Mobile Food Vendors in Christchurch’s Red Zone

Christchurch’s earthquakes clearly shut down many restaurants. To address these vendors’ concerns and as a way to meet demands of workers in the red zone for refreshment, the city council has provided these businesses the opportunity to operate at certain access points. This seemed like an effective solution. While exploring revitalization efforts in Christchurch’s Central Business District on Thursday, I did notice food trucks and trailers near construction sites.

In New Zealand, food trucks and trailers are called mobile food vendors. Such operations in the red zone have to meet certain conditions in order to be granted a license, one of them being a requirement to relocate as reconstruction progress reshuffles access points.

coq au vin rotisserie

All the walking around last Thursday whetted my appetite for lunch.


Co-located with several other trailers in Re:Start’s Cashel Mall, French-style Coq au Vin Rotisserie caught my eye from the start. A rotisserie was actually revolving at the back of the truck. The menu includes chicken and beef with a choice of salad or fries.

My choice was a very good chicken (☆☆☆½), moist, tender, skin nicely crisped and not too salty. The chicken is available in one-quarter and one-half portions. I dropped my knife but it didn’t really matter very much, the fork easily able to pull the meat off the bone. The fries were an added bonus, thinly cut and perfectly cooked, a fine aioli drizzled over the whole works. I also asked for a squeeze of ketchup on the side.

1/4 rotisserie chicken with fries

Coq au Vin’s 1/4 rotisserie chicken with fries


Images: Rebuilding and Revitalization of Christchurch

It was 2½ years ago that the last great earthquake struck Christchurch. Many lives were lost and much of the Central Business District (CBD) was destroyed. Soon thereafter, red-zoned properties were closed off to the public in the CBD and elsewhere. Even if government aid was forthcoming and the Christchurch City Council charged with rebuilding damaged buildings, roads and utility pipelines, it was to be expected that recovery would be slow. To this day, empty lots cleared of damaged buildings still stand, chain link fences surround sections of the CBD and streets blocked off to traffic. Iconic Christchurch Cathedral, a shell of its former self still standing, may eventually have to be torn down.

Still, some new buildings have replaced older, damaged ones. There is building activity everywhere it seems, a prosperous time for workers in the construction trades who will see employment for years to come. For a more thorough and thoughtful treatment of Christchurch’s post-quake recovery, I highly recommend Leeann Apps’ blog.

I took a little time to wander through the CBD yesterday and recorded in images what I saw. I also revisited Project Re:Start’s Cashel mall, as good an example of revitalization as anything in the city. Though the residents of Christchurch and surrounding areas suffered great losses, it’s heartening to see their spirit and optimism overcome adversity.

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Hagley Park North (Christchurch, NZ)

The weather in Christchurch has been schizophrenic lately, yesterday pelting sheets of rain with gusty winds in the late afternoon, other days cloudy, rainy or sunny, giving Melbourne a run for its money. Today was another spectacularly beautiful day with some clouds and mild temperatures. Hagley Park still amazes me with its beauty, especially its stately tree-lined paths.

hagley park 1

Tramping in the Castle Hill Scenic Reserve

They look like the remains of a ruined castle in the high country of the Southern Alps. They are limestone outcroppings that weirdly punctuate the landscape. It looks as if an ancient megalithic civilization once lived here. They comprise the Castle Hill Scenic Reserve, one of several similar groupings that appear in the area.

On Monday, we arrived past the noon hour on a beautiful, cloudless day, a perfect day for casual exploring. A half-mile walk beyond the parking area leads to the rock formations. There are several worn footpaths that wind through the area, one leading up to a grouping on higher ground that from a distance looks strangely like Stonehenge perched on the hilltop. You can enjoy the park hiking (called tramping in NZ), rock climbing or mountain biking. With a little rock scrambling, you can get gorgeous views of the terrain, which is not in the least flat.

