Just call me Miss Saigon - OD goes to Vietnam

Brence emailed me yesterday afternoon and suggested it was time for another Operation Dumpling expedition, to which I heartily agreed, as the prospect of charting new and exotic culinary territory was far more exciting than facing the leftover meatballs languishing in the bottom of my fridge.

We decided to head out on foot from my flat in central Christchurch and see where the winds of chance would take us. After nearly going into a Korean restaurant, then almost wandering over to a Thai restaurant, we finally ended up at the bottom of Colombo Street in front of the Little Saigon Vietnamese restaurant. We were entranced by their lovely bamboo-vertical-blind-animal-mural window display, so in we went.

It's Vietnam! (behind South City Mall, around the corner from The Warehouse)

Me posing oh-so-attractively in front of the lovely window mural-bamboo-blind thingy

Inside the place looks much like innumerable other inexpensive Asian restaurants in town - open plan and fairly plain with functional if not beautiful table settings. Little Saigon, however, did have some really cool wall art. There were a couple large landscape paintings (presumably of Vietnam?) and some other wacky kitsch decorations. The one near our table was sort of a diorama of a crane (?) with blinky multi-coloured xmas lights! Very cool.

The menu itself was quite pretty, with attractive pictures of yummy looking food. We hoped the standard of the meal would live up to the standard of their desktop publishing efforts.

After perusing the menu we decided to only choose items that contained the word 'Vietnamese' in them, for extra authenticity. So, we ended up ordering the following items:

Fresh Vietnamese spring rolls

Vietnamese pork and rice noodle soup

Spicy grilled chicken (Vietnamese style)

and my personal favourite mystery item: the Special Vietnamese Dessert.

We also ordered another dessert item, the Mung Bean with Coconut Cream and Ice, because the idea of eating beans for dessert was too enticing to pass up. Since we arrived, the restaurant filled up quickly with patrons and there was a steady stream of customers ordering takeaway food - obviously this place is really popular.

Sharon eating rice in the surrounds of Little Saigon

The food came out really quickly once we ordered, I'm sure we waited less than 5 minutes before the spring rolls turned up. They were not what we expected - being used to the spring rolls from Chinese take-out places, I was surprised to see that these ones were not deep fried and crispy. Instead, they were served cold and uncooked. And boy were they good! They tasted so very fresh and lovely. We weren't really sure what exactly the ingredients were, but there was lettuce and something that Brence thought was pork and something else I thought was maybe tofu. Who knows? The mystery ingredients were wrapped burrito-style in a thin translucent dough, which Wikipedia leads me to believe could have been made from mung bean flour. The spring rolls came with a lovely dip, like sweet chilli sauce but quite thin in consistency and with peanuts in it.

Vietnamese spring rolls - they were delicious.

Next up was the soup, and by george now we were really on a roll! Hot, savoury and delicious, we both hunkered down over the bowl and slurped it up as fast as our chopstick prowess would let us. There were plenty of pieces of pork, loads of noodles (we tried to eat one long noodle Lady-and-the-Tramp-style but failed miserably), and the broth was savoury with a touch of sweetness, with bits of spring onion and small bits of fried onion floating in it. Very good, and quite filling.

Soup's on! Brence digs in.

But there was no rest for the wicked as next up was the spicy chicken. And CRAP was it ever spicy. A little too spicy for me, alas, but Brence didn't mind it. The chicken itself was good, quite tender with a fairly dry chili 'sauce' coating it. It was nice, but a bit too hot for me so I think next time I'll order something different as I prefer Asian food that is quite saucy.

Spicy chicken - Vietnamese style

Now it was time for the mystery Vietnamese Special Dessert and the Mung Bean concoction we ordered. Both arrived looking remarkably similar and equally mysterious...

Mung Bean dessert on the left, Special Vietnamese Dessert on the right.

Not sure what exactly to do with our concoctions, we explored them further to find various lumpy bits...

errrrr... but what IS it?

We ended up asking one of the restaurant staff what on earth we were eating. The desserts were both tall glasses of ice with coconut milk containing toasted peanuts and large yellow blobs made from mung bean paste, and the 'special' dessert also had small bright pink blobs made from rice flour. Sound interesting? They were that! The mung bean blobs had the WEIRDEST texture - sort of like a cross between thick peanut butter and that gritty paste the dentist uses to clean your teeth. The pink rice flour blobs tasted really smooth and a little rubbery but quite squishy also. Neither type of blob had much flavour of its own, but luckily the coconut milk contributed a general sweetness to the overall affair.

It was quite possibly the most interesting dessert I've ever had.

Which means Operation Dumpling is a roaring success! We wanted to brave new territory and not fall into always ordering the same old stand-by items when we went out to eat (no sweet and sour chicken!), and we are certainly gaining some new taste experiences as we travel the world of international foods.

