Wellington's Chinese restaurants

David Burton eats his way round the capital's Chinese eateries

by David Burton | Cuisine issue #154 | Friday, 9 November, 2012
Although Wellington has ceded its pre-eminence in Chinese cuisine to Auckland over the last 20 years, identical forces are at play in both cities.

A new wave of Chinese immigrants has opened mainstream Kiwi palates to the regional cuisines of Beijing, Sichuan and Taiwan, challenging us to look beyond the old-style Cantonese cafes selling Westernised concoctions such as orange beef and deep-fried wontons.

Wellingtonians have been dining in Chinese restaurants for a very long time – at least as far back as the 1920s, when Europeans ate dim sum and fresh noodle soup in the wooden shanties along Haining St, in my opinion the only true Chinatown to have existed in any New Zealand city. On Sundays Chinese and non-Chinese alike queued up for Wong Gam Yiu’s roasted pig.

From the 1950s, as the cottages along Haining St were demolished and Chinatown faded away, the first Cantonese restaurants opened on or near Courtenay Place. Their names – Canton, Hong Kong, Kowloon – said it all.

All are now gone, along with that quaint Sino-Kiwi ritual – the bringing out of a stack of complimentary buttered white sandwich bread. Washed down with tarry, milky tea in chunky cups and saucers, it served as a prelude to the combination chow mein or egg foo young. Often these early restaurateurs had practised other trades in China, or had come from the countryside.

Since the introduction of more even-handed immigration laws in 1987, however, a new wave of more sophisticated professional restaurateurs has arrived from mainland China, Taiwan and especially Hong Kong.

Jason Tai, a dim sum chef for eight years in Hong Kong hotels, arrived in Wellington in 2002 with his wife Judy and set up Grand Century on Tory St, fashioning a lavish banqueting hall out of a former VW service garage. Its 280 seats have been filled to overflowing with the chattering roar of a Hong Kong-style yum cha service every weekend since.

Particularly famous yum cha offerings at Grand Century are roast pork (with deliciously crunchy crackling) and quails lacquered with five-spice. Judy says the big difference 10 years on is that New Zealanders now know much more about Chinese food and are happy to try new things. Recently she was amazed when three middle-aged Kiwi blokes ordered dishes she would normally serve only to her Chinese clientele – steamed chicken, eggplant with garlic sauce and pork with salty fish. She expected them to dislike the dishes, but they ate everything up with great gusto. “I was very happy! I thought they must know everything!”

Like Grand Century, Dragons Chinese Restaurant, a little further down Tory St, also does daily yum cha. However, if you visit Dragons in the evening with the Chinese cognoscenti, you can walk down the wild side of Cantonese cuisine by ordering dishes such as crispy pork belly slivers deep-fried in the residual crust of their marinade – Chinese five spice and fermented “stinky tofu”; crisp king prawns on a bed of deep-fried oolong tea leaves; and chicken in superior stock with mustard greens, with a ginger and spring onion mash.

A superior grade of prawn, along with fresh coriander, goes into translucent wrappers to make the famous har gow served at yum cha at Regal Chinese Restaurant, which offers views over Courtenay Place from its upstairs dining room. The custard tarts are worth trying, too.

For a more sedate yum cha, join the extended Chinese families around their Lazy Susans at Majestic Cuisine, which offers the haven of traditional Chinese surroundings along with a number of spicier offerings, such as chilli prawn dumplings.

Big Thumb, which opened more than 20 years ago, offers unusual dim sum such as beef tendon, spicy tripe and steamed Shanghai pork dumplings. In the evenings though, the menu expands as a Sichuan chef works alongside the Cantonese, serving dishes such as poached wontons with Sichuan sauce (garlic, soy, sesame and chilli) and spicy chilli beef (marinated then served cold with chilli oil, garlic, soy and sesame sauce).

But regardless of whether they have a Sichuanese chef or not, nowadays every second Cantonese menu seems to offer so-called Sichuan dishes. This could be in response to the spicy food served at the ethnic cheapies – Thai, Indian and Malaysian – which began appearing in the late 1990s and which now account for half the restaurants in Wellington.

Closely allied to Sichuan food is the sharp and salty fare of northern China, best exemplified in the capital by The Beijing Restaurant, a fixture in suburban Newtown since 1996. Here, chef-owner Le Zhong Yin applies the experience gained from feeding government ministers and other VIPs in the top hotels of Beijing. It’s a fairly modest space but, unusually for a Chinese restaurant, a large picture window affords a view of the kitchen hard at work.

Plenty of Cantonese restaurants now offer Peking duck, but The Beijing seems the natural place to have it – firstly the meat and crisped skin served with steamed pancakes, then with the bones made into a soup. The same paper-thin pancakes are provided as wraps for The Beijing’s equally famous pork in Beijing sauce – strips of pork wok-fried with the familiar litany (hoisin, oyster sauce, rice wine, soy and sesame oil) and served on a nest of deep-fried shredded potato. Also not to be missed is the so-called “squirrel fish” – a boneless whole fish cross-hatched and deep-fried, then coated with sweet and sour sauce. (Don’t try this at home.)

Offering slightly grander surroundings, Peking House also does a fine Peking duck, while its Beijing Little Juicy Steamed Pork Buns burst with broth in your mouth as you bite into the solid filling. The mu xu pork here is also excellent – julienned pork mixed with sliced scrambled egg and wood ear fungus, redolent of ginger, soy, rice wine and sesame oil.



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