We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
~ T. S. Eliot
40 minutes after I stepped out of my flat, my head was light with the smell of clean rain, feet and jeans wet with the same. It was a wet walk down to town, and I couldn’t help smiling as the pearly rays of rain fell on my umbrella. Everything was painted grey. Everything glistened.
Inside my mind, though, I saw anything but grey. I was trying to imagine what tiger prawns with orange and chocolate sauce would taste like. More importantly, I was eager to see what fresh produce I could find at the market.
I stepped in to City Market, smiling, and made a beeline for Yellow Brick Road… As I found out, you can’t really buy fresh prawns in New Zealand. I am sure I must have found this out at some point over my 7 years of residence in NZ, but I was still surprised. I was graciously given a piece of tuatua to sample, and the friendly Rachel took the time to chat with me and find out what I was looking for. “Perhaps you can try cooking a dish with tuatua?” Perhaps I could, indeed. “Come back next week and let me know how it went!” I thanked her and left with my box of 24 tuatua.
Next stop: 24 Carrot Dream Produce. A rich spread indeed, and the kind of produce you’d want to line the paths of all your foodie dreams. Vegetables in neat piles, unpackaged, free and happy-looking. It was so lovely to chat with the lady here too, who was very helpful and pointed me in the right direction (of baby veg). So I got an assortment of baby carrots, baby turnips, baby beetroots, lemons, chillies. Mmmm.
Last stop: New World, to pick up everything else I couldn’t get at the market (wine, butter, etc).
I made my way home optimistic, basing my imagination of what the dish would taste like from the seafood I’ve eaten in Asian and Italian dishes, the celebration prawns I made from Tessa Kiros’ cookbook (the recipe of which I wanted to incorporate in part to my dish today), and the sweet, innocent taste I know fresh vegetables to possess.
Just as I stepped into my house, I realised I’d forgotten to get some crusty bread… dang! It was at this point that I really let go of my original tiger prawn dish (complete with heavenly sauce, crusty bread) dream. I would experiment with tuatua and baby vegetables instead and have fun along the way. I put the tuatua into a bowl of salty water to rinse, washed the vegetables, rinsed a cupful of basmine rice and set the rice to cook in a saucepan. I chopped the shallots, minced the garlic, felt the sticky juices wrap around my fingers.
The aroma of shallots frying – the smell of my childhood, when Grandma would make jarfuls of these so we could sprinkle them on our food. How I love that food, family, history and life are so interwined. The shallots sizzled, released a powerful smell and turned a bright lovely colour. At this point, I rescued them and set them aside.
Next – cooking the tuatua. This technique I borrowed from Tessa Kiros’ “Falling Cloudberries”. I cut squares of butter, dotted them on the base of a saucepan, lay down a carpet of tuatua and sprinkled on Italian flat leaf parsley, allspice and chilli powder. Added another layer of the same, making two layers of tuatua in the saucepan. Last step, wine. I’d bought one of those convenient tiny 187ml bottles of Montana Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. I dribbled it around the pan, covered the pan and set it to go on medium-high heat.
It didn’t take long for the kitchen to start smelling amazing.
Meanwhile, I set the vegetables to steam in my makeshift ‘steamer’ (a bowl suspended over a saucepan of simmering water) and put two plates in the oven to warm them up.
Before the tuatua was completely cooked, I lifted the lid, crumbled in some feta, squeezed two fresh juicy lemons over the lot, inhaled deeply and tasted. Hmmm, something missing? A tablespoon of caster sugar perhaps. I stirred that in while wine-flavoured steam wafted over my face. Crazy how much difference a small amount of sugar and salt can make in food. Crazy, in fact, is the entire world of food/cooking… the way textures, temperatures, liquids, nature, machines and all interact to make different things we eat, talk about, live on?
Done! I didn’t want the food to get cold while I tried taking photos with what I know is a ridiculously old camera anyway, so I took a few quick shots and here is my food in unglamorous (but very edible) glory! Celebration tuatua – with lemon, chilli, allspice, wine and feta. Steamed baby vegetables tossed with olive oil, lemon zest and sauteed shallots. Basmine rice – cooked to fluffy perfection. The gravy from the tuatua was then splashed over everything (after I took most of the photos, heheh!)
It turned out that my guest for lunch today was Dan, my flatmate John’s friend (I suppose we can be friends now too) who visited and stayed over the weekend while John, ironically, flew down to Christchurch.
I guess this is the way of New Zealand, the casualness, friendly hospitality, easy-going-ness. The way you always inevitably end up discovering you and the stranger before you, in fact, share about 20 mutual friends. The way I’ve had friends of friends stay over, who have then become friends. The way I’ve stayed at friends’ places and become friends with their flatmates. And, after growing up in Asia, it’s refreshing not to live with people who would raise their eyebrows at you cooking lunch for someone you hardly know, or at you having people you don’t really know stay overnight at your house.
I chatted with Dan over lunch, and we ate with our fingers, fork, knife, spoon – a roll of paper towels standing between us – it was all gloriously messy, really.
Between Dan and myself, we polished off the tuatua, vegetables and rice. (And how much I have now fallen in love with baby turnips!) Soft, gentle tuatua with fragrant juices. Crunchy carrots. Sweet beetroot. Colours. Flavours. Smells. Licking juices off our spoons and fingers, it all made for a pleasant lunch… informal, filled with conversation and friendship, the way it should always be, the way I have learned to eat in New Zealand (not that I eat with my fingers in public unless the dish and occasion call for it of course!). Dan paid me the highest compliments on the food – and as if that didn’t already make me smile, he also washed the dishes, and asked me for the recipe!
PS. If you are in Auckland/Wellington, please don’t miss out on…