Did you know the reason Korean people use metal chopsticks harks back to ancient times and a fear of being poisoned? Many thousands of years ago the Korean royal family ate solely with silver chopsticks which would change colour if poison was in their food.
This is just one of the fascinating bites of info picked up during Eat Auckland’s monthly walking Korean Food Tour around the central city, which doesn’t just delve into the intricacies of the country’s cuisine but explores its history and culture too.
Our group meets at Aotea House in Aotea Square where the neon sign on the outside reading ‘Chicken and Beer’ gives away that first up we’ll be sampling a Korean favourite: fried chicken.
Our guide Suna tells us while eating is seasonal in her country, the lightly battered and tender Korean fried chicken is so popular it is enjoyed year round.
We move on to busy street food stall, No 1 Pancake on Lorne Street, to try sweet pancakes, or hotteok, a winter favourite. Filled with red bean paste in one and cinnamon and sugar in the other, one bite of this light and fluffy treat is enough to realise why this place attracts so many people especially in the cooler months, selling up to 200 pancakes a day.
Koreans love garlic – more than Italians, Suna jokes – and it features heavily in their cooking alongside sesame oil, ginger, soy, gochugang (fermented chilli paste) and kimchi, the fermented vegetables that are an everyday staple in Korea.
We have our first experience of this at Kaya across the street where pancakes are also on the menu, but this time cooked with kimchi and bacon. Here the pancake is flattened and cut like a pizza and is surprisingly spicy. Then Suna starts working away at a pan on top of a small gas cooker at the table (Koreans like their food piping hot so will often finish off restaurant dishes themselves) on budae jjigae, or army stew.
This Korean specialty became popular after the Korean War in the mid-1950s when food was scarce and saw typical US military supplies such as spam, instant noodles and sausage paired with kimchi and the base Korean flavours. The end result, today, is an authentic replica of the original, packing a massive, flavoursome punch and we all empty our bowls with gusto.
Like many Asian cultures, sharing food is how Korean people prefer to dine. At BannSang on High Street, we share small but nourishing bowls of galbi jjim (beef short rib simmered in soy sauce with vegetables and noodles), baeksuk (chicken ginseng soup with rice) and bibimbap (rice with vegetables, sesame oil and chilli), served with side dishes of pickled vegetables.
There are opportunities to try Korean drinks too – soju, the strong, clear spirit, and makgeolli, a milky, fermented rice wine that tastes like a cross between beer and kombucha.
Our final stop is for an authentic Korean dessert, shaved ice or bingsu. Snow Man, in the Chancery, serves up large bowls of ornate milk ice-flake desserts and we share two: mango and a pretty combination of green tea and red beans. As the ice melts like snowflakes, it creates a delicious creamy texture, and the group makes short work of each bowl.
An exploration of the cuisines of the many cultures who live in Auckland is not only a way to open up your own palette, but a chance to understand more about the people who make up the fabric of the city, too.
Other tours to reveal new things:
• Auckland features many culturally diverse food tours including Eat Auckland's Chinese food, dumplings and spicy menu itineraries.
• Wellington's sophisticated food scene is also revealed on walking tours, some of which are gourmet.
• Hungry for revelations about art? Major galleries in New Zealand all have programmes of guided tours, of temporary exhibitions and of their collections. Specialist curators are always keen to share their understanding of works on display.
• Self-guided tours are another option. Grab a brochure or download an app and follow the path to learn about writers associated with Wellington, street art of Palmerston North, the growth of Christchurch, the murals of Katikati, the history of Tauranga or the art and culture of Hokitika.
Reported by Shandelle Battersby for our AA Directions Summer 2019 issue