It really is wondrous to imagine that this entire area of limestone was at one time submerged in an ancient sea that millions of years ago was raised up to its current elevation of 700m (2300ft), the result of subduction between the Australian and Pacific plates. Heavy erosion combined with structural crustal deformation over the last 20+ million years created the fascinating outcroppings we see today.

castle hills 1

There is another nearby attraction. Just a few miles east, Cave Stream Scenic Reserve features a 362m-long (1190ft) cave, which is pitch black and is wet the entire distance, including a deep pool with a 3m-high (10ft) waterfall.

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Sheffield Pie Shop, Savouries on the Highway

Meat pie is serious business in New Zealand, as it is in Australia. When one comes across a pie shop, it will specialize in meat pies, unlike in the U.S. where “pie” is synonymous with a crust filled with cooked fruit. Meat pie is so ubiquitous in NZ that it must surely be a national snack. It’s such an important adjunct to the Kiwi diet that an annual competition is staged for different categories of pie, including vegetarian—the Bakels Supreme Pie Awards.

One well regarded establishment, the Sheffield Pie Shop, is located in the small town of Sheffield along Highway 73, the major road that goes between Christchurch and Hokitika over the Southern Alps. Truckers take this route. Many stop at the shop to get a pie or two. We stopped there yesterday to pick up our lunches to have later at Castle Hill Scenic Reserve.

The shop is small, with very limited seating inside, a couple of small picnic tables outside. All the savory pies available for the day are displayed behind a glass case., several already sold out at almost noon, including steak and mushroom that I intended to get. I settled for mince (beef) pie. My wife preferred a sandwich instead.

The mince pie was quite good (☆☆☆), the mince, as ground beef is called down under, tender, moistened with an extremely savory gravy mixed with the right amount of tasty cheese (as cheddar is called). One bite and the filling oozed out and spread inside the paper sandwich bag.

Mince pie

Mince pie

Chicken tender sandwich with salad and satay was more tasty than it looked (☆☆☆). Battered and fried chicken was spread with a generous satay sauce that was interestingly tomatoey, sweet and tart, with peanut flavor. Kiwi touches included sliced hard-cooked eggs and cooked beetroot (as beet is called here), embellished with a slice of cheese, sliced cucumber and salad (as lettuce is called).

Chicken tender sandwich, salad and satay

Chicken tender sandwich, salad and satay

Sheffield Pie Shop
51 Main West Road
Canterbury, New Zealand 751
(03) 318 3876

Dining on the Cheap in Christchurch: Samurai Bowl

My four-year-old grandson loves ramen.

His first exposures to it were the dried, packaged quick-cooking kinds that come from Japan by way of the U.S., specifically, Sapporo Ichiban (original flavor) and Myojo Chukazanmai (miso flavor). Our care packages to Christchurch usually include these, and we were sure to bring a good supply with us on our current visit to New Zealand.

So, there was little surprise that he wanted to go straight to Samurai Bowl to have fresh ramen after he and my daughter picked us up and, a week later, his dad at Christchurch Airport. Two visits in eight days. The restaurant is quite popular among locals for offering Japanese food at affordable prices.

There are lots of things on the menu, including gyozadonburi, sushi, salads, curries. Ramen is the most popular meal. The menu is overwhelming at first from the sheer number of things that can be ordered. Lots of pictures on the wall with descriptions added to the full frontal assault of possibilities vying for your attention. Add to this the monthly specials that are also posted at the counter and on the walls, and a cooler full of beverages, including beer.

Samurai Bowl also markets three kinds of packaged ramen, which it sells at the restaurant and various food outlets in Christchurch and other major cities throughout New Zealand.

All the ramen were good (☆☆☆), which is rather surprising for a restaurant with a big menu. The broths were full and tasty. The noodles were eggy and slightly thicker than usual, with good chew and generously portioned. All came with two slices of roasted pork belly, bean sprouts, seasoned bamboo shoots (menma), a square of nori and green onions. A soft-boiled egg (ajitsuke tamago) can be added for additional cost.

The original ramen is a pork and soy sauce flavored broth, which (judging from the menu) is not simply tonkotsu with soy sauce splashed in, but a less milky broth, but good enough to rate pretty well.