Overall Vietnam went very well, and I'm sure it will be a country to which Operation Dumpling will one day return.

So long, Saigon, until next time...

1 comments Posted by Sharon on Friday, March 28, 2008

The progress so far!

Here is a picture of the map on my wall at home, with our progress so far.

We are off to a roaring start, it has only been two and a half weeks and we have been to 6 countries so far.

Don't forget that you can also look at our online map to see the latest Operation Dumpling progress!

1 comments Posted by B on Sunday, March 16, 2008

The mission comes home to New Zealand

Operation dumpling takes a stop over for some local New Zealand tucker!

Ahh... the good old meat and potatoes.

My parents have just sold their Sheep farm, which was in Pleasant Point, a small town near Timaru, which is 2.5 hours south of Christchurch. As they are now homeless, they had a whole bunch of meat and food that needed a home... which found its way into my freezer! Yay! I inherited approximately 39 varieties of jam (toast, anyone?) and some reeeeaaalllly nice meat, straight from the farm!

I had so much meat that I had to store some of it in Sharons freezer as well, and "unfortunately" we had to get onto eating it straight away. What a shame!

New Zealand is known around the world for its sheepy-ness, in fact, I remember as a kid living in England that it was a very special treat to go to the local Tescos and buy New Zealand lamb! New Zealand has a lot of traditions carried over from England, one of which being the good 'ol roast dinner.

Upon inspecting the huge leg of lamb we decided that we would need some help to eat it, and invited some friends over to join in. After the meat finished defrosting, we actually discovered that our enormous leg of lamb was in fact 2 legs of lamb. Yum!

thats a lot of meat...

We cooked the lamb for three and a half hours on a really low heat and it turned out beautifully tender! We made so many roast vegetables that they did not have the space to spread out and crisp up and the end result was more of a roast vegie mash, but it tasted really good! I did miss my crispy roast potatoes though.

We ended up cooking way to much food, and ended up eating far too much (is there such a thing??)

Operation dumpling comes home to New Zealand!

2 comments Posted by B on Sunday, March 16, 2008

A taste of India

It was a Wednesday night and we couldn't be bothered cooking. What better reason to do another trip with Operation Dumpling!

Sharon's flat is a 10-minute walk from downtown Christchurch, so we wandered over to see what we could find, and ended up at The Raj Mahal (corner of Manchester and Worcester Sts).

We both like Indian food (and hey, what's not to like?), and we particularly liked the way the menu was laid out, organising the food more by geography and social history rather than by the standard chicken, fish, lamb, etc.

We ordered onion bhajees to start (a bit of a cliche, we know, but they are SO good!), followed by Raj Mahal Hara Murgh (chicken with capsicum in a green curry sauce), Maharaja Gosht (lamb with onions, brown cardmom and ground cloves) - both from the 'Muglai' section of the menu - with Peshwari Naan (naan bread stuffed with dried fruit and nuts, very coconutty).

In keeping with the Operation Dumpling spirit, we skipped over the local wines and went straight for some Indian beer, ordering a Kingfisher (the world's No.1 selling Indian beer) and a Cobra (the alternative Indian beer on the menu). We both preferred the Kingfisher and stuck to that for round two (and probably drank a tad too much of it, actually...)

bhajees and beer... so good!

The food was tasty (the Peshwari naan is a must-try if you like coconut). Sadly we didn't bring a camera with us but took a few low-res pics on Sharon's cell phone in order to document the occasion.

The green stuff may look like cartoon snot but trust us, it tasted great!

I'm sure India is a country Operation Dumpling will visit many times, both on restaurant-based and home-cooked missions, but this meal at the Raj Mahal made an excellent start, setting the standard for meals to come.

Another day, another country conquered...

0 comments Posted by B on Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Bodhi Tree - Cuisine of Burma

Last night Operation Dumpling went to Burma (or, if you want to be official, the Union of Myanmar) with a trip to one of Christchurch's more understated yet legendary restaurants. If you mention The Bodhi Tree to anyone that's been there, the name elicits groans of pleasure at the mere thought of the tantalising dishes on offer. ("Mmmmmmm... crumbly fish!" says Sharon)

The interior is simple and unassuming (much like The China Kitchen), yet make no mistake - you won't get a table unless you've booked at least a few days in advance.

The Bodhi Tree serves Burmese food that is a real dining experience. All the dishes are entree sized, making it a fun place to go with a group as you order a number of dishes for the table and everybody shares. The bigger the group, the more of the menu you get to experience.

