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Food, cuisines, restaurants of immigrants: Tastes from the motherland

Author
Lincoln Tan,
Publish Date
Sun, 7 Jan 2024, 11:10am
El Humero Colombian Eatery's fritanga platter and short ribs with cassava wedges and salsa criolla. Photo / Dean Purcell
El Humero Colombian Eatery's fritanga platter and short ribs with cassava wedges and salsa criolla. Photo / Dean Purcell

Food, cuisines, restaurants of immigrants: Tastes from the motherland

Author
Lincoln Tan,
Publish Date
Sun, 7 Jan 2024, 11:10am

Sushi, butter chicken, pad thai ... many of these dishes with ethnic origins have been adopted by Kiwis as their own; in fact, a survey conducted after the 2021 Covid-19 lockdown found that Thai takeaways and Indian food were what New Zealanders missed most.

Auckland’s population of 1.7 million is New Zealand’s most ethnically diverse, and thanks to migration and globalisation, it is now easy to find everything from nasi lemak, kimchi and shawarma across the city.

Today, newer migrant communities continue this desire to carve new paths for cuisines and dining experiences from their homelands.

But without peers and their food being relatively unknown, the mission isn’t easy. The Herald visits five of them.

Merilyn Madurai started Okumnandi South African restaurant in Ponsonby to showcase South African cuisine. Photo / Dean PurcellMerilyn Madurai started Okumnandi South African restaurant in Ponsonby to showcase South African cuisine. Photo / Dean Purcell

Okumnandi (South African): 295 Ponsonby Rd, Ponsonby

There may be market stalls and some takeaways, but Auckland had been without a standalone South African eatery.

So Marilyn Madurai, 34, with the backing of her father Sargaren, decided to open Okumnandi, meaning “delicious” in Zulu in April 2021 on Ponsonby Rd.

Even without a hospitality background, Madurai said after living in New Zealand for more than 20 years, she thought she knew Kiwis well enough to know South African food could be a hit.

“Kiwis love to eat out, right? We are big on meat, and don’t we all love a good curry?” Madurai thought.

“But gosh, have I been so wrong, because not many are brave enough to check out something that’s different.”

Since opening her business, Madurai felt she spent more time educating would-be customers about the cuisine than actually marketing the restaurant.

Okumnandi's bunny chow with carrot salad. Photo / Dean PurcellOkumnandi's bunny chow with carrot salad. Photo / Dean Purcell

A signature dish at Okumnandi is bunny chow: lamb curry served in a hollowed-out loaf of bread.

This dish has its origins in Durban where curries were originally served in this manner to Indian migrant workers needing a way to carry their lunch to work.

Although various stories exist about its origins, it is thought the first people who served the dish were members of an Indian caste known as banias, hence the name bunny chow.

Madurai said trying to market bunny chow at Okumnandi had proven to be “somewhat of a nightmare”.

“I assumed people knew what South African food was, but when I opened the restaurant I discovered no they don’t,” Marilyn said.

“On social media, we get comments like ‘eew, how could these people eat rabbit curry’. No rabbits have ever been harmed for bunny chow, it’s lamb curry for goodness sake.”

White bread is traditionally used for bunny chow, but Madurai tried to elevate the dish by using Tuscan bread instead.

But this became an issue with some of her South African customers.

“Some of our fellow South Africans are critical to this adapted modern style and don’t take to the whole fusion thing,” Madurai said.

A selection of signature South African dishes including boerewors sausage with homemade chakalaka pap and Cape Malay fish curry from Okumnandi South African restaurant in Ponsonby. Photo / Dean PurcellA selection of signature South African dishes including boerewors sausage with homemade chakalaka pap and Cape Malay fish curry from Okumnandi South African restaurant in Ponsonby. Photo / Dean Purcell

Madurai said there had been tears in the months after the opening, especially when the Covid-19 lockdowns hit followed by the Auckland floods.

“We haven’t had a period where we’ve had a smooth run for the business,” Madurai said.

“But I am determined to introduce our South African culture and food to New Zealand, so we will persevere and keep on pushing.”

One of her biggest dreams is to turn Okumnandi into a place where people come to have braai, a South African-style barbecue where the food is cooked over high charcoal flames.

“I grew up with family and friends gathering over braai with wonderful food; we would eat, drink and have another pot of curry and bread, and every meal around it felt like a celebration,” she said.

“My dream is for Okumnandi to be a place where people can join us in showcasing our food and South African culture.”

A must-have on the braai is boerewors, a super-sized South African sausage rolled into a spiral.

“South African food is about meat and spices, lots of spices, and bringing people together,” Madurai said.

“It’s really vibrant, and it will be a happy and wonderful day indeed when it catches on in New Zealand.

