A long time ago I lived in South Africa and India for a year. Now, in both places we had a cook, so I really shouldn’t complain, but I will. In South Africa the only vegetables I can recall with any real consistency were gem squash, backed whole and served with a big lump of butter melting in the middle and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, or lettuce with mayonnaise, lots of mayonnaise! My friend had a severe food allergy and was often served up large plates of steamed veges. I was jealous. Another friend was a vegetarian and was given meat substitute for all his protein needs – ‘I can’t believe it’s not bacon,’ or something.
In India I was hoping for things to improve, and by in large they did. We were often served up delicious curries, fruit abounded, we had curry for breakfast…
For breakfast! Now I’m a big fan of the savoury breakfast. Sweet breakfasts leave me cold. I’d much rather a piece of toast to a bowl of Honey Puffs. Fluffy puri with a potato and cumin mix were great, but idli (steamed fermented black lentils and rice cakes served with sambar and coconut chutney) were quite simply a step too far.
I lived in steamy Madurai, in Tamilnadu (down the bottom near Sri Lanka) where the curries were lighter than the cream based sauces of the north. There’s an emphasis on fresh vegetables (I may never be able to eat another cauliflower) and pulses for protein. I discovered the perfect cure for Dehli Belly (salted crisps and Sprite) and embarked on a lifelong quest for the perfect paper dosa.
I also spent a month in Hyderabad, during Ramadan, and discovered the biryani of my dreams – spicy, but not hot, full of marinated chicken and topped with dahi chutney (yogurt, onions, tomatoes, mint leaves, coriander and salt). I can’t tell you how good it was, or how my heart has sunk every time I’ve had one since.
I also had a prawn curry in Rameswarem that was so hot I nearly expired. It was so full of coconutty/tamarind flavour that I kept eating, long after I could no longer feel my tastebuds. All this intense three meal a day extravaganza of curriness (except in Hyderabad where I had peanut butter on toast for breakfast) was quite hard work, and when I got to Mumbai five months later all I really wanted was a salad sandwich and a good night’s sleep.
All this reminiscing leads me indirectly to my point: I love curry, but it’s hard to find a good one. In Tooting you can get lovely dosa, in Birmingham a Balti, they invented Chricken Tikka Masala in Glasgow, but in NZ I was beginning to wonder if I might have to sample that dubious gift to the culinary world, butter chicken. Honestly, New Zealanders are obsessed with this dish, and I don’t know why. Surely our culinary tastes, buoyed by the influx of international flavours, should be able to manage something a bit more exotic than chicken mixed with cream. Wait, that’s not my point…
My point is, I was looking in the wrong place. Last weekend Dad and I went on the Sandringham Food and Spice Tour in Sandringham (obviously), Auckland. This wildly oversubscribed food tour takes in a part of Sandringham Road between Balmoral and Mt Albert Roads. It would be ambitious to call it a ‘walking tour’ given that it couldn’t have been any longer than 200 metres from go to woah. However, we stepped out of the car onto Kitchener Road and were immediately enveloped against the winter cold by the fragrant spices of the subcontinent. Heading into the Sandringham Community Centre we were greeted with a cup of masala tea and a quick explanation of what was going to happen.
The first stop on the tour was Mumbai Chaat, a lovely bright restaurant on the corner of Sandringham Road and Kitchener Road. This vegetarian restaurant sells variations on Mumbai street food, or chaat. The sev puri, topped with noodles and tamarind was delicious, the dahi puri, filled with yoghurt and bursting in my mouth was outstanding. The poor diners in the restaurant looked a bit startled to be invaded by the group, but carried on with their meal as the owner was asked questions about the temperature of the food (both dishes are served cold). I’ll be going back for the Maharja Thali which looks amazing (and a total bargain).
The next stop was Bawarchi, a Mughali, and Halal Indian Restaurant with a takeaways next door. We trooped upstairs to their newly renovated function room and sat among the sparkly red saris as Nandita Mathur told us all about rice. There’s more to basmati than I thought, but basically the older the basmati the better. This is because the water inside the rice evaporates away leaving the aromatic oils behind. Bawarchi’s speciality is chicken tikka masala, though the chef felt like serving us chicken Manchurian instead. Chicken Manchurian is one of those curious fusions between Chinese and Indian food beloved in hotels around India. I’m pretty sure that soy sauce and black pepper are main components of the dish. After our basmati talk I was pleased to see the dry, long grains of fragrant rice under our meal.
A quick walk across the road to Shubh where we snacked on vegetarian samosa and sheltered from the rain. For $1.50 these huge samosas must be one of the cheapest lunches around. Shuhb also does six different curries each day in addition to their regular menu. It all smelt delicious, though I was starting to slow down after the samosa (we had dinner to go to afterwards).
Piles of naan, paneer and rather unusually, feta, draw you into the Khyber Spice Market, but it is the spices that are the star here. Walls of spice, many of which I didn’t recognise at all, form a backdrop to the other fresh ingredients available.
In Valley Fruit and Vege Market I started to find the group a bit too unwieldy, there were too many people in the store to really listen to what was being said. I was interested to see fresh turmeric on sale. I’ve not seen that in NZ before. The assistant said she makes a chutney with turmeric, garlic and ginger. Yum!
In Top in Town takeaways the Keralan chef was keen to hear of my Southern Indian adventures (He makes Keralan paratha, people)! I was thrilled by the authentic Hyderabadi biryani he had prepared for us. Biryani takes ages to prepare and is absolutely delicious. Top in Town market did a roaring trade in aged basmati as we all tried to pick a decent brand. I liked the one in the bag with the sunflowers on it. I’m not sure if that is a scientific choice. They also sold peanut chikki, my absolute favourite Indian road trip snack. I’d already eaten too much at this point so I didn’t get any. I really should have…
Next up was a trip to Sri Lanka via Om Pillaiyer Traders for the dreaded breakfast idli. Actually they were really nice, not as sour as I remembered. You can buy takeaway idli here, as well as the gently fermenting mixture to make them. A wonderful thing about Southern Indian /Sri Lankan food is the use of curry leaves. They have such an interesting aroma about them and transform a curry in the final minutes when fried quickly in oil.
Finally was a visit to Paradise, where Anita Totha, the coordinator wrapped up the tour with a carrot halwa (Indian sweets are not my thing) and a spectacular Afghani Kebab. The kebab was delicious, cooked in the tandoori and flavoured with cashew and coriander. This restaurant also has a huge kitchen window where you can see the chefs at work at the three tandoors.
Dad and I strolled off trying to pick the best dish. He thinks the samosa, I think the biryani or maybe the kebab. It’s pretty close though, because those Mumbai Chaat were incredible too. I probably wouldn’t have chosen to go to any of the restaurants, though I would go to the produce stores; but after the tour, I will definitely be returning to see just how good the rest of the menus are. If the purpose of the tour is to showcase a part of Sandringham that people may not normally go to, it certainly has done that.
Now for that Maharja Thali…