Saturday, December 8, 2012

Review: Bonz Cajun Kitchen

The problem with any Cajun place that opens up in Auckland is that we will immediately be comparing it to Sweet Mother's Kitchen in Wellington.  Not surprisingly, when Bonz Cajun Kitchen appeared in Elliott Stables several months ago, our first thought after "Awesome, a Cajun place in Auckland!" was "But where are the po-boys, dirty rice, beignets and key lime pie?"

It's true that Bonz Cajun Kitchen has a limited menu, and as part of an upmarket foodcourt, it also lacks the quirky charm that Sweet Mother's Kitchen exudes.  The chefs do, however, cook their few dishes well, and the lunch deals are very reasonable with a number of items at $10 (though the portions will be on the small side for most people).

Gumbo and jambalaya with corn bread for lunch.  We ordered a coleslaw as a side.
Apart from the Cajun classics of gumbo and jambalaya, Bonz also offers other American dishes such as sliders (small burgers which I first came across at Depot), Southern fried chicken and BBQ babyback ribs.

Grilled marinated chicken sliders with avocado cream and tomato concasse, and culy fries
If you are going to be ordering one of the $10 lunch specials, we would recommend getting some starters or sides to share as well.  It's a good excuse for trying a few more items off the menu.

Hush puppies, and buffalo wings with blue cheese dressing.
This little eatery is small in many ways, but it is great to see it joining the ranks of places offering unique and tasty food around Auckland.

Panda Recommends

There aren't that many items on the menu, so just go for what you like.

Vegie Pandas
Unfortunately, none of the mains are vegetarian.  If you don't fancy coleslaw and cornbread or hushpuppies, you might need to try another stall at the food court.

Main menu.
Lunch specials.

Restaurant Details

Bonz Cajun Kitchen
Shop M11, Elliott Stables, 39-41 Elliott Street, Auckland Central
(09) 309 3025

Opening hours:
Mondays to Sundays 12 - 10pm


Bonz Cajun Kitchen is situated in Elliott Stables.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Europe Eating: Confusion at the Table

Going overseas is a very humbling experience, especially when you turn up at a country unable to speak the local language, and unsure of local customs.  But that's also what makes it an adventure.  Combine it with great food and good company, and in most cases, your mistakes will just be something to laugh about afterwards.

Here are a few stories I could tell about our recent trip to Europe, via Seoul...

Seoul: Just One Please

We were at the huge Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market, where, although not hungry, we felt obliged to try the freshest fish possible.  We had no idea which restaurant upstairs was good, so when the staff at one place called out "sashimi" (along with some Chinese words of encouragement), we decided to go in.  Too late, we discovered that the sashimi would cost around NZ$80, which would probably have been far too much food for us to eat.  Instead, we perused the menu and looked for something more suitable for a light meal.

We decided to get a portion of the crab soup, the first item on the menu.
Waitress: Sorry, no.
Us (looking at each other): There's no soup available?
Waitress: Cannot one.  Must soup two.
Us: Oh, but we only want one.
Waitress: One, no. Two, OK.

We were pretty bewildered at this.  The soup cost something like NZ$25 and we thought it was splashing out a bit already.  If you have been to Seoul, you would know that food there is generally pretty cheap, less than its equivalent in New Zealand.  What a tourist trap!  we thought, silently cursing ourselves for randomly walking into a place like this.  We scanned the menu desperately for something more reasonable, but everything was either boring or even more expensive, so we ordered the soup anyway.

Did we just spend $50 on soup? we asked each other.  OMG, OMG, OMG, wailed the scrooge in me.  But there was nothing we could do.  We were there, we had ordered, there was no use worrying about it now.

The complimentary side dishes came out. Not only was it high-quality food, the portions were huge.  From a seaweed salad, to silken tofu with a drizzle of sauce on top, to the obligatory kimchi, there was more than we could eat already.  Good from a value point of view, not so good when you don't have much of an appetite.

The rice came out, then finally, the soup.  Set on a gas burner, it arrived in a giant pot with huge chunks of fish in it, not a crab in sight.  And on top, sat a pungent vegetable I knew of as tong ho.  Our hearts sank.  This was a fail on so many levels.  This was surely at least two portions, and there was no way we could finish it. We would be spending a small fortune, and to top it off, we seem to have ordered the wrong soup as well!

Large pot of Korean fish soup, set on a burner.
It wasn't until we went to pay the bill that we finally worked out what had happened.  The lady didn't mean that we had to order two soups.  What she was trying to say was that soup number one, the crab one, wasn't available, but soup number two, the fish one, was.  That pot of soup was clearly not intended for one person, but for the whole table.

Istanbul: Tale of Two Figs

On our last day in Istanbul (our first destination in Europe), we got up extra early to check out the Inebolu Sunday Market, which according to the Guardian was "an Anatolian culinary carnival located in the downtown grime of Beyoğlu's Kasimpaşa district", a highlight for "genuine Istanbul foodies".  The ferry north wasn't running for some reason, and we weren't sure we trusted taking the bus (we had no idea where to buy the tickets, when it would come, or whether we had really been told the right bus number), so we walked the 3 km or so there. (Of course, if we had done our research beforehand, we probably wouldn't have stayed in the touristy Old City in the first place.)

I had expected a major international city like Istanbul to be open all the time, like other big cities in Asia, but as we took the refreshingly cool walk to the market, nearly all the shops we passed were shuttered and closed.  Our map led us to what looked like a nondescript little lane, more like a place you could get mugged than a treasure trove of culinary delights, but as we neared, we began seeing people with bags of groceries and finally, some stalls.

It wasn't a large market, with about the same number of traders as the Wesley Community Centre Market (a.k.a. Sandringham Market) here, but with smaller quantities of everything.  I admired how huge the heads of cabbage were, and how rustic the sellers made the eggs look, sitting in hay in woven baskets.  There were various forms of breads, olives, cheeses and jams, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables.  I wish I had tried harder to learn basic Turkish, as I would have loved to have found out more about the various products.

