Annabel Langbein: Asian express (+ recipes)
Whenever I'm in Auckland I make a point of visiting a small Asian alleyway that's about a five-minute walk from where I live. There's a great charcoal roast duck shop (they sell the pancakes too), a specialist butcher that does an excellent line in pork, boneless beef shin and black silkie chickens (wu gu ji), and an Asian greengrocer offering glisteningly fresh Asian vegetables and herbs.
The selection of fresh seafood at the fish market is excellent and it costs nothing more to get your fish gutted and filleted however you want it. I get all my Asian sauces and grocery items at the tofu shop here, as well as fresh dumpling wrappers, noodles and tofu.
Walking through the alley, you'd swear you were in a far-flung Asian city. The tantalising whiff of barbecue duck rubs up against the slightly funky smells of the fish market, the comforting waft of rice cooking and that ancient apothecary aroma of herbs and dried mushrooms.
At the clean but un-prepossessing food hall here - think strip lighting, formica tables, plastic chairs and big TV screens blaring Asian soap operas - the food is all homemade by people who, as mostly new immigrants to the city, have worked out that if you start cooking the food you know and love, the people will come.
I have got to know the gentle Korean woman who has a little shop at the back and become slightly addicted to her bibimbap. I've been trying, wholly unsuccessfully, to make my own kimchi, so I asked her if she could tell me what I was doing wrong. "Of course," she said. "I can show you." So I'm in for a little kimchi lesson.
It's this sense of community, and the pride and passion of these food cultures, that makes Auckland a great city in which to discover authentic Asian food.
Recent research has shown that Auckland is one of the world's most culturally diverse cities. This is great news for foodies, as these many immigrants bring with them a global palette of flavours for us to choose from.
Asian flavours are morphing their way into our pantries via ingredients such as fish sauce, palm sugar, chili oil, lemongrass, Thai sweet chili sauce, miso, kaffir lime, curry pastes and crispy shallots. Using these ingredients and figuring out their flavour profiles and ways they work in a dish opens up our everyday cooking repertoire - mix a drizzle of Thai sweet chilli sauce with a little lime zest and fish sauce as a glaze for chicken or fish, make a dressing with miso, ginger and chillies, or perhaps throw a couple of kaffir lime leaves into a broth.
It's like learning a new chord on an instrument, and in the same way transformational in redefining everyday ingredients into something exotic. This week I'm sharing three Asian prawn dishes to show how the same ingredient can be taken in different directions.
These look fancy, but they're remarkably easy and inexpensive. Adding lots of mint is the key to their zingy taste. You can substitute cooked chicken breast instead of prawn meat if you prefer. Get the recipe
You can make this simplified version of a Thai red curry with shell-on or shell-off prawns. It's also good with tofu, chunks of white fish, very thinly sliced chicken thighs or shredded barbecue duck. Different brands of red curry paste vary in heat, so adjust quantity as required. Get the recipe
This quick and easy salad balances the heat of chilli with the sourness of lime, the freshness of mint, the sweetness of a little sugar, the saltiness of fish sauce and the umami of prawns. Keep a bag of prawn tails in the freezer so you can make it whenever you like. Get the recipe
Essential Annabel Langbein (Annabel Langbein Media, $65) is a beautiful compendium of Annabel’s best-ever savoury recipes and cooking tips — on sale at Paper Plus, Whitcoulls, The Warehouse and all good bookstores or visit annabel-langbein.com