Herald ethnic affairs reporter and dedicated foodie Lincoln Tan introduces you to a world of hidden restaurant delights around Auckland.
Treasure Kitchen chef Sam Ng didn’t have the heart to say no when a customer who had just given birth asked him to cook a dish she believes will restore her maternal health.
Not long afterwards, another customer also made the same request – but this one was simply because she had a strong craving for it.
Now Ng, 55, has become a go-to person for the popular dish of gelatinous pork knuckle, slow-cooked until they are moist and tender with ginger and sweetened vinegar. The stew is thought to be nourishing especially for women during their confinement period after birth.
In Guangzhou, China, this stew is traditionally eaten by new mothers to restore health and strength, and is often also presented to friends and family to mark the arrival of a new baby.
“This is not something that’s eaten every day, but rather a therapeutic food and the preparation is time-consuming,” Ng said.
It is thought that the vinegar dissolves calcium in the bones of the pork knuckles during cooking, and will help new mothers replenish calcium lost during pregnancy.
The pork knuckles are also braised with a generous amount of ginger which the Chinese believe to be “warming,” and would therefore remove “wind” from the body and help lactation.
The stew is also traditionally served with eggs, which provide protein needed to repair muscles.
Ng also cooks the collagen-rich meat dish without vinegar, which can be eaten just as a normal meal.
Originally from Johor Bahru in Malaysia, Ng moved to New Zealand with his wife Jennie Tan in 2004.
After a few years in the hospitality industry here, with Ng working as a Thai chef and Tan as front of house, they opened Treasure Kitchen in Henderson in 2016.
That business was sold this year, and the couple moved their work to Station Rd in Otahuhu.
Over the years, Tan said many of their customers had become “like friends and family”.
“Some treat Treasure Kitchen like their second home, and we often talk about food that we miss back home,” she said.
“As part of the conversation, they sometimes ask Sam if he can cook them these dishes and of course we will try to accommodate their requests if we can.”
The woman, who first made a request for the pork-knuckle stew, has become a regular and comes back at least twice a month for the dish that’s not on the menu.
Popular meals at Treasure Kitchen are fish-head vermicelli soup, bak kut teh, beef rendang and clay pot pork belly with salted fish.
But Tan says another popular request is for the classic Malaysian dish of assam pedas fish, or literally translated as “sour spicy”.
“Many of our Malaysian customers like to have the fish ‘whole’ rather than filleted, because they say the meat is sweeter when cooked with bones and all,” Tan said.
The Malaysian state where Ng comes from is just across the causeway from Singapore, and because of that his cooking is also influenced by dishes from there.
Although Malaysia and Singapore share a common history, some versions of the same dish, sharing the same name, can vary quite a bit.
Fried Hokkien mee to most Malaysians would be the fried yellow noodle dish braised in dark soy sauce, but the Singapore version is light in colour and fried with a flavourful prawn broth.
Treasure Kitchen is one of the few places in Auckland that has the Singapore Hokkien mee on its menu.
A mix of vermicelli and yellow noodles, Ng fries them with eggs until crispy with prawn broth and serves them semi-dry with large prawns, squid, pork belly and chives.
• Treasure Kitchen, 6 Station Rd, Otahuhu https://www.treasurekitchen.co.nz
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