Since we were planning to leave that day, we couldn't go on a shopping spree.  But I also didn't want to leave empty-handed.  I decided to buy a couple of figs to try—if Turkish tomatoes were anything to go by, these would be packed with flavour and an absolute joy to eat.

Me (holding up two fingers, then pointing at the pile of figs): I'd like two figs, please. How much would that be?
Seller (holding up four fingers): Dört lira.  Four lira.

Wow, that's pricey, I thought to myself, but, well, no worse than if I'd bought them in New Zealand.  Maybe they are particularly delicious.  I handed over the money.

The seller put a handful of figs into a bag, then another handful.  And that's when I realised that I had purchased two kilos of figs, rather than just two.  I considered stopping him at one kilo, but as I had already paid for the full amount, and it would be too hard to explain anything in my non-existent Turkish, I waited, took the bag with a smile, and thanked him.  I gave away a lot of figs that day.

Quite a few more than two figs.
Rome: Tips for a Great Meal

We found ourselves at a restaurant close to our hotel in Rome one evening, without having researched what the tipping etiquette was in Italy.  The service had been friendly and the food excellent, so we decided to play it safe and err on the side of tipping too much, giving the waiter an extra 10% above the price on the bill.  It wasn't until we got back to our hotel and had internet access that we realised that this was 10% too much, as service is already included in the form of coperto.

The next evening, we returned to the restaurant as we had promised the waiter we would.  This time we were welcomed with a bubbly aperitif to begin, before we had even decided on what to order.  The tomato and mozzarella bruschetta we chose to share as an entree was clearly up-sized when it came out, with each of us receiving our own plate.

After another delicious meal, we couldn't bear to skip dessert.  We ordered the tiramisu as recommended, and for those who needed something lighter, simply pineapple and icecream.  Except it wasn't simple-looking at all.  We didn't know if this was how pineapple was normally served, but we were very impressed with being presented an elaborately-cut wedge of the fresh fruit, complete with leaves on top and the fibrous centre pinned back with a toothpick to reveal the sweet flesh laid out in a zig zag pattern.  The accompanying ice cream flavours were a delightful selection of chocolate, hazelnut and coffee, topped with a swirl of whipped cream.

Italian pineapple and ice cream dessert.
Just as we were about to ask for the bill, the waiter returned, this time with a glass for cloudy limoncello for each of us.

Well, that sealed it.  We certainly couldn't reduce our tip this time.  We may have paid a little too much, but for all the freebies and the royal treatment, it was definitely worth it!

Dresden: Once or Twice?

Our hotel in Dresden had warned us that everything would be closed on 3 October, because it was a national holiday.  On the German Unity Day (Tag der deutschen Einheit), the receptionist claimed, none of the supermarkets and practically none of the restaurants will be trading.  We might find some tourist attractions still open, but be prepared!

This was disappointing news indeed, as we had only planned to spend one day in this beautiful city.  Fortunately, it was not as dire as she had made it out to be.  We had no trouble visiting the eye-raisingly amusing Hygiene Museum or the Volkwagen Transparent Factory (where we were the only visitors on the English tour), nor did we have any difficulty finding food to eat.  In fact, there was a Herbstmarkt, or autumn market, in the old market square right next to our hotel.

As you might imagine, there were plenty of stalls selling sausages and beer.  There were also rides for the children, from a mini train to a ferris wheel.  Sweet treats included gingerbread hearts with words of love on them (I was surprised there were also messages in Russian, until I remembered we were in East Germany), French crêpes, and round doughnuts called Quarkkrapfen, which you can have either as is (ungefüllt), or filled with either jam (Marmelade) or eggnog (Eierlikör).

Fried quark ball filled with German eggnog (Quarkkrapfen mit Eierlikör).
We walked around until we found what we deemed to be the stall with the freshest-looking food.  This place offered multiple types of sausages, from currywurst to pferdebockwurst, herbed garlic mushrooms, a homemade Russian soup called soljanka, and a kale stew (pictured below) which we ordered.

Large pans of food cooking: soljanka (left) and kale stew (right).
Lady (ladling kale onto plate): Would you like fried potatoes with that?
Us: Sure.
Lady (adding fried potatoes, then placing a sausage on the kale): Mustard?
Us: Yep, great.
Lady: Once or twice?
Us (confused): Does she mean one or two sausages, or one or two squirts of mustard? Oh, twice, please.

Kale with smokey sausage from the Ore Mountains, fried potatoes and mustard (Grünkohl mit erzgebirgischem Knacker, Bratkatoffeln, Senf).
Wrong answer. We got two sausages and a large amount of mustard anyway, but what that question actually meant was: one plate or two?  There was only so much we could eat of the intensely smokey sausage, the salty kale and the very filling fried potato.  Sadly, we had to throw a plate away, and we didn't even get to try anything else on offer.  But hey, we enjoyed the meal, and we will know what to say next time someone asks us "once or twice?"

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Latest Marketing Gimmick: fruit drinks with 50% less sugar

The supermarkets have changed in the short time we were away in Europe.  Suddenly, the shelves are now filled with what looked like juice with 50% less sugar.  Hang on, I said to myself, how did they extract the sugar from the juice?  But how wonderful that they can, since I always mix my juice with an equal amount of water anyway, to soften its natural sweetness.

Same price, same brand.  Not obvious at all that one is a juice and one is a fruit drink.
Well, I discovered the answer on reading the label.  This new "juice" has 50% less sugar, because it is less than 50% juice.  That's right, what you are paying for is mostly water, mixed with juice and sweetener, a natural sweetener called stevia which is apparently all the rage these days.

Ingredients of the fruit flavoured drink with stevia.
And Just Juice isn't the only company doing this.  Charlie's also has a 50% less sugar range.  I wouldn't be surprised if all the other juice companies do the same.

I get it, it's a great way to make money if you can sell half the juice for the same price (okay, less than half the juice, plus some sweetener, colour, and flavour enhancer).  But why are people buying this stuff?  Isn't it just as easy and much more economical to simply mix some water with your juice?  Who wants it to be that sweet anyway?

