Food reckons from a (self-anointed) enlightened tourist
On dining experiences I’d love to see adopted in Aotearoa, the origins of Jaffas and a freeze-dried 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!
I’ve been absent from newsletter writing duties for the last two weeks while on a much-anticipated holiday in Japan and South Korea. And, of course, it is an unspoken rule that when a New Zealander visits anywhere overseas, upon our return, and with our new sophisticated cosmopolitan lens on the world, we must immediately become chief critic of what we do wrong locally, and what, vitally, we could do better.
Does a week and a bit in a foreign country make you some kind of expert in their local quirks, trends, urban design and food culture? Probably not, but we all love to give it a shot. While I was away, I lost count of the number of times I uttered something along the lines of: “why can’t we have [insert: reliable public transport/ functional fish markets/ underground supermarkets/ conventions around which side you stand on elevators/ heated toilet seats/ 24/7 karaoke/ cute traffic cones/ Uniqlo]?”.
I presume there are unique sets of cultural conditions and a whole lot of historical nuances that make the existence of each of these things possible in these places and not here. But as a blissfully unaware tourist, wandering around doing nothing more than observing wide-eyed from the outside, their very existence is striking. It’s hard not to return enlightened, with a long list of answers to the question of what could improve Aotearoa, and what could add that much-needed dash of mojo. One thing I noticed but didn’t exactly yearn for while away was the novelty of people smoking indoors, even in cafes – but who knows, under our new government, that just might be one of the first sophisticated Japanese idiosyncrasies that we embrace here.
Because I’m not the one to combat these stereotypes of the enlightened recently returned tourist, here are four food experiences I had overseas that I would love to see adopted in Aotearoa:
Convenience stores: Let’s get this one out of the way first. At the risk of echoing literally every other returnee from South Korea or Japan, it really wouldn’t hurt us to adopt at least a little bit of their convenience store culture. While convenience store sandwiches in Japan are a thing of inconceivable magnificence, it is the convenience stores in South Korea that take up the greatest portion of my heart. They’re designed as third spaces, with tables to sit at and microwaves to prepare your food. There is a resplendent selection of instant ramyeon noodles and accoutrements (eggs, cheese, kimchi, corn – you name it) to suit any star sign, personality and preference. There’s also beer which you can drink while you eat whatever you’ve concocted. They’re open 24/7, exist in almost every apartment complex or street corner and stock almost everything you might need to survive. For many reasons – population size, zoning laws, lifestyle differences, a (positive) lack of convenience store conglomerates and alcohol regulations to name a few – mimicking this type of set-up would be near-impossible in Aotearoa, but a girl can dream, right?
Wagashi afternoon tea: I often think that my intrigue for sweets stems from the fact that I don’t have any kind of sweet tooth. That intrigue was part of the reason I was determined to try wagashi – a traditional Japanese confection that often uses cooking techniques that pre-date western influences, served with green tea – while on this trip. On a rainy afternoon, we decided to make a visit to a hushed wagashi spot in Ginza which came recommended. Unlike the clatter of cafe-based afternoon sweet treats I’m used to in Auckland, this was a serene, almost ceremonial experience. For around NZ$20 we were served two separate courses of tiny bite-sized sweet morsels made from jelly, mochi, bean pastes and wafer, all eaten quietly and slowly. Not just about getting a sugar hit, this was an expression of technique, texture, history, delicateness and seasonality.
A dashi chazuke breakfast spot: Few breakfasts could compete with being as nourishing and soothing as the alchemy that is dashi chazuke. We stumbled across a spot serving the dish, in which dashi broth is poured over a bowl of rice and other toppings to partially submerge them, while finding our way out of the maze that is Shinjuku station in Tōkyo. Despite the shop being located in a busy underground food court, the simplicity of the dashi chazuke served with sides of pickles, cold tofu and roasted green tea was about the most calming way I can imagine starting the day.
Mister Donut: Japan’s first Mister Donut outlet opened in Osaka in 1971, and it has since become the country’s largest and most recognisable doughnut chain. Despite being so entwined with contemporary Japanese doughnut eating, Mister Donut actually has its origins in the US, where it was founded in 1956 out of the dissolution of the partnership behind another doughnut favourite: Dunkin’ Donuts. What makes a perfect doughnut is very much down to personal preference, but Mister Donut’s whimsical interpretations of the treats won me over on my trip – especially the charmingly named “Angel Cream” (which were just as sublimely squishy and cloud-like as that name suggests) and “Pon De Ring” (a chewy, mochi-like loop) varieties. I’d happily watch Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts step aside to make room for this superior doughnut chain.
If you’re reading this newsletter, it’s likely that just as I am, you’re pretty fascinated by food.