Oiriginal reipe ramen (pork and shoyu)

Oiriginal reipe ramen (pork and shoyu)

The miso ramen is my grandson’s favorite, which he shares with his mom.

Miso ramen

Miso ramen

The spicy ramen, Samurai’s most popular, is based on its pork broth, which was spicy though not unbearably. The broth’s distinct reddishness couldn’t possibly come from hot chiles alone, so it’s possible that it derives from kochujang, the relatively mild Korean chile paste. My sample’s egg was cold on the inside and the yolk congealed, a misstep straight from the refrigerator.

Spicy ramen

Spicy ramen

The non-ramen items don’t fare as well.

The spicy miso galbi-don that I had last year was less than impressive. Kara-age curry-don (☆☆) had a couple of problems. The most important was a curry sauce that was a tad sweet and had an overly ground coriander taste. The kara-age pieces were dry from over-frying, but they sure were crispy.

Kara-age curry-don

Kara-age curry-don

One would be tempted to conclude that donburi is not one of Samurai Bowl’s strong suits.

Maybe it might not matter so much when a customer can have a pretty good ramen experience.

Samural Bowl
Shop 5/574 Colombo Street
Christchurch, NZ 8011
03-379 6752

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Urban Oasis: Christchurch’s Hagley Park

It dominates the center of Christchurch near the Central Business District, a verdant stretch of forest and open space that was set aside in 1855 by the Provincial Government. In a city known for beautiful parks, Hagley Park is the largest. It is no wonder that Christchurch is called the Garden City. At 1.6km2, it is half the size of Manhattan’s Central Park but is no less important for the respite it provides to its residents or pleasure it gives to horticulturists. The Avon River defines one border of the park where punting is enjoyed through much of the year.

hagley image

On previous visits to Christchurch, I’d experienced the park’s Canterbury Museum, botanical garden and rose garden. Many trees on the grounds are over a hundred years old which bestow a stately grace across the beautifully maintained lawns. Today, four of us visited the stunning dahlia garden and walked through the New Zealand forest (top image).

Because there never seem to be crowds at Hagley, you feel as if you’re almost alone in the park, as my son-in-law pointed out.

hagley lane2

Today, fall was in the air, still on the warmer side but punctuated by a definite chill when the breeze picked up. Autumn colors were beginning to make an appearance, but the seasonal showcase was a spectacular garden of dahlias, many cultivars developed from the original Mexican and Central American specimens imported in the nineteenth century. It was attractive enough that my 19-month old granddaughter wanted to roam through the garden and admire the flowers.

Fall color at Hagley Park

Fall color at Hagley Park

Hagley Park is one of the world’s great urban oases.

Continue to dahlia gallery

Yeast Obsession: Kiwis and Marmite

The earthquake of September 2011 shut down New Zealand’s production of its beloved Marmite, manufactured by Sanitarium Health Food Company in a Christchurch facility that was severely damaged. There was a collective despair when Marmite suddenly became scarce, Sanitarium going so far as to urge Kiwis to use it sparingly, even rationing it. That was like asking a Kiwi rugby fan to follow the All Blacks once in a while. In the meantime, Australian Vegemite, a similar product, would have to do, requiring a bit of pride-swallowing to rely on a substitute from across The Ditch.

What is this love affair over a product that appears closer to decomposing sludge (some say fish fertilizer) than something one would willingly put on morning toast? Marmite is essentially a concentrated yeast extract, a by-product of the beer brewing process. Aside from its dubious appearance, thickly pasty and almost black, it has a strong cheesy odor. Its high concentration of glutamic acid makes Marmite an umami superstar, which southeast Asians use to good effect in some of their dishes. It also contains enough vitamins and minerals to merit consideration as a health food. Though Marmite was created in England, the NZ product of the same name uses a modified recipe, sweeter and less intense than the UK version, which is sold in the U.S.