Gojo Ethiopian Eatery co-owners Fantaye Aga and Fetehalow Zomo. Photo / Dean PurcellGojo Ethiopian Eatery co-owners Fantaye Aga and Fetehalow Zomo. Photo / Dean Purcell

Gojo Ethiopian Eatery: 15 Totara Ave, New Lynn

In New Lynn in West Auckland, Ethiopians Fetehalow Zomo and Fantaye Aga felt a “sense of duty” to open an eatery serving food from their ethnic origins.

This was after Auckland’s only Ethiopian restaurant, Cafe Abyssinia, closed in 2020.

Zomo came to New Zealand aged 12 as a refugee 22 years ago, and Aga, a chef, came in 2012.

They met in church, where they discovered they shared a common dream of opening a restaurant and opened Gojo Ethiopian Eatery last year.

“There was no Ethiopian restaurant at the time, so we felt a sense of duty to fill in that gap both for our people and invoke a sense of where we came from,” Zomo said.

He said eating was a “communal affair” to Ethiopians and was as much about fellowship as comfort.

The restaurant’s name, Gojo, means “hut” in the Ethiopian Amharic language. It is usually made out of straw, mud and water and provides families with shelter from the cold and protects them from wild animals.

Gojo's Ethiopian kitfo (lightly cooked ground beef) served with injera (flatbread). Photo / Dean PurcellGojo's Ethiopian kitfo (lightly cooked ground beef) served with injera (flatbread). Photo / Dean Purcell

Inside Gojo Eatery, you will find bold murals, retro-looking tables, chairs and messob, or woven tables, where sharing platters of food are served.

Injera, a spongy sour porous flatbread, is core to Ethiopian cuisine and served with most dishes on the menu.

Gojo’s menu features staples of Ethiopian cuisine. Zomo says one of its signature dishes is kitfo - beef mince either cooked or tartare, infused with homemade butter and a mix of an Ethiopian spice blend known as mitmita.

To eat, you can break pieces of injera to dig into the dish or for those more comfortable with utensils, take spoonfuls of the beef and place them into a piece of injera.

“Kitfo is served usually as a special-occasion dish back in Ethiopia. I guess we are lucky that in New Zealand we can eat it every day if we wanted,” Zomo said.

“We use the injera to soak up the juices from our meals.”

At the restaurant, people are also encouraged to partake in an Ethiopian dining custom called “gursha”, Zomo said.

This is where relatives and friends feed each other as a sign of love and friendship.

“Using the right hand, use the injera and add the ingredients, then pop it into your dinner partner’s mouth,” he said.

Fetehalow Zomo hopes the Ethiopian coffee ritual will catch on in New Zealand. Photo / Dean PurcellFetehalow Zomo hopes the Ethiopian coffee ritual will catch on in New Zealand. Photo / Dean Purcell

On the menu there is a range of vegan dishes catering to a large number of the local Ethiopian community who are Orthodox Christians and abstain from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays.

These dishes include timatim fifit, a cold salad comprising injera mixed with tomato, green chilli and Ethiopian spices, and the shimbra asa wat, a roasted chickpea patty in spicy sauce.

Zomo said keeping the authenticity was a challenge because vital ingredients were not only expensive but some were impossible to get.

Zomo’s family escaped Ethiopia during the civil war and he was born in a refugee camp in Sudan.

Even though he has never been there, Zomo sill calls Ethiopia his “motherland”.

Aga said she learned to cook the traditional dishes from her mother and had worked in many restaurants back home before her move to Auckland.

Another culinary tradition Zomo hopes will catch on among New Zealanders is the Ethiopian coffee-drinking ritual called jebena buna.

Traditional coffee is roasted and served in a pot called jebena with leaves from tena’adam shrub, an aromatic plant grown in the highlands of Ethiopia served on the side.

“This coffee ritual involves roasting, brewing and slowly drinking many cups of coffee as we share stories about our lives,” Zomo said.

“It is very therapeutic and relaxing, and something that is much needed in these stressful times.”

Sathya Thattla wants to spread the love of South Indian food through his restaurant Idly Sambar in Kingsland. Photo / Dean PurcellSathya Thattla wants to spread the love of South Indian food through his restaurant Idly Sambar in Kingsland. Photo / Dean Purcell

Idly Sambar (south Indian): 2/455 New North Rd, Kingsland

Sathya Thattla, 33, said dosa was the dish he missed most when he moved from his south Indian home city of Andhra Pradesh to Auckland.

Thattla came as a student in 2016 and said while he was surprised at the number of Indian restaurants, he was disappointed most served northern Indian food.

Generally, north Indians use wheat and refined flour and their curries are more cream-based and richer than the south who prefer rice-based dishes like dosas, idlis and appams.