The Bodhi Tree's menu describes their approach to food like this:

"The ideal Burmese meal is to eat rice in the most appetising way possible. For this you need tasty accompaniments. These must combine well for consistency and taste, not omitting those saliva-making flavours which will induce the eating of more rice."

My parents came with us again (it was Dad's birthday actually) and we ate as much as we could, and every single item was absolutely delicious. Here's the breakdown!

Pickled tea leaf and lentil salad (crunchy!)

Crumbly fish with crisp lettuce (one of Sharon's favourites)

Green beans with shallots, chilli and nuts (tasty!)

Grilled eggplant with shallots and coriander (also tasty!)

Roasted mushrooms with emon and shallots (yes, they use a lot of shallots)

Pork curry with (wait for it) shallots, garlic and spices (tender and savoury)

Deep fried marinated chicken with garlic and soy (the overall favourite of the evening)

Cubed marinated lamb with chilli and mint dip (YUM!)

tea leaf and lentil salad, and crumbly fish - which you wrap up in the lettuce leaves burrito-style...

...like so!

Everything was delicious. The food is simple, fresh and extremely flavourful. The Bodhi Tree certainly lives up to its stellar reputation as a must-visit Christchurch restaurant. We recommend you go with a big group so you can eat the whole menu!

Our second pin in Asia!

0 comments Posted by B on Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Its time for some Dumplings! Operation Dumpling goes to China

Well, we just couldn't resist it. The China Kitchen is a little Chinese restaurant tucked away just off Hereford St here in Christchurch, that you would hardly even notice as you walk past.

As the sign outside says, "The Best Dumplings in Town".

Enough said. It was only a matter of time before Operation Dumpling found you.

Truth be told, we've actually been to the China kitchen before, thanks to our foodie friend Dave Lane for introducing us to both this and the "Cheap but Yummy" Asian restaurant. We have sampled the delights of the China Kitchen's fat, juicy dumplings before but were keen to go back and on an official Operation Dumpling diplomatic visit. We were actually out for dinner with my parents, so we shared a plate of dumplings and then ordered 3 dishes to share: Ginger chicken, BBQ pork and a Chinese beef curry. The servings were huge and each dish was delicious, and we were all left feeling quite full.

here we are in China...

Oh the dumplings and their dumplingy goodness...

The China Kitchen is quite small and it really does just feel like you could be sitting in someone's kitchen. There are boxes of tissues for napkins and glass mugs for your chilled water which is served in a Tupperware jug. The atmosphere, however, was friendly and the place was packed with Asian customers, which is always a good sign.

The food was great (not to mention cheap!). This is a great little spot that we both heartily endorse and will no doubt revisit on our journey with Operation Dumpling.

Oh, "...and are the dumplings the best in town?" I hear you ask. Well, based our dumpling consumption in Christchurch so far I would have to say "Yes!"

another pin in the Operation Dumpling map!

0 comments Posted by B on Sunday, March 09, 2008

Sombrero up! Operation Dumpling heads to Mexico!

On Friday afternoon I emailed Sharon at work and said "Operation Dumpling is going to Mexico tonight... I'll get Margarita mix on the way home from work!"


And so we journey south from our last destination (yummy yummy American burgers) and head across the border.

The plan was simple. We were going to make margaritas and enchiladas. Operation Dumpling is mostly about having fun, so our Mexican was not exactly authentic. Some pre-made Mexican sauce (thank you, Old El Paso) and Margarita mix (thank you, Jose Cuervo) made the last minute decision to do Mexican a little easier to pull off!

what can I say; if you're going to go to Mexico, you need a Sombrero!

By complete random chance Sharon happened across 2 cheap sombreros on that very day when she popped into her favourite thrift store after work - the universe must be smiling on Operation Dumpling. We dug up some cheesy Mexican sounding music (thank you, internet) and found a ridiculous looking movie called 'A Fist Full of Dynamite' (thank you, the Warehouse and your cheap imported bargains) - the plot revolving around a crazy Mexican thief and a dynamite throwing Irish terrorist during the Mexican revolution.

We started the evening by over indulging on chips and Sharon's 'world famous' home made guacamole whilst cooking our enchiladas. And, ahem, having a few margaritas. By the time the enchiladas were ready we did not have much space left to eat them, but damn did they taste good! Old El Paso may not be completely authentic but it tastes damn fine.

And, despite the cheesy looking bottle of 'just add tequila' margarita mix, we were impressed with the margaritas as well.

The movie on the other hand, whilst funny was a little long and drawn out. Two and a half hours into the movie we were a little tired after all that cooking ...and a few too many margaritas, so we bailed on the movie and headed for bed.

All in all our trip to Mexico was a rousing success... and a country to which Operation Dumpling will no doubt return (once we buy more margarita mix).

the aftermath....