Although a 175-gram bottle of Marmite is small, it lasts a long time for a normal devotee, much less for legions of Kiwis who consume it like butter on toast. The temporary shortage caused by Mother Nature created a yeasty situation. Fortunately, Marmite is back in full production. Our grandchildren enjoy Marmite toast with margarine. I too have become quite fond of it. I will be taking a jar of it home with me.

Addendum: My daughter happened to have jars of Marmite and Vegemite on hand, so she had my wife and me undergo a taste test. Vegemite to me had a strongly vegetal taste, quite salty. Marmite was sweeter, more meaty tasting (almost like beef bouillon) and metallic. Kiwis will be happy to know that all three of us prefer Marmite.

Heady Latté: New Zealand’s Flat White

It sort of looks like a latté, except that the surface of the beverage is shinier rather than foamy. The flavor is strongly espresso-like, the milk seeming to play an almost minor role. This is New Zealand’s flat white, which my wife who appreciates milky coffee drinks became enamored of when she first tasted it in 2010. Although originally invented in Australia, it has become ubiquitous all over New Zealand, any coffee stand or shop offering it alongside other espresso beverages. Now, whenever we set foot on Middle Earth, my wife has to have a flat white at least once.

Regular coffee in New Zealand is dreadful. Why? Because it’s instant. Go to any market there and you’ll find the coffee aisle replete with instant coffees. There are no coffee filters for electric drip machines nor any vacuum-sealed tins of grounds. One small section will be devoted to whole beans, but the pre-ground packages are only for espresso machines or plunger pots. I sometimes forget this situation when I order regular coffee, only to be served instant. The only way to get a truly flavorful cup, as you might’ve guessed, is to order espresso drinks. That includes the flat white.

The volume of milk in a flat white is less than that of a latté or cappuccino in the U.S., which gives the beverage a more robust coffee flavor. It also is not as foamy, more appealing to me for the same reason that I don’t like a head of foam on my beers.

When you’re in New Zealand, give it a shot.

Passionfruit and Feijoa: New Zealand’s Aromatic Fruits

New Zealand might be associated with the kiwi, but for my money, there are two that are much more appealing, more exotic even, than the fuzzy fruit.

While both passionfruit and feijoa are not native to New Zealand, they both have adapted well to its climate and developed industries that make the island nation an important producer. Both are moderate climate plants.

What characterize both fruits are their intense aroma and flavor.

In appearance, the feijoa has been likened to a guava, though its similarity extends to flavor as well. It also has a taste like pineapple with a minty finish. When ripe, they’re creamy in the middle where the seeds reside, gritty like a pear in the flesh closer to the skin. The fruit is usually cut in half and the flesh scooped out with a spoon. It isn’t that feijoa is very sweet though it is sweet enough. Instead, the tongue tastes complex flavors, mainly of the tropics and pear, with a distinct floral quality. Both my wife and I recall the extraordinary feijoa juice that was served chilled at the Bathhouse Café (Auckland Museum). We have not been able to find it commercially available anywhere, either in New Zealand or at home.

Passionfruit needs no introduction to Hawaiians, who know it as lilikoi. It flavors many of their dessert items and its syrup is a popular topping on shave ice. On the mainland of the U.S., the fruit is not common, making its appearance mainly in fruit juice blends and frozen fruit juice concentrates. In my opinion, it is a fruit that deserves greater popularity, though its import price is fairly steep. Recently, Uwajimaya in Seattle was selling it for $6.99 each, while my daughter here in Christchurch was able to get a whole kilo (about 15 fruit) for NZ$5. I suspect it can be grown somewhere in California where the climate is not too hot nor too cold. There are the image problems of its grapeseed-sized seeds which are very crunchy though not in the least inedible, and of its thick skin (pericarp) that develops severe wrinkles as it ripens. But when passionfruit is split in half, it fills the air with a very intense perfume and a seed pulp that is floral and exquisitely flavorful, more tart than sweet.

For now, I’ll have to content myself with enjoying their abundance whenever I’m here in New Zealand in late summer to early fall.