In a new column, Amanda Saxton chronicles the culinary landscape of small traditional restaurants, where characters, culture and community are front and centre. For her first instalment, to mark Canvas' special Labour Weekend edition, Saxton
visits Gunusu, Wellington's Tibetan-Yemeni hole-in-the-wall where coffee is yellow, carrots are black, and the aim is no less than world peace.
You never know quite where a meal at Gunusu will take you.
Go for Tibetan noodles, enjoy a Yemeni-style rack-of-lamb instead, go back for more black carrot juice. You probably didn't order the juice (it's not on the menu), but Gunusu's chef and owner Yanbu Vang is wild about these carrots and will insist you try "just a little". Both Vang and the juice are compelling.
"They're grown in Ōhakune!" the 33-year-old enthuses, brandishing what looks like a severed rhino's tail. Un-juiced, black carrots are long, whiskery, and a deep dusty purple. Gunusu sells regular carrot juice too, also coconut, tangelo, and whatever takes Vang's fancy at the farmers' market. All gloriously fresh and in glass bottles you're encouraged to bring back for a discounted refill. Or try "sweet Tibetan wolfberry tea", the prettiest drink in Wellington.
Only Vang could create a restaurant as enigmatic as Gunusu, the name an embellished acronym he invented meaning "Good Noodle Soup". An ethnic Tibetan, Vang belongs to the famously Buddhist region's Muslim minority. He was a clarinet prodigy growing up in a town perched higher than the peak of Mt Ruapehu, whose first job was at a Chinese magazine called UFO Research. Then he got a master's degree in petroleum engineering and spent four years working in Dubai's Burj Khalifa. Abandoning a lucrative career to chase "a bigger dream, to make the world more peaceful," he was accepted into Victoria University's postgraduate Strategic Studies course. Vang wants to be a diplomat, but is immersing himself in New Zealand society first. To "improve my cultural competency," he says. Last year that meant working as a bus driver. In April 2021, he opened this restaurant. Somewhere along the line he fell in love with Yemeni cuisine and taught himself to cook.
Don't spend too long with Gunusu's menu. It's more abstract than most. Simply order 'Teyoshido', the description of which reads: "Tell your chef what you don't eat then eat and drink whatever he gives you." Whatever Vang gives you will look exquisite and taste like nothing you've ever tried (unless you frequent Tibet or Yemen).
Hopefully a lamb will be involved. Tibetan-style (showva) or Yemeni-stye (haneeth), both are melt-in-the-mouth meaty celebrations of regional flavours. Showva is slow-cooked with lashings of ginger and tongue-numbing Sichuan pepper, two of few plants enjoying Tibet's lofty altitude. Its description is a disclaimer: "Not as nice, because too much oxygen over here [in New Zealand]". Asked to explain, Vang says hopes diners will consider how geography, culture, and circumstance not only influence food's taste, but the way humans perceive things in general.
The haneeth is lamb ribs coated with turmeric, coriander, cardamom, and cumin, pressure cooked then grilled. Like showva's, its description is cryptic: "let's think about Yemen more often. Love."
Two noodle soups are readily obtainable. Neomen is kūmara noodles and root veggies submerged in starchy broth, garnished with sesame seeds and a slick of tahini. Gunusu is a golden concoction with subtle heat, ft. coconut milk, prawns, seaweed and crunchy noodles. My last bowl was jazzed up by a bouquet of crab legs, but yours may not be.
Vang admits he is "very spontaneous" in the kitchen. On a recent visit, he skipped over to my table with what appeared to be a fat french fry between tongs. "Would you like to try?" he asked. I did. Its chalky skin and custard-like interior implied ... taro? "Yes! Oven-baked," Vang confirmed. Then he proffered a ramekin of honey, as though it was tomato sauce. I dipped the chip, took a bite, and was in heaven.
How did he come up with this idea? "I heard that Kiwis like kumara more than potato, and taro more than kūmara," Vang explained, rightly or wrongly. "And in a Middle Eastern breakfast, you dip anything in honey."
Speaking of breakfast – or after-dinner digestives – Arabic coffee at Gunusu is ... yellow! A Saudi Arabian brew of green coffee beans, cardamom, and saffron, served with crushed dates on a silver spoon and a shot glass of condensed milk. They serve Turkish coffee too, strong, dark, and silty.
Gunusu could be described as web woven to ensnare Wellingtonians. But Vang is a friendly spider. He feeds, intrigues, and learns from his prey. He also educates, shining light on some of Earth's most beleaguered places in the name of world peace. Yemen, due to stories Vang's Yemeni friends in Dubai tell him about their beloved war-ravaged country. His own homeland, China's Tibetan Autonomous Region, with its own fraught identity. And its neighbour, Afghanistan. If you're lucky enough to hear Vang play his clarinet in the restaurant, and he asks you to guess where the ethereal melodies come from, try "Afghanistan". You may be rewarded with free black carrot juice.
Expect to spend: Prices here are very accommodating. The "petite" noodle soup - $10.50 for neomen, $14 for gunusu - was big enough for me, but you can pay up to $27 for a "premium" version. Lamb dishes range between $14 and $27, and a glass of fresh juice is $4.50 ($12.50 for an XL bottle). Teyoshido (Vang's improvised meal) costs $5 for the "not too hungry" and $50 if you're feeling "generous and happy". A pot of yellow Arabic coffee is $6.50.
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Address: 161a Willis St, Te Aro, Wellington.