else at our Jamaican barbecue, came from the authoritative  www.cooklikeajamaican.com. It’s a mother-and-daughter site that includes how-to videos and lots of tips.

We found it very difficult to source Scotch Bonnets, trying a couple of local chilli suppliers direct. Some are growing them but said they weren’t ready in early February. Habanero was the recommended substitute, but again we had trouble sourcing these. We just went with birds eye chilli as they are fairly hot.

Where to eat jerk chicken in Auckland

Atico Cucina is a Caribbean restaurant in Victoria Park Market that serves jerk chicken with a range of Jamaican sides ($29 on the mains menu). They opened in late 2011 and have good reviews from then.

19 Drake Street 
(Victoria Park Quarter), Freemans Bay, Auckland

Phone 09 354 4030

Bircher muesli

Bircher Muesli is generally known as a Swiss breakfast dish made up of oats that have been soaked overnight in milk or fruit juice and combined with fruit and nuts.

bircher1-1024x681

Bircher muesli – mostly apple – with blueberries and almonds

The man it’s named after, Dr. Maximilian Bircher-Benner, ran a sanatorium – a health retreat – overlooking Lake Zurich in the Swiss mountains. In 1904 Bircher-Benner designed ‘muesli’ as part of a highly ordered regime of diet and exercise for residents. It was served as a raw food starter for each meal.

In Swiss-German ‘mues’ means ‘mash’ while ‘li’ means  ‘little’; the concoction was simply ‘little mash’. ‘ It is the only Swiss-German word that has made it into every major language.

So in fact, Bircher-Benner didn’t just invent Bircher Muesli, but the dish became the starting-point for all muesli, one of the world’s most popular breakfast foods.

Muesli brands have long borrowed the heritage of Alpine air and rosy-cheeked Swissfolk in their imagery, however what we know as muesli was not quite what Bircher-Benner had in mind.

He was a medical doctor who became one of the world’s first advocates of eating mainly raw food, particularly fruit and vegetables. He’d suffered from jaundice and attributed his recovery to a diet of raw apples. This was quite a contrast to the dominant health assumptions of the time, which emphasised high-protein and particularly high-meat diets.

According to scholar Dr. Eberhand Wolff at the University of Zurich, the most important ingredient in Bircher-Benner’s muesli was the raw grated apple. A serving consisted of one large grated apple and just one tablespoon of oats.

As Wolff says in this article in the Karger Gazette, “Among his arguments, one was prominent: raw food contained a high level of energy taken from solar light.” Once food was cooked its solar energy was diluted, Bircher-Benner believed.

This particular argument for raw food may not have passed the scientific critique of the 20th Century, but the idea of consuming more fresh fruit and vegetables, along with other holistic principles such as taking fresh, unpolluted air and regular exercise, are in line with fundamentals of healthy living today. (And raw foodism is still around as a dietary approach).

Over in the United States, John Harvey Kellogg’s sanatorium had been advocating similar philosophies (except for raw food – Kellogg and his businessman brother invented the pre-cooked, packaged cornflake). Both the Bircher-Benner and Kellogg retreats focused on instilling strict regimes and getting patients to become very self-disciplined.

Both were motivated primarily by an evangelical desire to improve human health; commercial success was secondary. And yet their legacies include two of the most enduring, lucrative food products of the last 100 years: cornflakes and muesli.

How to make Bircher Muesli

The original Bircher Muesli recipe can be found here on food.com.

Many contemporary cookery writers have embraced Bircher muesli.

Where to eat Bircher Muesli in Auckland

It has to be much-buzz-about Little Bird Organics cafe in Kingsland.

385 New North Rd, Kingsland. Ph 09 550 7377

Everything they offer is vegan, not cooked above 46 degrees (Bircher-Benner would approve) and the food, presentation and branding is quite exceptional. There is a cafe and (un)bakery on-site.

Chinese food, Indian-style

Just before I visited India in 2007 I came across this article in the Guardian – what do people in India eat when they want a change from their indigenous cuisine? The answer was Chinese, sometimes known as ‘Chindian’ – the most popular ‘ethnic’ food in India, and with a particularly Indian take.

Chilli paneer

Chilli paneer – the classic Indian cheese in a Chinese-style sauce with chilli

Obsessed by how food moves across cultures, I asked my colleague in Mumbai if we could go out for some Chindian. The clumsy abbreviation didn’t exactly roll off my tongue, and she had no idea what this Chinese-Indian fusion food was. To her there was just Chinese. And she was very happy to take us to a glitzy mall with a popular Chinese restaurant called China Garden. This restaurant was instrumental in popularising Chinese food in India in recent decades, and according to this CNN article, its entrepreneurial founder Nelson Wang invented some dishes that are now seen as staple to Chinese cuisine in India – although they’d be unknown in China. Chicken and vegetable Manchurian for example which involves pakora-like fritters doused in a fiery sauce of onion, chilli, garlic, vinegar and soy.

The popularity of Chinese restaurants in India goes back to the emergence of a Chinatown in Kolkata in the early 20th Century. Chinese workers, mainly from Hakka province, had settled there a century ago to work in the tanneries, and there were further waves of emigration following the border disputes of the 1962 Indo-Chinese War.  Chinese immigrants, without local language skills, opened eateries and food stalls, initially catering to other Chinese and later to the Indian population. But the food needed customisation: locals loved the flat broad noodles and vegetables but found the flavourings bland, so cooks made these spicier and zestier with flavours like chilli and cumin, and these became known throughout India as Hakka noodles.

This fiery chilli heat, along with Chinese style sauces combining soy and vinegars with Indian masalas, are common threads of Chinese-Indian food.

But this is street food foremost, so there are no hard rules; it’s about adapting to what’s available and what customers want.

thai noodles from Bombay Chinese

Thai-style noodles

In Auckland we have Bombay Chinese in Three Kings where we can sample Chinese-Indian street food. Owner Darryl Fernandes opened the small takeaway outlet in 2004, shortly after emigrating from Mumbai where he and his wife ran a catering business. Initially known as DA Bombay BBQ, the Auckland shop started by selling more familiar Indian fare. But after including a Chinese-Indian fusion dish called chicken lollipops in a catering job, word soon got out among the Indian community that this was the place to go when craving street-style Chinese. Customers dubbed it Bombay Chinese, and the shop’s name was changed accordingly.

Fernandes says, “Roadside eateries selling fusion Chinese are very common in Bombay [Mumbai] where you can find a food cart selling Chinese food at every nook and corner. It’s wok to plate in less than 30 seconds. We were avid fans.”

He says Chinese-Indian street food was developed by people who needed to make a living in a new country, and that meant adapting to local tastes. “As the food travelled across India each state adapted the fusion Chinese food to their own local liking. Today the food is still evolving.”

Fernandes has continued this tradition in his own shop. For example he uses wheat noodles in his excellent Thai noodle dish rather than rice ones as Indian customers found the rice noodles too slimy.

“You cook a meal with ingredients you love to eat and incorporate flavors you love….and you have a winning recipe.”

Bombay Chinese is currently participating in the Taste of Puketapapa Festival – November 15-22, 2012.

Where to eat Chinese, Indian-style in Auckland

Bombay Chinese, 2 Dornwell Street, Three Kings, Auckland. Ph 09 624 3786