Lincoln Tan

Lincoln Tan is the New Zealand Herald’s diversity, ethnic affairs and immigration senior reporter.

Asian eateries change NZ by keeping it real

Massey University study shows fare being served up by today's ethnic restaurants is as good as that available in Asia, an achievement that is helping to alter this country's eating habits for good.

Asian supermarkets offer a wide range of ethnic foodstuffs. Photo / Greg bowker
Asian supermarkets offer a wide range of ethnic foodstuffs. Photo / Greg bowker

Ethnic restaurants in Auckland no longer adapt their food for Western tastes and Asian food sold here is of similar quality to what is on offer in Asia, a study shows.

The Massey University report, Migrant Spaces and Places, says migrants have played a key role in shaping New Zealand food but the recent wave of Asian migration has completely transformed the country's food landscape.

"It was British immigrants who transformed the food of colonial Aotearoa. Chinese food, whether consumed in a restaurant, as a takeaway or in the home, gained a foothold in postwar New Zealand, especially in the 1960s," the report says.

"The arrival of the first major wave of non-European migrants from the Pacific did little to alter the food of New Zealand; the same cannot be said for the migration of Asians - the food landscape of New Zealand, and especially its major cities, has been transformed."

In downtown Auckland, some of the more interesting ethnic food discoveries by the Herald included an outlet that sold just chicken and duck heads, feet, liver and parts, a Korean street pancake stall, a French restaurant with escargots (snails) on the menu and a Malaysian cafe serving teh tarik, or "pulled" tea.

The report's author, Professor Paul Spoonley, said that at one Hong Kong-style restaurant the researchers visited in Meadowlands, the menu was in Chinese script and orders were taken in a mix of Mandarin and Cantonese.

"The food and its presentation faithfully reproduced what you might see in a mid-range Hong Kong restaurant."

Professor Spoonley, a sociologist, said that despite Chinese and Indian food retailers having been around since the 1960s, earlier restaurants served food such as chop suey and mild curries to suit Kiwi taste.

"At the Meadowlands restaurant, it was a very different New Zealand to that of even late mid-20th century New Zealand in terms of who populated the restaurant, the language and feel of the place and food."

Professor Spoonley said food courts, Asian supermarkets, the weekend and night markets and food sold at the various Asian festivals had "changed how and what Kiwis ate".

There are now at least half a dozen food halls in the city, with Food Alley in Albert St the oldest and the recently opened Pitt St food court the newest, with international offerings including Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern and Indonesian.

An Asia New Zealand Foundation search of one Chinese directory found 1700 Chinese business addresses - mostly restaurants and food outlets - with a strong presence in Queen St, Dominion Rd, Sandringham Rd, New Lynn, Somerville and Dannemora.

The search found that by 2007, there were about 400 identifiable "Asian" restaurants and food outlets in the city, more than double the number a study done in 1997 found.

Xu Qi, manager of Delicious Duck King, a Chinese outlet in Queen St that serves cooked duck and chicken parts, said she was enjoying good business.

"Duck heads and feet are considered a delicacy, they are very popular as a snack but some people also like to take them with rice," Ms Xu said.

"Most of our customers are international students who are familiar with it, but some Kiwis treat it like a game of dare for their friends to eat it."

Graphic designer Jenna O'Donnell said the availability of Asian beverages, such as Malaysian teh tarik and Taiwanese bubble tea, had changed what she has for an afternoon cuppa.

"I do enjoy a caffe latte, but I quite enjoy even more the range of beverages that we can get now," said the Wellington-born 28-year-old, who was spotted sipping teh tarik at Mamak Malaysian Cafe in Chancery St.

Asian-style bakeries and cake shops in the central city have also moved from serving just pies, sandwiches and sausage rolls to pork floss buns, green onion rolls and boluo bao.

Karen Lee, assistant manager at Courome Cake Boutique in Lorne St, said the range of cakes and pastries was "exactly what you will find in Taiwan".

Taxi-driver Glenn Thornley, 61, said ethnic food outlets had made it cheaper to eat out than "pack your own sandwiches".

He said that 20 years ago, a "decent meal out" cost at least $20 but now a wide selection of lunches could be bought for $5 or less. These included Indian lunch boxes, sushi packs, Asian pancake meals, Turkish kebabs and Chinese dishes on rice and noodles.

However, a new migrant workers' union, Unimeg, is warning that cheap lunches could come at the expense of underpaid and overworked migrants.

"We have a lot of cases where migrant workers are not paid the minimum wage or are working for companies where they are expected to work for a labour of love," said Dennis Maga, the union's co-ordinator.

"We are seeing companies that are simply exploiting migrant workers, so that they are able to sell their food at a low price."

The series

The Immigration Act 1987 radically changed the criteria for migrant entry to New Zealand, resulting in a surge in people coming from non-traditional source countries. This week, the Herald looks at how these migrant communities have changed Auckland.

Monday: Population - the changes and how comfortable are we?
Yesterday: Religion - Christianity vs new religions
Today: Food - from caffe latte to teh tarik
Tomorrow: Sports - tapping migrant talent
Friday: Festivals - changing the way we celebrate.

- NZ Herald

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