Final rant: why are companies allowed to be named "Just Juice" and "Simply Squeezed", when their products are not what their name implies?

Review: Mojo, Viaduct Harbour

The problem with working close to Victoria Park is that there is not all that much to eat, at least if you are looking for a lunch that is tasty and not too expensive.  There's a plethora of sandwich chains (think Subway, Pita Pit, Habitual Fix, Hollywood Bakery) and restaurants (for instance the North Wharf eateries and the places above Victoria Park Market... oh, and the Taste of Auckland festival this weekend), but for reliable cheap eats you would have to take a long break into the central city.

So I didn't get too excited when I saw that the Union Cafe in the Vodafone Building had turned into yet another branch of Mojo, a coffee franchise I associated with Wellington and thick hot chocolates served in a tiny glass from a machine with rotating paddles (this no longer seems to be available in any branch).  I didn't even realise that they served food, other than the odd muffin or something.

But tales emerged from workmates of "restaurant-quality food" for less than restaurant prices at Mojo Viaduct Harbour.  I had to check it out.  And I am glad that I did.

This long and narrow cafe is stylishly decorated (though I don't understand the chairs hanging on the walls), and as soon as you are seated, you are given a carafe of free sparkling water. How very European (well, the sparkling part anyway)! There is Sicilian sea salt on the table.  I am impressed before we have even ordered.

Mojo counter.
Although there is counter food and a variety of salads for those on the go, the menu items looked more interesting.  From a pulled pork burger, to pan-fried fish, to open sandwiches, there is something to suit every taste.

Cumberland sausage coil from Westmere Butchery on smashed baby spuds with caramelised onion, two mustards & jus.
Shakshuka eggs baked in Middle Eastern cumin & tomato braise with chili & feta.
Tartine with grilled asparagus, white bean puree, poached organic egg, parmesan shavings.
The verdict?  Delicious food, refreshing menu, and beautifully presented dishes.  The meals can be slow to arrive if you have a large group, but with that sparkling water to keep you going, who's complaining?  We only wish they would open outside normal office hours.

Panda Recommends

[Added 21 May 2015: Since around October last year, though it took some time for us to try it, the menu has been a new one designed by Martin Bosley.]

Mains: Depends on whether you feel like something heavy or light.  Everything we have had has been very good.  And the menu changes regularly anyway.

Vegie Pandas
The Shashuka ($16.50) and Grilled Asparagus Tartine ($10.50) were both delicious.  Yay for options without a single pumpkin, mushroom, or spinach and feta component in sight.  There are some cabinet items you could have too.
Mojo lunch menu

Mojo breakfast menu

Restaurant Details

Mojo
Ground Floor, Vodafone Building, 20 Viaduct Harbour Avenue, Auckland
(021) 911 657
viaduct@mojocoffee.co.nz

Opening hours:
Mondays to Fridays 7am - 5pm


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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Money Matters: Drawbacks of the Air New Zealand OneSmart Card

In a previous post, I compared using the Air New Zealand OneSmart card as a travel wallet against other options, such as changing cash at a bank, and getting money out overseas using your credit card.  I found that this branded Mastercard debit card was a good choice, with no commission fees, no ATM withdrawal fees while overseas, and no offshore service margin/currency conversion fee if changing between supported currencies. Although I do still recommend using this card on your holiday, it does come with its share of frustrations as well.

Drawback 1: You can only spend what you have in your account.

The most obvious disadvantage of the OneSmart card is that, unlike a credit card, you have to plan ahead.  Debit cards work like prepaid phone cards: you need to put money on it before you can use it.  If you only have $29 in your OneSmart account, and you want to buy a $30 item, then—surprise, surprise!—that transaction will be declined.

What might be unexpected behaviour is that if you do not have enough money in the local currency wallet, but you have money tucked away elsewhere (e.g. you are making a purchase in Europe, and you don't have enough money in your EUR wallet, but you do have further funds in a USD wallet), then an automatic currency conversion from the other wallet will occur to allow your transaction to proceed.

What to do about it: Make sure you have loaded more than enough money for your use.  Yes, that does mean planning ahead.  You could also keep a credit card handy.  There is the issue of what to do with your leftover money when you have loaded too much - see the solution to Drawback 7 below.

Drawback 2: It takes a business day for the money you have transferred to show up on your OneSmart account.

If you transfer money to your OneSmart account on Friday night NZ time, chances are you won't be able to access that money until Tuesday morning.  That's waiting three and a half days before you can use it.

What to do about it: Keep an eye on what day of the week it is and how much money you have left to spend.  Top up if you have to before you hit the weekend, or you could find yourself using your credit card more than you intended to.

Drawback 3: The transaction history page is difficult to understand.

If you check OneSmart online (and I recommend that you do so regularly), you will see your current balance, your pending transactions and your transaction history.  Technically, you have everything you need: how much each transaction was, in what currency, and whether it was for loading cash, an ATM withdrawal, or a purchase, etc.  But it can be confusing for a number of reasons:
  • You can only see your current balance, not what you had in each wallet when a transaction was made.
  • Transactions can appear out of order (this is also true on your normal credit card, but there you are shown a running balance).
  • Each transaction is shown with a processing date, but this is not necessarily the date when you made the transaction.  Often you will find multiple transactions from the same day being processed at the same time.
  • Transactions can change currency from what was shown when they were pending, e.g. if you made a purchase in Euros, but had no money in your EUR wallet, the money will be converted from the first wallet you have money in, so the pending transaction could be shown in NZD (in this case, you will not be able to see the price you paid in Euros while the transaction is pending).  If you transfer money to your EUR wallet before the transaction is processed, the final transaction will be shown in EUR.
  • The same purchase can appear as multiple transactions.  I once had a payment split across three different currencies, because I did not have enough money in the first two wallets
  • If an automatic currency conversion occurs, you are shown what amount in the original currency was converted to what amount in the final currency, but you don't get to see the exchange rate.
  • Often an automatic currency conversion is not exact.  You end up paying a few cents more or less, leading to your balance occasionally showing something like EUR -0.03.  For instance, I withdrew 100 pounds from an ATM in London when I had no funds in my GBP wallet.  To pay for this, OneSmart automatically converted 200.98 NZD to 100.03 GBP.
What to do about it: If keeping a tab on your money in each wallet is important to you, make your own spreadsheet of running totals. I found this especially useful when I began using multiple currencies and suspected errors in the calculations (it turns out I had simply spent more money than I realised). It also allowed me to make notes on transactions when the default descriptions were not very enlightening.

