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A taxonomy of burgers
On how we define the burger, fortified bread and a “tomato girl summer”-esque snack.
Nau mai, haere mai. Welcome to The Boil Up, The Spinoff’s weekly food newsletter. Written by me, Charlotte Muru-Lanning. It’s lovely to have you here!
It’s just past midday on Sunday at Te Whanganui-a-Tara Italian restaurant 1154 Pastaria. I’m not here for their signature pasta though, I’m here with burger-eating extraordinaire Tim Yamat, perhaps better known as Titty Eats, for their Burger Wellington festival entry, Animale: mustard flamed beef patty, double American cheese, California-style grilled onions, pickles, tomato, lettuce and secret sauce in an exquisitely soft steamed Clareville Bakery milk bun.
When presented with his burger, Yamat lays a white paper napkin down on the table as extra protection for potential droppage. I discern a slight nervousness from the service staff as they place the burger in front of him – over the past seven years, Yamat has become somewhat of a local celebrity for his dedication to the local burger scene and his brutally honest yet thoughtful reviews on Instagram. He hoists the burger to his mouth and takes a bite before chewing solemnly and contemplatively. “Pretty good,” he says. “Probably a 7.5.”
It’s the 13th Burger Wellington entry Yamat has eaten since the festival began on Friday – and he ate 10 on the first day. To put that in perspective, this was my seventh over the same three days and I had well and truly reached my burger limit. Across the two weeks of the festival, Yamat will eat three or four entries each day (sometimes five if it’s a good day). He finishes the whole thing too – no wastage. “For two weeks it will just be burgers and long blacks,” says Yamat. What does he do about the cries for fruits, vegetables, vitamins and minerals from his body? “You just have to forget about it.”
Not all of the more than 200 burger entries from eateries across the capital in this year’s Burger Wellington festival are as orthodox as this one. This year's theme is “Breaking the Mould”, which has seen the festival challenge the definition of the burger.
Cosy central cocktail bar Elixir has taken this definition right to the fringes with the The Phial of Eären-Dill: A pickle back (meaning a shot of liquor chased by a shot of pickle brine) which uses “fat washing” to imbue the taste of wagyu beef and sous-vide gruyere, pickled shallots and rested brioche into bourbon. It’s served with a sidecar of decarbonated Garage Project Pickle Beer, along with an American mustard-infused spray.
It’s caused quite a stir, says Visa Wellington on a Plate programme manager Beth Brash. “This entry caused a lot of debate in the office,” she says. But with the radical theme they’d decided upon, the team could hardly reject it.
At Cuba Street favourite Loretta, they’ve transformed the burger into a pizza: a woodfired sourdough base topped with a blend of short rib, rump and brisket, topped with smoked cheddar and mozzarella, onions, pickles and special burger sauce made with Capital Eggs. Named the Flatty Patty, it’s truly delicious – even for breakfast and especially with a bloody mary alongside.
Then there’s the Gamer Fuel at Respawn Esports Centre: Dorito-dunked crispy chicken thigh, a sunny-side-up egg, cucumber, lettuce, kecap manis sambal sauce and Mountain Dew mayonnaise flanked between ramen noodle buns, with straight-cut chicken salt fries and mi goreng sauce. It’s still a recognisable burger in form in some ways, but perhaps less so in ingredients. Respawn owner Jackson Bradley says the concept came from a question the team posed to themselves: “what is a gamer?”. They then translated that into burger form. Ingredients like instant ramen, Doritos and Mountain Dew are all parts of a kind of memefied culinary culture among gamers. This was my first time in an esports centre and for the full experience, I ate it while playing a cooking game recommended to me by Bradley called Overcooked (my high score was 1384 for anyone curious) – a phenomenally fun time.
Other entries have maintained the structural integrity of the conventional burger, but with more experimental ingredients. There’s the Reuben-esque at Field and Green which plays on a New York Jewish deli sandwich with a beef patty, pastrami, Kāpiti Te Horo Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and thousand island dressing on a challah bun, with potato latke on the side in place of fries (if you have room, finish with a scoop of their earl grey ice cream). At QT Hotel’s adjoining restaurant Hot Sauce, the Feelin’ Crabby burger takes a fantastically luxurious turn with whole deep-fried soft shell crab, Over the Moon Volcano cheese, tiger's milk mayo, house-made hot sauce and kimchi and places it all between a Shelly Bay Bakery black sesame bun, served with sweet pickled fries.
“You have two teams: either you want to try the classics or you want to try the really crazy, out-there burgers,” Brash says of fans of the two-week-long festival, which has been running since 2010. “Each camp is really offended by the other,” she adds.
Yamat adheres to the traditional definition of “beef patty, two buns and cheese” when it comes to a burger, but he’s also known for bridging the diplomatic divide between the two camps of Burger Wellington fans. “I accept both kinds,” he says. “It would be boring if all the burgers were traditional”. Those more unconventional entries “make people think about it”, Yamat says. Still, it’s only classic-style burgers that have ever received one of Yamat’s 10/10 scores.
By the time Yamat finishes his burger at 1154 Pastaria, I’m only about three bites in and despite it being delicious, I have to tap out and ask for a takeaway box. We say thanks to the staff, head out the front door and I walk slowly down Cuba Street – ready for a nap. Yamat, on the other hand, heads straight across the road to Scopa for another burger.
Thanks to Wellington Culinary Events Trust, who hosted me for the weekend.
Burger Wellington runs until August 27.
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Labour’s plan to remove GST from fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables, which was announced over the weekend, has been roundly criticised by experts – but according to polling, the policy has found popularity among voters. I’m quite fascinated by how the party is going about defining “fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables” in a technical sense. The determining factor for which products are covered, or not covered, is whether there has been any “processing”. The meaning of “processed” is in itself not cut and dry in its definition – so how this is applied in the supermarket could get a little confusing. At this point, it sounds like fresh corn cobs would be GST free, as would frozen corn – but not corn in a can. Most frozen vegetables would have GST removed – except for frozen chips. Fresh cut pineapple would be GST free – but not pineapple juice. How about Ready to Eat Pure’n’Ezy Baby-Beets? Indeterminate.
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The weekly snack
Jeollanamdo freeze dried tomato chips, $4.69 from WellMart in Wellington: “Have you tried these before?” the worker at the till said to me as he picked this bag up to scan the barcode. I hadn’t, and his quiet, “oh, OK” left me slightly uneasy. He had tried them, and they were not something he’d return to – but he wasn’t a tomato lover, he added. “If you like tomatoes, maybe you’ll like them.” No going back now though, the packet was already buried beneath myriad other snacks in my shopping bag. Luckily, I do like tomatoes, but to a point where I’m quite picky about them – avoiding them all year other than those months when they’re at their perfectly tangy, perfectly sweet, perfectly scarlet prime, and a tad more affordable. So how do these stack up? At first blush I was slightly taken aback by their shape: cut into halves rather than slices, which I for some reason assumed they would be, they made for a fun if not slightly awkward bite. I clearly associate the texture of freeze-dried kai with apples and raspberries, so that sudden shift away was a slight mind bend. These aren’t especially moreish, which is something I look for in a snack, but they are intriguing and would make for an unusual addition to a grainy salad or a grazing board. If you’re looking to feign a “tomato girl summer” in the depths of a frosty and wet (and whiny) kind of winter, this is your ticket. 6/10
Talk next week!
Hei kōnā mai, Charlotte