Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Venturing beyond butter chicken

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An afternoon tour around Auckland's so-called Little India uncovers a whole new world of spicy delights.

Clare Doherty and her son Jack,  14, select spices from the Top-n-town spice market during the Sandringham Food and Spice Tour. Photo / Richard Robinson
Clare Doherty and her son Jack, 14, select spices from the Top-n-town spice market during the Sandringham Food and Spice Tour. Photo / Richard Robinson

Who knew you could age rice? It's a silly question, really. The answer is probably about 3.5 billion people or half the world's population. But until a couple of weeks ago, I was in the other half.

I learned about the ageing of rice at Bawarchi, a restaurant in the Auckland suburb of Sandringham. The proprietor, Azeem Mohammed, imports his aged basmati rice directly, so he can be sure of its quality.

My later research establishes that Indians are very fussy about the age of their rice: one year is regarded a minimum storage time and families lucky enough to be able to stockpile the staple food know that the old stuff tastes better.

Saying it is as important as ageing whisky or wine may be stretching a point, but no less an authority than the Journal of Cereal Science asserts that ageing enhances rice by reducing the moisture content and concentrating the aromas. Mohammed's rice seems to prove the point; it's delicious on its own.

Bawarchi is one of the 10 stops on the Sandringham Food and Spice Tour, a monthly event in which participants eat their way around the small block of shops in a part of Auckland that has become affectionately known as Little India.

That's something of a misnomer: a Sri Lankan restaurant and a place that stocks Fijian produce have changed the mix slightly, but there's no doubt that the predominant flavours of the precinct are Indian.

Hitesh Thakkar, the proprietor of Jai Jalaram Khaman, is from Gujarat and his specialty is, as his business' name suggests, the khaman: this is a sort of savoury cake made of chana dal (a kind of lentil) and chickpea flour, flavoured with turmeric, salt and chilli paste.

"Most people when they think about Indian food, all they know is curry and maybe samosa," says Thakkar, who was a criminal barrister in India but bears the first-born son's duty of making a success in a business his family has always run.

"In our restaurant, which is 100 per cent vegetarian, they can learn much more."

I'm in a group of 20 on the two-hour tour, which has been running a couple of years and is consistently oversubscribed.

Lisa Loveday, a local food writer who is one of the organisers, jokes that "we ask participants not to tell their friends".

The afternoon, which consists of somewhat less walking than eating, it has to be said, takes in seven eateries where we get to sample different snacks or snack-sized portions of larger meals, and three markets where we can source some of the more exotic produce that these eateries take for granted.

Here's fresh fenugreek; there's paneer (a sort of hard cottage cheese) cut into blocks whose unevenness bespeaks its home-made origins. In vegetable baskets are sour melons called karela; rocket chillis, somewhat superfluously labelled "hot"; papdi (flat green beans); and kundru (small cucumbers). In the freezers are snake beans and boiled peanuts.

Clare Doherty, a city apartment dweller who has come with her husband Mark Eagles and their children Tara and Jack, is very impressed.

"It's great to walk into a place like this and feel comfortable," she says. "You don't feel like a wally. I've been learning all this stuff about dry-roasting the herbs and spices and blending them all. You don't get that in your $40 mains in the city."

Doherty's a native of Dublin, where - I hope she will forgive me for saying so - the indigenous cuisine is not renowned for its spiciness. But her kids are getting a gastronomic head start here.

- NZ Herald

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