Drawback 4: If you present your OneSmart card for authorisations and deposits, that money will be locked from use.

For deposits (e.g. on a rental car) and authorisations (e.g. for a hotel booking, in case you don't turn up), credit cards have an advantage, because you can still continue on as if nothing had happened.  When you have returned the car or shown up for your hotel stay, the pending transaction is simply cancelled.

On debit cards like the OneSmart, however, these transactions will put a certain amount of money on hold.  And simply returning the car or paying for your hotel does not mean you have access to those funds again.  You have to wait for the pending transaction to expire, which, according to a hotel that authorised the first night's stay without really warning me, would take 10-14 working days (that's 2-3 weeks of not being able to use the money, by which time your holiday might be over!).  The actual pending transaction I saw in my OneSmart account was marginally better, expiring after 9 days.

What to do about it: Watch out for authorisations and deposits, i.e. where merchants ask for your credit card details with little intention of taking the money.  Where these are requested, give them your normal credit card instead.  You can still pay for your hotel or car hire using your OneSmart though.

Drawback 5: Credit and debit cards do not work everywhere.

The OneSmart card has served me well.  It has worked with every ATM I have used it with, and I have never been charged fees by an ATM provider either.  However, a workmate was not so lucky.  He loaded his OneSmart up with all the money he planned to use, and went to Japan with no cash.  Too late, he discovered that Japan is a very cash-based society, and most ATMs there do not accept Western credit cards, including Visa and Mastercard; ones that display the logo often work only with credit cards issued in Japan.

What to do about it: This is not a problem with the OneSmart card, but with foreign credit cards in general. Do your homework. Research your destination ahead of time, and bring some cash with you just in case.  Eventually, my workmate worked out that in Japan he could get money out at ATMs in the 7-11 convenience stores between certain hours, and this seems to be true of ATMs in postal offices as well. [Added 27 January 2013: having returned from Tokyo recently, I can say that 7-11 ATMs work even at 9pm at night, whereas the ATMs at another convenience store (Lawson's) clearly stated that foreign credit cards are not accepted.  A random ATM I found at a subway station let me get out as little as ¥1,000 (around NZ$15), which was better than the 7-11 ones which had a minimum of ¥10,000 (~ NZ$150).]

Drawback 6: Those pesky fees...

As with all banking products, there are fees involved with using your OneSmart card.  I think they are entirely reasonable compared to, say, using your normal credit card overseas, but you should still acquaint yourself with them so you can avoid them as much as possible. [Added 8 May 2013: The new fees schedule effective 23 May is less attractive than it used to be.  I take another look in a newer comparison.] [Added 22 May 2013: And I vent by displeasure at the lack of notice given for the changes.]

What to do about it: Read through the OneSmart fees schedule. To avoid the Monthly Account fee, do not leave money in your NZD wallet for more than a month.  To avoid the Account Inactivity fee, make a transaction at least every three months, for instance by moving a small amount of money from one wallet to another.  Don't query your balance at an ATM, but rather check it online.  And so on and so forth... [Added 22 May 2013: The new changes removes the Inactivity Fee, but applies a reduced Monthly Account Fee regardless of where your money is sitting, so you cannot avoid it simply by moving your money to a foreign currency.]

Drawback 7: You can't transfer money back to your bank account.

The thing that people seem to be the most surprised or frustrated by, when they first use their OneSmart card, is that when they return home from their holiday, there is no easy way to get the leftover money out again.  You can't transfer the money back to your bank account.  There's a fee for getting cash out at an ATM in New Zealand using your OneSmart, and you can't withdraw less than $20 anyway.  And unless you are going to use it soon, your money is wasting away there, not collecting interest, not to mention there is the potential for fees to be charged unless you do something about it.

What to do about it: Depending on your situation, you could deal with your leftover money in a number of ways...

1) No trips planned anytime soon:
After your holiday, use your money up with your OneSmart card wherever you normally use your credit card.  Use it to pay for your groceries, your petrol, your online purchases, dinners with your friends.  At the Countdown supermarkets, the self-service kiosks have a "split payment" function, where you can specify the exact amount to charge to a card, so you don't even need to go to the trouble of trying to make your items add up to a particular number.

2) Friend is about to go on holiday:
Alternatively, if you have a friend who is about to go on holiday, who is planning to use their OneSmart card, you could give your money to them (click on the orange "Send Money" button underneath your balance in the top right corner).  All you need to know to do this is either their OneSmart account number or their mobile number. This not only saves you the trouble of having try to use the money up yourself, it also saves your friend the (pretty minimal) $1 load fee.  Currently, there is no fee for OneSmart account to OneSmart account transfers done online.

3) You are planning to go overseas again soon-ish:
If you purchased foreign currencies at a very good exchange rate, or if you can't be bothered getting your money out because you are planning another trip soon, you can, of course, opt to simply let your money sit in your OneSmart account.  See my solution to Drawback 6 about avoiding fees.

Drawback 8: You probably know more than the customer service staff.

It's sad but true: half the time I have rung up the customer service centre, someone has given me the wrong information.  This is true of many other organisations too, of course, so if I'm not in a hurry, I tend to write them an email.  It gives them time to think, you don't have to spend hours on the phone, and you have a written record of what was discussed.

Here are some untruths I have been told over the phone...

