There's a revolution going on in modern South East Asian food. Nicky Pellegrino gets a taste for it at the new Auckland restaurant leading the Kiwi charge.
There's no green chicken curry thick with coconut cream. Not a single deep-fried spring roll, curry puff or moneybag. And definitely no decoratively carved lumps of carrot.
Over the past few years south-east Asian food has had a makeover - at least in Australia. Pioneered by the likes of David Thompson of Sailor's Thai, Neil Perry of Spice Temple and Martin Boetz of Longrain, this new Asian-style cuisine is lighter, healthier and bursting with the fresh, intense flavours of chilli, kaffir lime, tamarind, fish sauce galangal and lemongrass.
While it's based on regional Thai and Chinese food, his sort of cuisine has its roots in the cultural melting pots of Sydney and Melbourne, and until very recently you could find very little to match it here in New Zealand. Then long-time Ponsonby restaurateur Mark Wallbank tasted the food that chef Che Barrington, formerly of Longrain, likes to cook. And before long he'd closed down his decade-old Spanish influenced restaurant Rocco and reinvented it as a modern Thai eating emporium called Moochowchow with Barrington in the kitchen. "I think my eating tastes have changed," explains Wallbank. "The older I get the more casual I want my dining experience to be and the more flavour my tastebuds need.
Che came along at the right moment."
Very quickly the pair discovered why no one else had attempted this sort of food in Auckland - sourcing the fresh ingredients turned out to be a mission. Already, after just a few weeks, the menu has had to change to reflect the fact that once the weather got chilly they couldn't buy the betel leaves that are topped with zingy salads and served as appetisers.
"We did try to bring some in from Fiji but MAF turned them to mush," explains Wallbank. "Fortunately, Che is a hunter gatherer. There aren't many chefs that would be happy getting up early on a Sunday morning to go to the Avondale markets."
A regular at the markets, Barrington reckons he's spent five years winning the trust of the Thai vendors who now supply him with much of what he needs to create this style of food - including 8kg of lemongrass a week. He's also co-opted his partner into growing coriander in a hothouse in their back garden and combs Auckland's spice shops for the best star anise, cassia bark, fennel and coriander seeds. Nothing comes out of a jar and so this is labour-intensive food with hours of prep, pounding up fresh pastes and marinating ingredients so the flavours are infused right through them.
"It's exciting food to cook simply because of the flavours," says Barrington. "I find a lot of European food is two dimensional. With this you have the hot, sour, salty and sweet coming through. The challenge is getting the balance right."
Barrington likes to fuse what he describes as "street hawker style" - Thai food with the spicy southern Chinese Szechuan cuisine - giving it a modern twist by using different cuts of meat and local seafood. Like the grilled beef short ribs resting in a rich, fragrant red curry flavoured with green peppercorns, the hot and sour orange curry of clams or Wallbank's own favourite, caramelised pork hock with chilli vinegar.
The menu is small and will change often to keep it seasonal and local - right now they're using choko in the salad, rather than green papaya. But you're never going to find the sort of food that's served in other places on the Ponsonby strip.
"The Thai food here is quite dumbed down," says Barrington, who has done a lot of travelling and eating in Asia. "Many places use a lot of coconut cream and you can choose whether you have a dish hot, medium or mild. Well, in Thailand you have it one way and that's because of the type of chilli used. I don't like dumbing down the flavours because then you ruin the whole dish. This is more the type of food you'd get away from the tourists traps or in people's homes - the clean, fresh Thai flavour."
For Wallbank, the revelation has been that Thai food isn't just about the heat of chilli. "Yes some dishes do have heat in them but what they're really about is spice, which is quite a different thing - it's a wonderful depth and layers of flavours. I'm an ex chef and I think cuisine has changed completely from the way we cooked 20 years ago. Now I like to eat things that are as natural and simple as possible and really taste them.
"The versatility of this type of cuisine is amazing," he adds, "as are the aromas coming from the kitchen when it's being prepared - the meat dripping on the charcoal grill, the spices when they're being ground up.
"And there is something magical about the smell of a kaffir lime leaf. It's almost aphrodisiac, scenting the restaurant."
* Here's a taste of Che Barrington's son-in-law eggs.By Nicky Pellegrino