Pop up banquet
Auckland's Dominion Rd has an exciting strip of Asian restaurants but it can be daunting for non-Asians. Where to go? What to eat? What to avoid? With their offering of "Chinatown" tours, cooking adventures, and pop up banquets, Tanah Jane Dowdle and Freddie Sy of Gourmet Joy can help.
This pair of long-time foodies have banded together and, after many eating expeditions, developed strong relationships with the dumpling joints, restaurants, tea houses and bakeries along the strip.
I attend a pop up banquet to welcome in the Year Of The Snake. It's held upstairs in the San Bao, which specialises in spicy Szechuan dishes. Tanah and Freddie have worked closely with the chef on a seven-course menu that also incorporates some fun aspects of Chinese culture.
We start with Shanghai Susie cocktails and incense burning at the altar. On each table there is a beautiful Yusheng Good Fortune salad made up of sliced raw fish, wonton crisps, preserved turnip, peanuts and vegetables.
Once it's dressed with a sprinkling five spice and some sesame sauce the entire table performs the "prosperity toss" with their chopsticks.
The courses that follow blend street-food with regional dishes. Standouts for me are tofu cooked in a rich abalone masterstock and a whole fish drenched in a sauce richly flavoured with spices and filled with black fungi and soy noodles. There are also dumplings, duck pancakes, a chilled chicken dish, sizzling eggplant, pickles, zingy chilli and soybean sauces plus matching wines included.
Freddie and Tanah buzz round the tables explaining the dishes and between courses teach us to tell our fortune using Chinese divination blocks. This is a social event as well as a pleasurable food experience. You could go with a group of friends or attend alone (as I did) and feel completely comfortable.
I've never decorated a cake in my life so was apprehensive at the idea of a class at Delish Cupcakes in Auckland's Forrest Hill but it turns out you can have a ridiculous amount of fun with a piping bag and some butter cream. In the kitchen at the back of their North Shore bakery, Kathryn Stoddart and Colleen Holden hold relaxed two-hour classes for small groups. Their philosophy is "simple is better" so what they teach is easy to achieve at home with basic equipment.
There's no baking involved - it's all about learning piping techniques. With a bowl of butter cream frosting, a wooden spoon, a piping bag and a couple of nozzles I'm taught seven different cupcake looks, from the traditional swirl to the frilly tail and rose petal. My frilly tail is a disaster - not enough pressure on the bag, apparently - but this doesn't matter as all the techniques are practised repeatedly on the back of a wooden spoon before you're unleashed on a cake.
It feels a bit like being back at kindy, swirling and wiggling a piping bag to create different shapes as Colleen keeps an expert eye on progress. A passionate baker, she is full of creative ideas for cakes - on the morning of my visit a hot seller is a caramel rocky road cake stuffed with marshmallow.
Thankfully the classes are less complex -toppings are flavoured with strawberry, raspberry and vanilla, plus fondant decorations and sprinkles. At the end,
I get to take home the four cakes I've decorated. Since Delish Cupcakes uses all fresh ingredients rather than powdered mixes, they taste as good as they look.
Classes are $55 per person and include lots of advice, practical guidance and a tip sheet. Delish takes group or individual bookings. delishcupcakes.co.nz
I thought I knew Auckland pretty well but it turns out there are all sorts of foodie treasures hidden away. Lynn Huhtala's Finding Flavour food walking tours are a fascinating way to make new discoveries.
Lynn leads tours in various areas of the city but I opt for her "World In A Day" Newmarket adventure. This kicks off in deli/cafe Jones the Grocer where we meet Finnish baker Miia Mikkilla and taste some of her specialties including korvapuustit, the classic Finnish cinnamon bun, as well as owner Ana Mon's favourite lemon croissant.
Next, we head up the backstreets to Russian food shop Skazka, where the shelves groan with relishes, pickles, Russian rye bread, sausage and more. Lynn's advice is appreciated and, after a couple of tastings, I make a start on filling the shopping bag she's provided.
Across the road is artisan European bakery Elske where we taste a classic Danish rye bread. Then we're off to a Japanese supermarket and liquor store where the tasting delights include sparkling sake and chilled plum wine. There are bargains to be had here and the bag is already looking pretty full.
Next stop is Middle Eastern store Pomegranate which specialises in date vinegars, rosewater, saffron and spices. Then it's time for a sit-down at Maison Vauron where Jean-Christophe Poizat pours restorative glasses of iced Rinquinquin - an aperitif infused with peach made in Provence. Since this cafe store is also famous for having the country's largest selection of French cheeses there is a hunk of mild creamy blue Roche to accompany it.