  • Myth 1: To avoid the Account Inactivity Fee when you have $0 in your NZD wallet but a positive balance in another wallet, you need to load some money at least once in a three-month period.  Reality: You just need to make a transaction, whether that is loading cash, purchasing goods or changing money from one wallet to another.
  • Myth 2: If you see a pending transaction disappear without going onto your transaction history, you are no longer liable for the purchase you have made.  Reality: In the unlikely event that the pending transaction expires before it has cleared, it looks as though the value of your purchase is returned to you and there is no record of the transaction visible anymore.  You can spend the money that you see (including the amount that was released from the pending transaction), but when the expired pending transaction finally clears, your account will go into a negative balance.  Unfortunately, if a currency conversion had to be done automatically (e.g. you made a purchase in NZD but you only had money in your HKD wallet), then the exchange rate will be calculated anew, possibly using a less favourable rate.
  • Myth 3: You would have received an email letting you know when your account was activated.  Reality: I keep all my important email, and I never received such a notification.  I did however work out my activation date based on when I presented my ID at an Air NZ Holidays Store as part of the activation process, and the fact that I had managed to load money into my account two days later.  It turns out you don't need to know what your activation date is anyway, as you will see in Myth 5.
Amazingly, what you read on their official website might not be true either.
  • Myth 4: You can only load up to $1,000 at a time. Reality: This has now been corrected to $10,000 on their FAQ page, but for the best part of a year, their old FAQ page displayed the mistaken value.
  • Myth 5: You will be charged a Monthly Account Fee if you have not loaded at least NZ$500 in the last month, and it is now the end of your activation month.  According to footnote 1 in the fees page, "month" means "each period of one month starting on the date you Activate your OneSmart Account. For example, if you Activated your OneSmart Account on the 7th of the month, you would need to load NZ$500 or more between the 7th of this month, and the 6th of the next month to qualify for the Monthly Account fee waiver." Reality: The Monthly Account Fee appears with the description "Subscription Fee" in your transactions. I was charged this fee on the 28th, and challenged it as my activation date is actually on the 16th, and I had made sure I had no money in my NZD wallet, until a refund came through just on the day the fee was charged. I had to fight for a refund, and a CSR tried to convince me that the fee is charged in monthly periods from the Account Creation Date (which he claimed was on the 30th) rather than the Activation Date.  I have subsequently been told by a different CSR that all accounts are charged on the 28th, regardless of when you activated.
  • Myth 6: There is a 2.5% currency conversion fee charged for unsupported currencies. Reality: I have not yet seen this charged [Added 8 May 2013: however this fee will be applied in the future according to the new fees schedule].

What to do about it: You can take the conservative approach, e.g. make sure you don't keep money in your NZD wallet for more than a month without loading more money, or you can learn how things work by trial and error, as I did.  If there is a problem (e.g. you were charged a fee when you shouldn't have been), then write an email to the help desk if you are happy to wait for a response.  Otherwise, make sure you have all the relevant information when you ring up, so you can argue your case effectively.  If that still fails, try calling again later.  A different CSR may be more clueful.

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So was it worth it using the OneSmart card, given the issues I've mentioned above?  Well, I can't tell you exactly how much I've saved, but from my twenty cash withdrawals from overseas ATMs alone, I have avoided paying 20 x $7.50 = NZ$150 in fees already (yes, that credit card cash advance fee has gone up at my bank!)  True, I would have gotten cash out less often otherwise, but I liked the fact that the OneSmart card made me feel free to withdraw smaller amounts of money more frequently. [Added 8 May 2013: according to the new fees schedule, only 3 international ATM withdrawals per month will be free.] Whether the extra time investment you need to use the OneSmart card is worth the savings it provides, is up to you to decide for yourself.  Happy travels!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Stopover in Korea: Our Best Airline Food Experience

I have to say I am really surprised that Korean Air did not feature in the World Airline Awards.  I have never flown on Qatar Airways or Asiana Airlines, which topped the list for 2012, but I have experienced Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific (coming 3rd and 4th respectively).  I was infinitely more impressed by Korean Air.

First Impressions

You already get a warm fuzzy as soon as you reach your seat, because along with your blanket and care package of toothbrush, toothpaste and slippers, you are welcomed aboard with a bottle of water.  Don't look at me incredulously—it's the small things that count, especially when you are flying in Economy class.  Having to ask for water repeatedly is one of the more annoying aspects of long distance flying.  That, and having your bottle confiscated at airport security before boarding.  On a Korean Air flight, the crew continue to look after you, serving orange juice and more water before you even realise that you are thirsty.

Delicious Korean Meals

The signal that a meal or snack is about to arrive is when you are handed a hot towel to clean your hands and refresh yourself with.  You are already feeling pampered, but if this is the first time you have flown with Korean Air, you may not realise just how good that meal will be.  If you make the right selection, that is.  Always go for the traditional Korean dish, whether it be bibimbap or bulgogi, because all airlines are also quite capable of giving you the dreaded rubbery, overcooked omelette or soggy pasta.

Here is what you get with a bibimbap (비빔밥) meal:
  • mixed vegetables and mince
  • steamed rice
  • seaweed soup
  • gochujang (고추장), the delicious chilli bean paste which always accompanies the dish
  • sesame oil
  • pickled vegetables
  • dessert or fruit
A bibimbap has many components.
It may not look like much, but it's a lot of fun emptying your rice into your vegetables and squeezing the tube of chilli paste over the top, then drizzling over the fragrant sesame oil, and stirring it all up. The flavours here are amazing, far superior to the usual airline food.  I also have a soft spot for seaweed soup, so I am just about swooning when I see it presented with the meal.

A partially eaten bowl of bibimbap.
And to drink?  Go for juice or wine if you must, but I recommend the hyeonmi nokcha (현미녹차), or brown rice green tea.

Bag of Korean brown rice green tea, just dropped into hot water.
Now I have a special word of advice for vegetarians: don't order a vegetarian meal.  If you aren't worried about picking out the mince, the bibimbap will be a gazillion times better than the limp vegetables or stodgy mash you would otherwise be eating.  And the rice porridge (죽 juk) that other people get served for breakfast is vegetarian anyway.  Wouldn't you too like to sprinkle vegetable seasoning over it, and nibble on a traditional sweet such as yaksik (약식)?

