From NZ/Oz

NZ/Oz: The Good Stuff

So, before it all totally filters out of my memory…

What to Eat and Drink in Australia and New Zealand:

1) Chocolate
Whittaker’s Peanut Slab is deliciously salty peanuts in totally forgettable milk chocolate–sweet and salty, all you need, and available at every 7-11 (there are lots of 7-11s–why?). Also, Bennett’s of Mangawhai Passionfruit Chocolate Bar is also light on actual chocolate sensation–but who cares, when there’s the magical passionfruit flavor? In fact, what am I thinking?…

2) Passionfruit
This should have been item #1. Sure, I already loved the stuff going in. But it’s amazing that you can get it anywhere, usually fresh, un-messed-with pulp, with the slippery little seeds still in. Especially delish on creamy yogurt. Which you can also get anywhere. I also learned that the ‘what-kind-of-muffin-is-this’ signifier for passionfruit is a little arrangement of the black seeds in the frosting on top. Which boggles me that a whole part of the world could be so blase about passionfruit that they don’t even need to put signs next to it saying, “OMG, this is the most amazing flavor ever!”

3) Coffee
Actually, no–this should’ve been item #1. I don’t even really drink coffee, and I drank coffee every single damn day of our vacation (at US$3-ish a pop…ouch). And this was after we’d been in Portland, and pretty impressed with the java there. In NZ and Oz, it’s all espresso-based (no American-style drip), and you get the fun of ordering a ‘flat white’ (midway between a latte and a cappuccino, with very little foam), or perhaps, if you’re feeling tough, a ‘long black’ (Americano). But I think it’s the super-delicious dairy that makes the coffee especially palatable. And the beans aren’t viciously roasted away to nothing. I was depressed at the thought of coming back to Starbucksland. But I guess my stomach lining thanks me.

4) Splashy dinner at Capitol restaurant, in Wellington
Next door to the classy redone cinema in the center of town–we had rack of lamb, of course. And some perfectly good fish. But the lamb was really the standout.

5) Seafood up the wazoo
“Life is too short to bother with bad seafood,” said my pitying LP editor over dinner, after I’d lamented the state of seafood in NYC (ie, you can get anything, but no guarantee it will taste like much). Easy for her to say, when fat, succulent mussels are practically jumping out of the ocean (especially good in NZ), and shrimp are scampering onto your plate, and the barramundi is blinking at you in a beguiling way. Damn. Oh, and those scallops at the Peter Gordon restaurant (dine) in Auckland. With I guess their roe still attached? Little quivering bits of briny sweetness, they were.

6) Mangosteen
Just because I, as an American, can. We can’t eat them here in the US because of some vile pest they carry, allegedly, but I have to read articles all the time about how transporting, exotic and thoroughly unique the flavor of this tropical fruit is. So when we went to Cabramatta, an allegedly divey suburb of Sydney (we’d asked our hostess to show us the bad part of town), and I saw a box of mangosteens for sale at the Vietnamese produce hall, I had to get them. Even though the price worked out to about US$2 per fruit, and the woman seemed slightly insincere when she said they were all ripe. Indeed, only about three of the eight or so golf-ball-size guys wound up being edible–and with six small slivers of only succulent fruit inside each one, the price per bite wound up being staggeringly high. But fine. They were pretty delicious, if not as delicious as passionfruit. And I feel like I’ve crossed another thing off my abstract ‘taste every flavor in the world’ list.

7) $6 steak at the pub
Peter and I were getting steadily more dismayed at the crazy first-world prices. We’re just not used to paying more than, say, 80 cents for a midday snack. But we also wondered how so-called normal people can afford to leave their houses in Australia. Even once you consider that, say, a waiter gets paid about A$18 per hour, and so an A$3.50 coffee isn’t too gross an expense, there still didn’t appear to be any reasonably priced restaurants.

And then, on our very last full day, after a long and glorious and soaking-wet bike ride around drizzly Sydney, we were sitting around the living room of our bike host and guide, Lynn of CTA, and he simply said, “Wanna go over to the pub for five-dollar steaks?” Like everyone in the world knew about this phenomenon. Well, I immediately thought of those nasty Tad’s steak places here in NYC, and the current state of undervalued factory-farm beef. Peter might’ve looked a little skeptical too, because Lynn said, “No, they’re really good steaks.” Later, as we were tucking into our massive slabs of beef, chargrilled a perfect medium-rare, Lynn explained that all the profits from the pub’s slot machines basically underwrite the food–it’s just a loss leader to get the crowds, and bring whole families in. A brilliant system. I’d love to eat at more restaurants with a Big Buck Hunter game and giant-screen TVs, if they were as good and cheap as this neighborhood pub Maroubra.

8) Oysters at the pub
Oh yeah. Got some of these too. Salty and also creamy, in a way I’ve never had oysters be before. And cheap.

9) Coffee at the kiosk at the top of Bent Street in Sydney’s CBD
I know I already mentioned coffee, but this bears special emphasis. At this tiny little place, where we stopped near the end of our soaking-wet bike odyssey, I watched the barista, a smooth-talking Brazilian, chat up a woman while he made her espresso. Then he looked at the coffee and frowned. “Oh, no,” he said. “This one’s no good. I’m throwing this away.” I thought it was a ploy to talk to the woman longer, but Peter said, “He did that with my coffee too.” No crema, no sale, baby. This kiosk happens to be the bike courier’s top choice as well–no coincidence.

I think that might have to be all. My mind is a sieve. I am now starving. And we have no groceries in the house whatsoever. I am deeply uninspired at the thought of going to the store and seeing all the straight-from-Chile produce and the shrink-wrapped meat.

I nearly made Peter choke the other night when I said, “I’m thinking of going vegetarian for a while.” The same way I can’t really get excited about drinking coffee here, I also can’t get too thrilled about eating nasty, nasty meat in the US. I can’t apply that sort of existential despair to produce and dairy (both of which were so much better over there on the other side of the world), or else I’d starve. I’ll muddle through. But I sure could use a flat white, or a half-dozen oysters, right now.