Cookbook Auckland Eats reveals the stories behind classic dishes around the city

New cookbook Auckland Eats reveals the stories behind some favourite restaurant dishes from around the city. Add them to the menu on your next city break or staycation

Above Newmarket’s Teed Street in yum cha restaurant Pearl Garden, dark wooden shutters filter the midday sun to a gentle caress, and bamboo dividers balance the bustle with cosy intimacy. The particular, enticing aroma of dim sum is ingrained in the very bones of the space, as is the Auckland history of Hong Kong’s most craveable culinary export.

When the Kan family established their first restaurant, Jade Garden, in Newmarket in 1975, they were excited to offer a higher quality in Chinese cuisine. The standard offering at the time, explains Mabel Kan, was “Chop suey and chow mein, using mostly cabbage and cauliflower, served with a plate of buttered bread”. Mabel’s mother-in-law, Kwan Suk Yan (Pauline) and husband, Kan Za Ming, had emigrated to New Zealand from Hong Kong after enjoying their time in the country when attending the wedding of Mabel and their son Peter, in 1974. Pauline had a successful career as a cookbook author and cookery teacher in Hong Kong, and even starred in her own television show — the Mobil Cooking Show.

The lure of fresh air, and family, brought Pauline and Za Ming to settle here, and they quickly set to work opening a restaurant, which they saw as a viable business here. It was a humble start, explains Pauline’s granddaughter, Mabel and Peter’s daughter Marissa Kan. “Grandma only had 20 of everything when she first opened up — 20 plates, 20 bowls, 20 cups, 20 sets of chopsticks.”

But there was no buttered bread gracing those plates. Pauline introduced ingredients that would have seemed rather exotic at the time — bamboo shoots, bok choy and water chestnuts. “Mum cooked dishes encased in taro ‘birds’ nests’, and deep-fried icecream. You can’t deep-fry ice cream! That’s what people said . . . but all of a sudden it was possible. Mum would spend any spare time cutting the carrots into decorative shapes with a sharp knife, and onions into flowers.”

The menu at Jade Garden was designed for dishes to be shared, as is the Chinese way — but that didn’t rub off on to local diners immediately. “People would order the same thing. A table of six would order six plates of sweet and sour pork — nobody wanted to share, back then.”

Over the more than four decades that the Kan family have been elbow-deep in the restaurant business in Auckland, our collective tastes have evolved hugely, which Mabel puts down to people having travelled. Initially, the yum cha offering was Sunday-only, but demand for this unique way of dining blossomed, and Pearl Garden now offers yum cha seven days a week.

Catching up with family and friends over yum cha has become a tradition, something that so many Aucklanders — regardless of background — hold dear. We’ve embraced this inherently social, gloriously relaxed, and delicious way of dining. “Yum cha isn’t something to be rushed,” says Marissa. “The idea is keep ordering until you’re satisfied, and you stop often to sip tea, which slows things down.”

From guarded plates of sweet and sour pork to steaming-hot baskets of chicken’s feet, turnip cake, shumai, tripe, taro puffs and sticky rice in lotus leaves — we’ve come a long way under the tutelage of the Kan family. At Pearl Garden, the standard is high: everything on the menu is made in the kitchen here and made fresh every day.

Mabel feels proud to be part of a family business that pioneered yum cha, and Chinese cuisine in general, in this country. Many family members still work in the restaurant day-to- day, while some of the third generation lend a hand on top of other employment. It’s evident, if you stop and talk to any of the Kan family at work — always smiling, even while juggling several tasks at one time — that they still get as much of a kick out of steering this ship as we diners do out of scoffing their excellent dumplings. “I get to witness people’s great joy and friendship when they meet up for yum cha,” says Mabel. “We have families who have been coming since the 70s,” adds Marissa. “Original customers, their children and now grandchildren.”

And so the legacy of Kwan Suk Yan, the matriarch of Pearl Garden, continues — teaching, sharing, relishing good food.

Mabel's tips on yum cha etiquette:

— It is polite to pour tea for the table, not just for yourself

— Always offer others food before yourself

— You should offer the eldest or the most senior person (like your boss) first

— You should wait until the elder at the table picks up their chopsticks before you do so

— Take only from the food in front of you

— Do not reach over the table. (This is where a Lazy Susan comes in handy!)

— To beckon a waiter to refill your teapot, place the lid on the side, resting against the handle.

— It’s tradition to tap your fingers on the tabletop to thank someone for pouring tea for you. (It’s said this custom comes from ancient times, when the emperor of the Ming Dynasty ventured south from his kingdom to see the outside world. He traded places with his servant and when the emperor, dressed as servant, served tea to his servant, dressed as emperor, the servant tapped his bent fingers to mimic a bow — showing respect without revealing the disguise at work.)

Pearl Garden Level 1, 1 Teed Street, Newmarket.

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