Surprisingly Good Snacks

We were as impressed by the snacks served by Korean Air as by their meals.  Shortly after takeoff, each passenger was offered American honey roasted peanuts.  For some reason, I thought airlines stopped feeding people peanuts years ago, in case someone happened to be severely allergic.

Honey roasted peanuts offered by Korean Air.
If you get hungry between meals, not only can you ask for instant noodles, but the flight attendants bring snacks around.  We randomly grabbed a couple of items in the dark, which turned out to be a triangular-shaped rice-and-beef packet wrapped in seaweed (삼각김밥 samgak gimbap), and a long rectangular cardboard box containing a stick of hot margherita pizza.  Hot pizza!  That was the first time we have ever seen pizza on a plane!  [Added 30 November 2012: Japan Airlines has announced it will serve KFC on US- and Europe-bound flights over the Christmas period, from the beginning of December to the end of February, which is about as amazing.]

Hot margherita pizza, our first on a plane.
And While You Were Sleeping...

What to do if you want to sample the food, but need a nap in the meantime?  Well, in your seat pocket, there are stickers you can leave on the seat on front of you, to let the staff know whether they should wake you for your meal.  Should you nod off without leaving a note, they will check with the person behind you to make sure it is okay to leave your seat leaning back.  And when you wake, there will be a message, letting you know that you can simply ask for your meal if you still want it.  Imagine that!

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All in all, we were completely won over by the level of service and the quality of the food on Korean Air.  Fly with them and try it out for yourself.  Just don't forget to choose the Korean meal options, or don't say I didn't warn you!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Stopover in Korea: Chicken and Hof, and Other Surprises

You know how there seem to be two unofficial Chinatowns in Auckland, the more raved about one on that stretch of Dominion Road by the Balmoral Road intersection, and the other in Meadowlands, out Howick way?  Those places make sense to me.  They have variety, with different regional cuisines, and cater mainly to the Chinese immigrant population, though more and more other people go there now too.

What I struggle to understand is how the cluster of Korean eateries on Upper Queen Street came to be. All the Koreans I know say they are nothing compared to the flavours of their own mother's kitchen, and to my untrained palate, each one is much the same as the next.

Prior to us having a four-day stopover in Seoul on the way to Europe, these Auckland eateries taught me all I knew about Korean food, for instance:
  • bibimbap (비빔밥) is an assortment of vegetables and/or meat on a bowl of rice, served with gochujang (고추장), a chilli paste that you are supposed to stir through it. This is your best bet for a vegetarian meal.
  • almost all dishes are spicy and red-looking
  • there are buttons on the sides of the tables for summoning the waiters
  • there are always complimentary side dishes, from kimchi (김치) to bean sprout salads to slices of boiled egg, though some places make you pay for a top-up
  • at Korean BBQ restaurants, such as Faro, you can grill your own dinner, with an extraction fan in the form of a dangling pipe to remove the smoke
We did find these things in Korea, but we also saw plenty of other foods we never knew about.

1) Chicken and Hof

Everywhere we went, we saw signs advertising chicken and hof.  Turns out these are popular Korean-style pubs serving fried chicken and draft beer.  The theory is that the term "hof" came from "Hofbräuhaus", the name of a famous brewery in Germany. Apparently, the first German set foot in Korea in 1832. My Korean friend, however, is convinced that hof is simply a mispronunciation of hops, the ingredient which gives beer its bitter flavour.

The first such place we went to gave us a novel mix of food.  The fried chicken was delicious, with a hint of 5-spice in the coating, while another version was covered in mildly sweet sauce and almond flakes.  This was accompanied by a coleslaw with raspberry-flavoured dressing and criss-cut fries, both of which we had previously encountered only at Carl's Junior, an American chain.

Fried chicken, one covered in sauce.
Yet the pub was still very much Korean, and we were served snacks like popcorn (the round mushroom-shaped ones rather than the butterfly-shaped ones more commonly seen in New Zealand) and pickled radish cubes while we waited for the hot food.

Pickled radish and round popcorm, along with dipping salts and sauces.
2) Korean Egg Bread (계란빵 gyeranppang)

In cold weather, the Koreans have a street snack called gyeranppang, literally "egg bread".  A lot of people say this is like a pancake or waffle with a whole egg, but it tasted more like a sweet sponge to me, with an egg either inside or on top, shaped into a little loaf.  As with most street food, to enjoy it properly, you really need to eat it fresh and hot.

Road-side stall with a platter of steaming egg bread.

Egg bread, now cold and somewhat deflated.

Cartoon at a bus stop featuring an egg bread and a bungeoppang (붕어빵), a fish-shaped pastry filled with red bean paste, another winter street food.
3) Really Fresh Street Food

On the topic of street food, they have really fresh stalls in Korea.  We stayed close to the Jongno-3(sam)-ga station, and at one of the exits, we even saw live seafood (fish, squid, etc.) swimming in tanks on the side of the street.  This is something we might have expected at a high-end seafood restaurant, not at a little eatery by the side of the road!

Some unusual forms of aquatic life at a little eatery.
When we ordered a meal (through mime and with help from a youth dining nearby), the stallholder started chopping onions and chillies right then and there.  There are of course also stalls where the offerings look like they have been sitting around for a while, but we avoided those, and can safely say we have never had a bad meal in Korea.

Little eateries line the street by an exit to the jongo-3-ga station.
Street stall selling meat skewers.
In fact, we have not seen so many street vendors before in such a large modern city, because in places like Singapore and Hong Kong, they have all been pushed into hawker centres or actual shops, apparently for hygiene reasons (just like here in New Zealand).  And such variety too!  Depending on where we went, we saw everything from cooked meals to grilled sweetcorn to filled pancakes to dried cuttlefish.

Preparing dried chillies.
4) Coffee Shops

We had no idea coffee was so popular in Korea, but we saw coffee shops everywhere in Seoul, from Starbucks, to places that looked very much like it.  Convenience stores and supermarkets also had a large coffee offering.

