In downtown Auckland, McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy’s, Dunkin' Donuts and Subway are lost in the scrum of sushi, noodle, and kebab joints with names like Spicy Food Expert, Spicy Joint, or Fashion Pot Spicy. They don’t always serve what you might expect.
I'm doing this for two reasons. Firstly, it reminds me that I'm about to fly and that’s not good for my nerves. Secondly, given the lack of space between my seat and the one in front, it’s impossible to adopt the brace position she suggests: any panicked attempt to do so could only result in concussion.
Besides which, I know that surviving a crash is unlikely whatever posture I assume - even if it’s on my knees, babbling. The only possible advantage of cracking your head on your seat tray is that you’ll be unconscious during the plummet earthward. But I digress. This isn’t meant to be about fear of flying. It’s meant to be about food ...
It’s nearly nine o'clock when my friend picks me up from Auckland airport so she’s already eaten her dinner of Mongolian curry, mushy peas and French fries. If this strikes you as an odd combo you obviously don’t live in Mt Albert where the local Citizens’ Advice Bureau offers its services in Amharic, Arabic, Bengali, Burmese, Cantonese, Dari, English, Farsi, French, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Kirundi, Kiswahili, Korean, Kurdish, Lao, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Taiwanese, Thai, Urdu, and Vietnamese.
I’m hungry, and my friend fancies a Crème Brulee for dessert so naturally we go to her local Chinese restaurant. Unfortunately, Crème Brulee is off the menu so my friend makes do with a bowl of Grass Jelly with Red Beans and Ice Cream. I choose Pork and Black Bean Sizzling Platter although Cold Mixed Pig Ears and Lucky Chilli Pigs Trotters are also available. We admire the restaurant’s cosmopolitan décor while we await our meals: lampshades in day-glow orange, pink and blue; rows of nested Russian dolls displayed on shelves supported by naked cherubs; a fake antique French clock; an empty fish tank and a mechanical good luck cat waving a battery-powered paw.
The food is definitely better than the decor, but not nearly as adventurous as the cuisine at the Chinese health food restaurant (thankfully closed) which we investigate later in the week. Signs taped to the window recommend Stew Lean Meat with Ginseng and Donkey-hide Gelatin for “nourishing the blood, strengthening the body, relief of menstrual pain” and Stew Ox’s Penis with Du Zhong and Radix Morinda for “kidney and fertilisation function and pain in the loin.”
In downtown Auckland, McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, Dunkin' Donuts and Subway are lost in the scrum of sushi, noodle, and kebab joints with names like Spicy Food Expert, Spicy Joint, or Fashion Pot Spicy. They don’t always serve what you might expect. Would you have guessed that a place called Elephant Ears would specialise in “Hungarian fried bread”?
Giapo’s near Aotea Square does “Haute Ice Cream”. Head Chef Grazioli serves fruity ice creams in chocolate-dipped cones rolled in freeze-dried raspberries but it’s his savoury ice creams which really take the biscuit. Risotto Milanese with Saffron, Onions and Parmesan in a cone anyone?
One evening my daughter and her boyfriend invite me for a drink at a bar in the Grand Hotel, beside the Sky City Casino. The display of vases and flowers at the entrance would not have been out of place at a crematorium, but the bar staff in bib-front denim aprons are charming and not at all gloomy. After our drinks we stroll to the Albert Street Food Hall.
It’s only a few hundred metres from our bar stools but it’s a different world: plastic chairs, cramped tables and a collection of tiny ethnic kitchens. An entire meal costs less than a drink at The Grand. The man clearing away the plates and spoons and chopsticks worked here twenty-odd years ago when my daughter was little and we first discovered the place. His hair has grown wispier over the years but otherwise he looks exactly the same - a melancholic Asian Buster Keaton – as he trudges from table to table.
Another day I wander around Ponsonby where I used to live. The Fairy Shop window is abloom with candy-coloured tutus and iridescent wings. Everything inside the shop is hopelessly sweet and girlie - sparkly makeup, ballet slippers and butterflies. In the Fairy Café a mum drinks a latte while her elfin offspring sips a tiny cup of frothed milk and nibbles on a pink-iced cupcake sprinkled with hundreds and thousands. Women may have come a long way baby, but it seems that little Ponsonby girls have not.
Just an outraged stone’s throw from the Fairy Shop is a place which sells the darlingest fluffy yellow ducklings. They’re very cute except that they’re quite dead and mounted on plinths. The place is full of the taxidermied heads of wildebeest, moose, eland and springbok. There’s also a gigantic bison head, “impressive as a feature just about anywhere!”, and most appallingly, the front half of a stuffed zebra - front legs and all - cantering out of the wall. It’s enough to make even a fan of donkey-hide gelatin feel quite faint.
On my last day in the City of Exotic Foodstuffs my daughter and her boyfriend shout me lunch at the Federal Delicatessen which styles itself as an “old-school NYC Jewish delicatessen” and promises “colourful chatter” and the smells of “garlic, salt, spices & fat”.
The place does indeed smell good and the waiters, sporting waxed moustaches, are certainly friendly. However, the “colourful chatter” only really begins when I ask if donkey-hide gelatin or stewed ox penis is on the menu.