“You find butter chicken and naan everywhere, but if you’ve grown up in south India, it’s not what our stomachs are used to,” Thattla said.

“South Indian food is generally spicier, we use different spices than the north, and I might say can be very addictive.”

Thattla said it had been his dream since he arrived to introduce south Indian food and to make dosa “as popular as naan” in New Zealand.

Made from a fermented batter of ground rice and lentils, dosa is cooked thinly on a griddle until crispy on one side but soft and light on the other.

Usually, dosas are served with sambar and coconut chutneys.

One of the most popular versions is the masala dosa, where the crepe is folded around a filling of curried potatoes, onion, turmeric, mixed spices and curry leaves.

There will soon be up to 49 varieties of dosa on the menu at Idly Sambar restaurant in Kingsland. Photo / Dean PurcellThere will soon be up to 49 varieties of dosa on the menu at Idly Sambar restaurant in Kingsland. Photo / Dean Purcell

In south India, Thattla said dosa is eaten for breakfast, lunch, and any time in between, and can be found in every corner of the city.

Although the origins of dosa are unknown, it is believed to have originated in south India and has been around since the 5th century.

Thattla had worked in the kitchen at Handmade Burgers in Kingsland for about four years when the owners decide to close the business.

“They asked me if I wanted to take over the lease, and I thought this is my opportunity to start my dosa restaurant,” Thattla said.

“Also, I felt something vegetarian and vegan will be very popular in the area.”

After recruiting some south Indian chefs, Thattla opened Idly Sambar in late 2023.

The restaurant is named after idli sambar, a south Indian breakfast meal where soft fluffy steamed cakes known as idli are served with sambar, a vegetable lentil stew.

“We keep our restaurant menu to a pure south Indian one, but this has been a challenge too,” Thattla said.

“We have had a few customers coming in to ask why, if we are an Indian restaurant, that we didn’t have butter chicken.”

The masala dosa is the most popular choice for customers at Idly Sambar. Photo / Dean PurcellThe masala dosa is the most popular choice for customers at Idly Sambar. Photo / Dean Purcell

By late summer, Thattla’s plan is to have 49 different flavours of dosa on Idly Sambar’s menu.

“Dosa to me is something I can eat every day, anytime of the day, and it is something south Indians can never say no to,” he said.

“When butter chicken and samosas were first introduced here, I don’t think anyone could have imagined how popular they would become.

“I think the same thing will happen for dosas too when more Kiwis get a taste of them.”

To get customers initiated to the different dosa flavours, Thattla is offering unlimited dosas for $25 on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

“I think the record we have is one customer ordering nine different dosas,” Thattla said.

“It’s on the unlimited dosa days that we get more people willing to try the more exotic flavours like the nellore karam and our onions and chilli peppers and the chilli cheese dosa.”

Customers are also encouraged to enjoy their south Indian meals at Idly Sambar the traditional way - which is using hands not utensils.

Le Musang owner Crystal Ng holds a durian. Photo / Jason Oxenham.Le Musang owner Crystal Ng holds a durian. Photo / Jason Oxenham.

Le Musang (durian dessert restaurant): 615 Dominion Rd, Mt Eden

Hailed as a “king of fruits” in Southeast Asia, the durian has also been described as the world’s most divisive fruit.

Durian is a large fruit with large spikes, and one you will smell long before you see it.

Food writer Richard Sterling described durian odour as “pig shit, turpentine and onions garnished with a dirty gym sock”.

Author Anthony Burgess described the fruit as “like eating raspberry blancmange in the lavatory”.

Durian is something people either intensely love or hate, but Malaysian restaurateur Crystal Ng is on a mission to turn haters into lovers.

Ng is opening a new dessert restaurant on Dominion Rd called Le Musang that will have a menu dedicated to the fruit.

Ng hails from Perak, a state in the northwest of Peninsular Malaysia, where the durian fruit is available in abundance when in season.

“It always reminds of time with the family as a child because we would buy a whole lot of durian, then eat them on the floor after laying out sheets of old newspaper,” Ng said.

“Sometimes we will even challenge each other about who can eat the most.”

Crystal Ng will open Auckland's first durian dessert store on Dominion Rd in January. Photo / Jason OxenhamCrystal Ng will open Auckland's first durian dessert store on Dominion Rd in January. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Durian is native to Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia and is banned in hotels across the region because of its smell.

Nearly all international airlines also have a ban on the fruit. Air New Zealand carries this prohibition warning: “Durian fruit cannot be carried, either on your person, in carry-on or in checked-in luggage”.

In Auckland, durian has a cult following; some people are prepared to pay up to $59 per kg of the sticky fruit at Asian supermarkets.

Le Musang is named after a Malaysian variety of fruit called Musang King, also known as Mao Shan Wang, which is prized for its combination of sweet and bitter flavours.