Sign for one of many coffee chains.
Coffee selection at a large department store.
4) The Many Varieties of Rice Cakes (떡 tteok)

We've had Korean rice cakes (떡, tteok) in savoury dishes before, and knew that the chewy white strips tasted much like plain glutinous rice flour.  What we weren't prepared for was for the discs served with our tea to taste like that as well, especially since there was a swirl of colour through them.  Once you get past the initial surprise at them not being sweet, you can start to taste the sesame oil and subtle rice flavour.

Rice snacks in a tea house.
Other rice cakes are supposed to be sweet, for instance in those colourful balls reminiscent of Japanese mochi, but they were nowhere near as sweet as we expected.

Variety of glutinous rice cakes in Seoul.
I wish we had found time to go to the Tteok Museum, which was just down the road from our hotel.  At the time, we had no idea what that was, and had too many other places to explore, but I would have enjoyed learning about the 200 hundred types of rice cake going back 2000 years, and their cultural significance. We could have taken some cooking courses from the Institute of Traditional Korean Food (situated in the same building) as well.

5) Korean Melons (참외 chamoe)

We saw many fruits and vegetables sold in the streets of Seoul, the most exotic of which was the Korean Melon (though the spherical grapes were pretty unusual too, tasting like what I previously identified as the "fake grape flavour" in Asian fruit jellies).  Looking like a yellow courgette, the Korean melon had the flesh colour and juicy firmness of a pear, but the flavour of a sweet rockmelon.  It comes in a good serving size too, about the size of a fist.  Yum!

Fist-sized Korean melon.
Inside of Korean melon, image from Forest and Kim Starr.

6) Expensive Food Gifts

The Korean melons above cost less than NZ$1 each.  I discovered the more familiar-looking melons below at an upmarket department store, and I'm not sure if they actually count as food, because really, do people eat these?  The rockmelons on the far right, cutely tied in ribbon, cost... *drum roll please*... ₩22,000 (~NZ$24.50) each. The smaller watermelon on the left costs ₩32,800 (~NZ$36.50).  As for the large round watermelon on the right?  Take a guess: $50, $100?  No, that costs an extraordinary ₩245,000 (~NZD$272).  That's right, that's over NZ$270!  That person you want to please had better really like their watermelon!

Expensive melons!
For something a little different, you could buy a large fruit basket for ₩153,000-207,000 (~NZ$170-230), a box of pine nuts for ₩120,000 (~NZ$133), or even splash out on the most expensive mushroom in the world, the pine mushroom (송이 songyi in Korean; 松茸 matsutake in Japanese), for ₩580,000 (~NZD$644) for the box in the photo.

Gifts to impress.
7) Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market

Okay, so this isn't technically a food, but the fish market at Noryangjin is huge, with over 700 stalls over 66,000 square metres!  We have never seen so much seafood in one place before, much of it still swimming. And unlike the biggest food market in the world at Rungis, visitors are welcome.  There are also restaurants in the building, where you can eat a fish you have just bought (or the restaurant can purchase one for you downstairs).  Fancy a live octopus á la Oldboy, tentacles still squirming in your mouth?  You're in the right place!

We didn't get up early enough to witness the auctions, but we were impressed anyway!

First glimpse of the Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market.

Some of the seafood available at one stall.
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We only spent a few days in Seoul, and can only have scratched the surface of the food in Korea.  But in that short time, we have already come to realise that what we see in Auckland is only a small subset of Korean cuisine.  We have had many delicious meals, but this place definitely warrants a return visit!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Europe Eating: Missing in Action

We've just come back from a six-week holiday in Europe.  Yay for returning to our electric toothbrushes, and as much internet usage as we want.  It's good to be home, and somewhat strange as well.  The puha weed has taken over our garden.  The November issue of the Cuisine magazine was waiting for us, with a Christmas tree on the cover (what, Christmas already?!).  We spent all day eating things we'd been missing on the other side of the world: muesli and milk for a very early breakfast (we woke up before 6am), a peanut butter sandwich snack, a cooked breakfast with bacon and eggs for the other panda (fried in butter for extra tastiness), then yum cha for lunch.

Puha running wild in our garden.
You'd think that major international cities like London, Paris and Berlin would have all the things you could possibly wish for, at all hours of the day and night.  It turns out that they did not have the same frenetic pace as the large cities in Asia, nor was the cuisine as varied as we had thought it would be.

Foods in New Zealand that we missed

Below are what we haven't been able to have (or have much of) on our European holiday, with which we have been spoilt in Auckland.  You could probably obtain some items, like peanut butter, from a specialty store, but we weren't prepared to go far out of our way, and besides, we enjoyed eating the local dishes too.

1) Cheap and Delicious Chinese Food (including yum char)

In Germany, the Chinese restaurant we went to didn't even offer us chopsticks, gave us sugar cubes with our jasmine tea, and served all the dishes on on a bed of tea lights (apparently they do this in Thai restaurants also).  In France, every Chinese eatery we saw outside of Chinatown looked like a deli, or a colder version of Magic Wok, with all the dishes precooked and laid out for you to choose from.  We didn't dare try Chinese anywhere else, on the assumption that it would be expensive and bad.  And there was no yum cha to be seen.

[Added 1 Nov 2012: I said "Chinese" rather than "Asian", because that's what we tried, and also because we found good Asian in the form of Vietnamese food as mentioned below.  A friend told us of dismal attempts to eat ramen in Spain and Italy though: in one place he was served rice noodles, and another gave him instant noodles.]

2) Cooked Breakfast

Outside of Britain, the typical European breakfast seems to consist of croissants and coffee, or maybe bread and jam with a glass of juice.  All sickeningly sweet and unfulfilling.  At one hotel, I asked if they had anything which wasn't sugary, and they pointed me in the direction of the supermarket!

Cooked breakfast in London - not the best, but we were glad to have one at all.
I wasn't after bacon or sausages, or even something as exotic as baked beans or hash browns.  A simple fried egg on toast would have sufficed.  We might have been able to find places that would serve us such a meal, had we tried hard enough, but in the end it was easier to skip straight to lunch.