More than just tasty, what’s on our plate defines our happiness and health, it’s a cultural expression of who we are as a country, it’s a prominent piece of our economic puzzle, it’s a vehicle for social struggles and it’s at the heart of the impacts of climate change. The Spinoff is looking to capture that broad and ever-evolving definition of kai in a new editorial project: What’s eating Aotearoa.
Kai is already part of The Spinoff’s DNA, from our controversial rankings of chips to in-depth reporting on food insecurity to reflections on how our relationships with ingredients have changed. We’re keen to take our coverage of food further.
We want to produce longform and accessible journalism in 2024 that traverses the intersection of food with politics, culture, business and climate change. But to do this, we need your help. The Spinoff is currently running a PledgeMe campaign to fund the project and there is an array of incredible rewards on offer.
Talking about food means talking about everything from the taken-for-granted meals we whip up in the kitchen at home to some of the most pressing political and social issues we face, and everything in between. Because I spend so much of my time dwelling on all this, I’m so proud that The Spinoff has initiated this project, which recognises just how vital the food landscape is. Even more, I’m grateful that our readers are already throwing their support behind this project. If you're keen to help fund food-focused journalism, make a pledge today.
A resource consent application for a 24-hour McDonald’s at the entrance to Wānaka is under review by the Queenstown Lakes District Council, and the potential of the golden arches making their appearance has attracted pushback from residents. If successful, the restaurant would mark the first opening of the international hamburger chain in Wānaka, but a petition that has been signed by 4,662 people is asking the council to decline the consent. It’s not the first time McDonald’s has faced opposition in the town: part of the Wānaka 2020 planning document developed by the community in 2002 includes a section about international fast-food franchises, and in 2016 a group started a petition calling for international fast-food franchises to be banned from the town.
We waste an extraordinary amount of food as a country: more than 100 million kilograms each year, in fact. Meanwhile, nearly one in five New Zealand children are food insecure. Over the last decade, local food rescue charity GoodHarvest has worked to save good kai from going to landfill, and feed New Zealanders. The Spinoff guest writer Liv Sisson speaks to KiwiHarvest CEO Angela Calver about how they’re using the issues of food waste and food insecurity to solve each other.
Spaghetti ai ricci di mare (a pasta dish of oil, garlic and sea urchin) is one of Sicily’s most emblematic dishes. But The Guardian reports that “sea urchins’ status as a culinary delicacy is leading to their gradual disappearance from local waters”. Last week, researchers presented a report which said that the Sicilian sea urchin could soon become extinct if urgent conservation measures were not implemented. Since the warning, a three-year ban on all sea urchin fishing in Sicily has been proposed by a local politician – but the idea has faced fierce opposition from some local fishers and restaurateurs. Meanwhile, in some areas of Aotearoa we have the opposite problem, where the removal of predators has caused exploding populations of wild kina turning the seabed barren and creating ecosystem imbalance.
The shemouti or Jaffa (named for the city of Jaffa) orange, which began being cultivated in the 19th century, gained prominence for its sweetness and thick, almost-seedless flesh and easy-to-peel skin. Before the Nakba of 1948, they were one of Palestine’s biggest exports. They’re also the reason Jaffa lollies have their name. Chef, writer and Eat New Zealand kaitaki Lavi Small writes beautifully on the intimate links between New Zealand’s ubiquitous Jaffas and the history of Palestine.
The weekly snack
Matcha chocolate coated strawberry, ¥350 (around NZ$3.80) from Muji flagship in Ginza Tōkyo: A trip to Japan wouldn’t be complete without a pilgrimage to the bastion of affordable Japanese minimalism: Muji. For those unacquainted, Muji is a Japanese chain selling almost any item you might put in a home – clothing, furniture, pens, coat hangers, soap dispensers, pasta sauce – but in a covetably sleek and functional form. Even as an out-and-out maximalist, I have a fascination with these shops, which to me are like exhibits of how the other, more aesthetically cohesive half live. Muji’s flagship in Tōkyo’s Ginza is at the centre of this perfectly unadorned universe and boasts six giant floors of minimal abundance, with the first of these levels dedicated entirely to their snacks, instant meals, dry goods and teas. As usual I walked out with an armful of socks, pens and snacks – including a bag of these freeze-dried strawberries coated in matcha-tinged white chocolate. Part of the joy of eating them is what they look like: hefty globes of green which, when bitten into, give way to a dazzling contrast of pinkish red. Sweet and sour done perfectly. Essentially they’re like a yoghurt-covered raisin but ginormous, green and far more piquant. And for a snack from a famously minimalist store, they’re shockingly decadent and kooky-looking. We don’t have Muji in New Zealand, so it might seem like a bit of a snake move to review a snack that you have to fly overseas to try, but I have good news: local food refillery GoodFor sells matcha chocolate-coated freeze-dried strawberries which look identical to the Muji ones at only a slightly steeper price. 10/10
Talk next week!
Hei kōnā mai, Charlotte