So what does the creamy, yellow flesh of durian taste like?

According to host of Bizarre Foods Andrew Zimmern, “it tastes like completely rotten mushy onions”.

The late Anthony Bourdain, a chef and TV host, said after durian “your breath will smell as if you’ve been french kissing your dead grandmother”.

The durian has been described as the world's most divisive fruit. Photo / Jason OxenhamThe durian has been described as the world's most divisive fruit. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Ng however, a professed durian lover, says the fruit tastes “heavenly sweet, creamy and a little bit nutty”.

“We plan to eventually start selling Musang King durians from our stall, but for a start, we don’t want to scare those new to the fruit away.

“So we will start by selling just durian shakes and some durian iced desserts when we open, and slowly add more to the menu.”

Ng hopes migrants from the local South East Asian communities will form the first customer base that will hopefully grow when she gets more converts.

“I know of people who intensely hated durian at first, but slowly grew to love them,” Ng said.

“It is possible to get converts, and that is what we hope will happen when we slowly, slowly introduce stronger-tasting durian items on the menu.”

Le Musang will be New Zealand’s first durian dessert shop, and is set to open in late January.

Garcia Huertas Milton Alejandro owns El Humero, Auckland's only Colombian steak house. Photo / Dean PurcellGarcia Huertas Milton Alejandro owns El Humero, Auckland's only Colombian steak house. Photo / Dean Purcell

El Humero (Colombian): 3/40 Hurstmere Rd, Takapuna

Colombian grill master Garcia Huertas Milton Alejandro says the journey for pioneering migrants wanting to bring cuisines and dining styles from their homeland can be challenging and arduous.

Alejandro owns and operates El Humero in Takapuna, Auckland’s only Colombian barbecue steakhouse, which will soon be entering its 10th year of operation.

El Humero means “big smoke”, named after the smoke that comes with cooking over open wood fire.

Alejandro moved to New Zealand in 2009, and experienced a Kiwi barbecue for the first time after being invited to one.

“When we talk about barbecue in Colombia, it is always a big celebration, so I was excited to see what a Kiwi barbecue party was like,” he said.

“But to tell you the truth, I was shocked and a bit disappointed.

“Everyone was just casually putting sausages and meat pieces they opened from supermarket packs on the grill that was fired by gas. Not charcoal, gas!”

Short ribs with cassava wedges and salsa criolla. Photo / Dean PurcellShort ribs with cassava wedges and salsa criolla. Photo / Dean Purcell

“In Colombia, we have more pride in our barbecue and believe in a more pure form of grilling,” Alejandro said.

“The meat is always marinated and we always cook over wood fire, always.”

Alejandro said attending that barbecue sparked in him the dream to start a Colombian barbecue steakhouse.

“I believe that Kiwis will enjoy their steaks and chops better after they experience what we Colombians call a barbecue,” he said.

When the opportunity arose in 2014, Alejandro, his wife Tatiana Silva, and another Colombian couple, who have since exited the business, started El Humero.

“Colombia is known for our coffee, salsa dancing, but no one talks about it being a country of great food,” Alejandro said.

“So we knew it was going to be a challenge from the start when we opened this restaurant”.

El Humero Colombian Eatery's fritanga platter and short ribs with cassava wedges and salsa criolla. Photo / Dean PurcellEl Humero Colombian Eatery's fritanga platter and short ribs with cassava wedges and salsa criolla. Photo / Dean Purcell

Alejandro said Colombians call their barbecue event an asado, which is also a term used across various South American countries.

“It is somewhat of a big deal and there is a big focus on cooking technique and the social side of the event,” he said.

The cooking begins with the placement of the parrilla, or cast-iron grill, where wood is the only permissable item to stoke the flames.

When the heat is right, larger cuts of meat, like short ribs - these are marinated overnight at El Humero - are placed first, followed by cuts that cook a little quicker.

The cooked meat is also accompanied by chorizo sausages and empanadas.

“We never ever rush our cooking because the longer we take to cook, the more time we have to socialise,” Alejandro said.

“We will drink beer, talk about issues of the day, complain about our spouses, so as a grill master we take our time to cook on purpose.”

Alejandro said because of that, some customers have complained he is taking too long.

“I think the secret to El Humero is that I never see customer feedback as negative, I see them as opportunities to learn and also to share with them my Colombian customs and cultures.

“After explaining, most of them are happy and some are even appreciative.

“Many come back, brought friends and that’s how the restaurant is so busy now.”

Alejandro said it was wonderful that migrant chefs were bringing unique flavours from their homeland and combining their culinary skills with the fresh produce of New Zealand.

“I can speak from experience that what they do will be challenging, not easy. But my advice to them is to be positive and persevere. The reward at the end will be great.”

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