3) Fresh Milk (with your tea)

France, Italy and Turkey (well, as least part of it is technically in Europe) have abundant quantities of butter, cheese and yoghurt, but nobody seems to drink milk, at least not with their tea. We never saw a 2L bottle of milk for sale in the supermarket, and it was never offered with the black teas we ordered, though you can of course have it with your coffee.  Perhaps it's the cafés au lait which account for the surprisingly higher consumption of milk in France and Italy than in New Zealand?  Strangely, the tradition of adding milk to your tea apparently began in France in the 17th century, before being adopted by the English.

What milk we have seen has been in the form of UHT sterilised milk, rather than fresh.  According the David Lebovitz' blog, the London Times reported that 95.5% of milk consumed in France is UHT sterilised.  A forum post from 2009 showed that UHT consumption as a percentage of total consumption according to the newspaper was:

Country% UHT milk consumption
Austria20.3
Belgium96.7
Czech Rep71.4
Denmark0.0
Finland2.4
France95.5
Germany66.1
Greece0.9
Hungary35.1
Ireland10.9
Italy49.8
Netherlands20.2
Norway5.3
Poland48.6
Portugal92.9
Slovakia35.5
Spain95.7
Sweden5.5
Switzerland62.8
Britain8.4

4) Reasonably Good Coffee

Every coffee we have had in Italy - even on the train - has been fantastic.  Every coffee we have had anywhere else, be it in Germany, the UK, Switzerland or even France, has been dire: sometimes bitter, sometimes sour, sometimes burnt, sometimes chemical-tasting (as if you were drinking the cleaning solution with the coffee), sometimes a mixture of the above.

Numerous articles have been written on why the coffee in Paris is so bad, explaining that the French government pushed the inferior robusta coffee beans that was grown in its colonies, rather than the higher-quality arabica beans.  You might also like to read how the French ruined coffee and how not to drink black tar in Paris.  I couldn't find any commentary on the other countries, but I guess there isn't the same expectation of good coffee elsewhere, except maybe in Spain, which we did not visit on this trip.

5) Peanut Butter

Actually, we forgot about this one until we saw a peanut butter milkshake on the menu of a Parisian burger joint.  Yes, it's available, but it's definitely not commonplace.  People in Europe much prefer to spread their bread with Nutella or jam, from what we could see.

Foods in Europe that we will miss

Of course, now that we are home, we will start noticing plenty of things which we could eat in Europe, which are not available here.  Here are some that come to mind.

1) Excellent Butter

The Lewis Road Creamery is doing a good job of providing New Zealand with tasty local butter, but the butter from Jean-Yves Bordier, which David Lebovitz lists as one of the 10 insanely delicious things you shouldn't miss in Paris, was better.  Even the supermarket-branded butter which we sampled at an aunt's house in France was unbearably delicious, and we ate it up in much vaster quantities than was good for us.

2) Proper Hamburgers

It may sound odd that we sought out burgers to eat in Paris, but let me tell you this: every burger we have eaten there has been superior to any burger we have been able to buy here.  Why?  Because they cook their patties the way they cook their steaks, so that the meat is still pink in the middle.  Because they use the proper bun and the proper cheese, without trying to do anything fancy like add rosemary to the bread, slather everything in aioli, or use a special salsa in place of the usual lettuce and tomato.  And probably because they use fresh ingredients and simply care.  (On the other hand, they never salt their fries, so you can't have everything.)

A half-eaten burger, pink inside.

3) Good Vietnamese

We had our best Vietnamese meal to date (outside of Vietnam of course) at Good Morning Vietnam in Berlin.  We enjoyed our meal here more than at the more famous Monsieur Vuong down the road, and there were plenty of other Vietnamese eateries we didn't get to try, presumably because of the communist connection.

Likewise, the Chinatown in Paris was predominantly filled with Vietnamese eateries rather than Chinese ones, no doubt because Vietnam was a former French colony.  We've heard they are very good too, though we ran out of time before we could try any.

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At the end of the day, it's a good thing that the European countries have kept their cuisines and cultural identities intact.  We might gaze in wonder at the self service kiosks you can find in the McDonald's of Switzerland and France, and while it is a curiosity for us, we travel so that we can see and taste something a little different.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Mangere Market

On the taxi ride back from Wellington last week, our driver mentioned that there were betel plants for sale at the Mangere Saturday Market.  Not surprisingly, I made a trip out to check it out as soon as possible.

Betel seeding from the Mangere Market.
The Mangere Market is like a small version of the Avondale Sunday Market, with stalls selling toys, vegetable peelers and the like, as well as a section with fresh vegetables, and hot food trucks at the edges of the market.  It has a very multicultural feel: I saw people in various types of ethnic dress, from men with headdresses and flowing robes, to women completely covered but for the eyes. There is plenty of free parking, as well as the advantage of being right in the Mangere Town Centre.  This means that it is easy to explore the permanent stores next to the market, and you could even pop across the road to a reasonably priced cafe if you were hungry and didn't feel like the deep-fried and/or sugary offerings within the market.

Some of the fruits and vegetables at the market.

Stall selling glutinous rice packets, pork crackling, prawn crackers, etc.

A hot food truck with Chinese-influenced items.
What I really enjoyed was a tour of the shopping complex leading to the market.  Since we live next to what might possibly be the most boring supermarket in Auckland, it is always a source of delight when I discover new things which are available elsewhere.  Apart from vegetables imported from the Pacific Islands, and whole spices used in Indian cooking, I found such unfamiliar animal parts as pork tails.  The fish stores sold eel steaks, crabs and kina (complete with dark spikes, or else prepacked in plastic tubs), in addition to fish.

Box of kina.
One of the stores had the tagline "bringing cultures together".  In my opinion, that would apply to the entire town centre, along with its Saturday market.

Market Details

Mangere Market
Mangere Town Centre, 93 Bader Drive, Mangere, Auckland
(09) 275 6077

Market hours:
Saturdays 7am - 2pm


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