With a quick whizz through a couple of fabulous cake stores, a stop at an organics shop for a healthy wheatgrass shot, and a whirlwind tour of Newmarket's Asian trip it's time for the grand finale, yum cha at the Pearl Garden restaurant under the watchful eye of the nonagenarian matriarch of the Kan family who have been serving Chinese food to Aucklanders for 37 years.
I leave with a shopping bag full of new ingredients and flavours to experiment with, plus some great tips from Lynn and the food purveyors I've met.
Finding Flavour Newmarket tours run Tuesday to Saturday by request for a minimum of two people at $75 each plus an extra $20 a head for optional yum cha. Lynne also runs regular tours in Mt Eden Village and occasional tours and events elsewhere. findingflavour.co.nz
Sushi is a go-to lunchtime convenience food for many, but make it yourself and it's fresher and far less expensive. In Sachie's Kitchen, a smart purpose-built Parnell cooking school, Sachie Nomura teaches Vietnamese, Japanese and Thai cuisines, and sushi is an ideal way to start.
Classes are relaxed and fun. We're greeted with a cup of green tea then Sachie demonstrates miso soup, tamago (sweet egg roll) and four different styles of sushi before we're paired off and let loose to try it for ourselves. Easiest are the cone-shaped hand rolls since they are made without the need for a bamboo mat. But once things get more complicated, Sachie helps us with our rolling and squeezing techniques and in no time we are producing surprisingly great-looking sushi. It's the small tips Sachie shares that make all the difference, including the best soy sauce to use (she favours Yamasa), alternatives to seaweed for rolled sushi and the only brown rice that's suitable to use (it's called Gen-Ji-Mai). It's wise to take a decent container as you can take home enough food to feed the family if you want to.
Classes are $89 per person or you can do the full Black Belt Asian cooking course for $534. sachieskitchen.com. Look out for Sachie's new cooking show coming soon to Prime.
How complicated can making a cup of coffee be? Extremely, as it turns out. An Altura Coffee Appreciation Workshop leaves me with a new respect for top baristas. Perfect for anyone with a smart espresso machine, the workshops are held at the Altura Roastery in Albany and aim to give an understanding of coffee and show how to get maximum flavour.
Essential barista skills are taught at a large cafe-style machine. There is a lot to take in, from the correct way to grind beans to basket-filling skills and how to get the perfect crema on top. That's before we even start thinking about frothing milk. Barista Micah demonstrates the correct heating, "milk surfing" and pouring technique and shows how to make froth hearts and ferns. They take coffee seriously and Micah proves how the smallest misstep can result in a bad cup - you can even smell the difference. Anyone dreaming of opening a café or planning to become a barista would benefit from this workshop. I've found myself paying more attention to the way my takeaway latte is made. . . so far I've managed not to jump in and put the barista straight. Workshops are $95 per person. alturacoffee.co.nz
MORE CULINARY QUESTS
Pop up restaurants
• Gourmet-a-go-go pop up events are held by Living columnist Grant Allen. He has specialised in taking over non-food venues such as shops and historic houses but now has his own warehouse. Email email@example.com to get on his mailing list.
• The chefs from Pop Dining take over various Auckland restaurants for one-off events. They specialise in nose-to-tail eating and modern Asian food served at large communal tables.
• Egg & Spoon hold a mix of quirky and formal pop ups in a variety of venues, including a popular cookbook club in Grey Lynn's Monterey Coffee Lounge.
• Love Indian food? Head for Sandringham to taste it and find ingredients. The community centre runs monthly Saturday tours. See Facebook.com for the next available booking.
• Farro Fresh stores hold monthly free cooking demonstrations with Ray McVinnie.
• Gourmet food supplier Sabato in Mt Eden holds events where you can meet artisan food producers, see simple dishes demonstrated and taste the results.
• The Neat Meat Company also hosts occasional events with chefs at its new Ponsonby Central store.
• The Auckland Seafood School at the fish market does excellent fish cookery classes and is also running a behind-the-scenes tour at the market.
• Grey Lynn bookshop Cook The Books holds regular culinary workshops. The most popular include South Asian street food, seasonal vegetarian and cheesemaking.
• Craft cheesemaker Katherine Mowbray holds workshops in Auckland and nationwide teaching everything from mozzarella to feta and marscarpone.
• The Little Bird Unbakery in Kingsland holds raw food cooking classes.
• Main Course specialises in classes teaching everything from basics skills to chocolate and patisserie.
• Ponsonby cookware shop Milly's Kitchen runs classes in sugarcraft and baking.
• Tami Vazey runs Middle Eastern cooking classes at her Moroccan-style home in the Waitakare Ranges.