by Jeremy Taylor
Peculiarly, food courts, in their many shades and shapes, have been the location for much of the very best and worst of the substantial amount of eating I have done in my life.
When you say “food courts”, what immediately, naturally springs to mind is those in malls – an overrepresentation of takeaway chains (always very popular), dreary-looking sandwich shops, and the ubiquitous juice bar (I wonder sometimes – how did people stay hydrated and alert before the preponderance of juice bars?).
But no, these are not what I am talking about at all – what I am talking about are the kinds of food markets that have standalone purveyors of food from around the globe, prepared lovingly and knowledgeably by people who know how to deliver the real deal.
The greatest food court experience of my lifetime (here in NZ, at least) came when the Wakefield Street Markets here in Wellington were still operational, before the building was bought by developers to make way for a tower of apartments. The thing was, the demolition of the old markets and the resident food court took place a long, long time before the new apartment block was erected, and I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic (and aggrieved, and hungry) whenever I caught sight of the mural that had adorned the back wall of the market.
It brought back great memories from the early to mid 90s, when I first started visiting Wellington from Christchurch, and would go to the market for cheap eats that also turned out to be absolutely delicious.
There was Tam’s BBQ – big, nourishing, tasty bowls of soupy noodles or rice with steamed Asian greens and duck, chicken or pork. There was Lion City Noodles – egg foo yung with sweet, thick, sticky sweetened soy sauce, slurpsome fried noodles, or the curiously delicious fried turnip cake. There was the place at the top end of the market that we always called “Squeaky Kim’s”, run by the aforementioned business-shirted, slicked-back-haired Kim, wielding an almighty cleaver that he used to chop chicken and pork that went atop a huge, deeply savoury-sweet-umami plate of mee goreng. “Mee goreng, with pork AND chicken!!”, he would cackle in his distinctively high-pitched voice – “you LUCKY!!”. And you would know you were.
It was also the venue for the first time I tried anything close to real Mexican food, at the Viva Mexico stall, run by a Mexican mother-and-sister combo (which lives on today in both the Left Bank and Newtown – the ladies, sadly, long gone). A whopping tray of fajitas, heaped with chicken, peppers and onions, salsa and soft tortillas – $15. It felt like enough food to feed two, but I could usually manage it if I stuck to the task at hand and dug in.
So, anyway – damn you, gentrification. Damn your need for modern, urban housing, and for developers, and property owners to need to turn a profit. A hex upon you all for taking away one of the things I most loved.
And so, for years – no decent food hall/market in Wellington. I did always enjoy visiting Ponsonby’s international food hall, but it was never quite as good as Wakefield Street, you know (sorry, Auckland).
After some attempts to achieve liftoff with a Friday night market in the Left Bank (it was sort of okay, but the Left Bank really is a pigeon-infested shithole), the best news came when there opened up a new food hall, in Willis Street, a space that felt like, and may, in fact, once have been, a car park building.
As with any food court, you quickly take sides, choose favourites, and for me the $7.50 bahn mi from Where’s Charlie? soon became a go-to lunch staple – delicious crunchy baguette around a very good pâté, pickled carrot, coriander, chilli and a heap of either pork, chicken or lemongrass beef – oh, yes, I do think so (the beef is my fave). They also did a kick-ass carbless salad special with cabbage, chilli and squid or chicken, and the appealing flavours of fish sauce and lime juice, for those watching what they eat (I like to watch what I eat, too – all of it, all the way into my mouth). Damn fine.
I also love Miss Kangsta’s popcorn chicken – nuggets of chook, rolled in a seasoned rice flour, deep-fried and rolled in a spicy chilli sauce, and topped with sesame seeds (they’re gluten free, too, food fretters!) But, here’s the thing – any halfway decent food hall/market will have you changing where you eat based on what you feel like eating, even if you do, then, get stuck on a few trusty faves – my new fave in the market being BBQ Pork Wonton Noodle Soup from the perplexingly named BFG. It’s only $9.80, and I am a little cheap (and a lot poor, just at present…)
Already a huge fan of their soft, delicate steamed pork buns, I am pleased to report that the soup is deliciously rich and savoury, the dumplings burst, appealingly, gently scalding the roof of your mouth, and the pork and steamed greens are a little like I remember those at Tam’s BBQ being all those years ago.
I have also experimented with the Armenian stall (lentil-stuffed cabbage leaves, with a spicy tomato sauce – cheap as chips, and much better than they sound), and with the gluten-free (it’s like a takeover!) baking stall, which seems to specialise in hawking delicious brownies to fat blokes like me, who love eating delicious brownies.
I do not, however, understand why anyone would choose to eat at a food hall/market and opt for a kebab, or for Indian curries from a bain marie – surely there will be ample opportunity for curries and kebabs outside the food hall? Surely!
Anyhow, it’s not for me to tell you how to suck eggs, suffice to say it’s damn good to have an international food market back in the ‘hood. There is even a roving Greek food truck here now, which helps stave off those cravings for the ‘authentic’ Christchurch-styled souvlaki.
Things are looking up here in Capital City…
Jeremy Taylor (The Artist Formerly Known As The Omnivore)