0 comments Posted by B on Saturday, March 08, 2008

Send us on a mission!

Operation Dumpling wants YOU...

...to give us your suggestions and ideas!

Would you like to send us on a mission to experience the culinary delights of a particular country? Do you have any recipes you want to share, or restaurants you think we should try? Issue us a challenge and we promise we'll take up the gauntlet! Read more...
3 comments Posted by B on Friday, March 07, 2008

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Aren't there 195 countries? Are you going to do them all?
    Well maybe, we are certainly going to try! We aren't in any particular rush. The goal of Operation Dumpling is to experience different types of food and get out of our regular 'routine' of eating the same stuff at the same places, and try something new (instead of always ordering sweet and sour pork at the local Chinese takeout).
  • Will you only do each country once?
    No, definitely not! We plan on doing some countries several times. We also plan to do iconic or even 'vaguely' related food for certain places as well, such as New York cheesecake for New York, or Yorkshire pudding for you guessed it...Yorkshire! Sharon is particularly excited about Buffalo Wings.
  • Is it just related to food for each country?
    No. Operation Dumpling's main focus is on food, but we will also include drinks (such as cocktails) and Movies, and potentially anything else that seems appropriate and interesting or fun!
0 comments Posted by B on Wednesday, March 05, 2008

United States - Burger Burger Burger!

Operation Dumpling got off to flying start with a visit to the one and only fat food nation USA! Home made burgers are on the menu, and Sharon is excited.
The first pin goes in!

Sharon (an ex-Dairy Queen burger-assembler) also has her own very specific (anal) way of assembling burgers - all the ingredients have to be in precisely the right order, from top to bottom, for maximum tastiness (she claims). In case you are wondering, that order is:

Top Bun (slightly toasted)
Ketchup and mustard (Heinz/Watties and French's)
Bacon (2-3 slices, American rasher style, crispy)
Melted cheese (real please, not those phony slices)
Burger pattie (the fatter the better, homemade of course)
Sliced pickle (dill, not sweet)
Tomato (2 thick slices, slightly overlapped)
Lettuce (iceberg, crisp)
Mayonnaise (Best Foods brand)
Bottom Bun (also slightly toasted)

As you can imagine, the burgers required some squashing to get them down to an edible size, but they were delicious and well worthy of being the first stop of our journey.


0 comments Posted by B on Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Map!

View Larger Map

Here's a thumbnail view of the places we've been so far... Blue pins represent meals we cooked ourselves, while purple pins represent restaurants we've been to.

Double-click on the map to zoom in, and click on the pins for notes about the Operation Dumpling missions.

Click on the 'View Larger Map' link above to, errr, view a larger map. Read more...
0 comments Posted by B on Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Operation Dumpling Begins!

Brence and Sharon embark on an epic journey. One that will lead them down dark alleyways, across unknown territory and expose them to the hidden treasures of their local town of Christchurch. Join them as they delve into the depths of their kitchen cupboards, unexplored realms of dusty cookbooks, and into new culinary territories as they progress on the journey of a lifetime: Operation Dumpling.

The idea was born over a slice at our local pizza parlour, Winnie Bagoes, when we were discussing the fact that Christchurch has such a great range of restaurants we kept meaning to try out, from Italian and French to Russian, Burmese and Moroccan. Then inspiration hit: Why not try to eat at every different type of restaurant in town? In fact, why stop there? Why not attempt to sample traditional food from EVERY country on the planet?

After talking excitedly about the many possibilities that this journey could offer, we decided it was an adventure worth doing – something that we would remember for the rest of our lives.

The first rule of any epic mission is to give it a cool name. For lack of anything better (and largely due to Sharon's slight obsession with dumplings), the mission appeared to name itself, and so Operation Dumpling was born.

Secondly, to undertake an adventure of this nature, you can't do it alone. "Luckily for me" says Brence, "...Sharon is just as crazy as me. We make a good team."

The rules were laid down, and somewhat expanded from the initial concept. The ‘journey’ is to focus on sampling food from as many different nations as possible, that can either be eaten at a restaurant or cooked at home (there aren’t any Guatemalan restaurants in Christchurch that we know of, so googling for specific recipes to concoct will become a necessary part of the mission).

But we aren’t stopping there – drinks were added as a category (mainly to pander to Sharon’s lust for Singapore Slings), and as keen international cinemaphiles we also added a movie category to the mix.

Proper preparations are an integral part of any journey. A map of the world was duly purchased, along with a myriad of coloured map pins to help track our progress. Blue for cooking at home, black for eating at restaurants, green for drinks and red for movies.

The official (analog) Operation Dumpling Map!

And so it begins!

In this blog we will share the highs and lows, the spicy and outright flavourless, the cooking masterpieces and the disasters.

Come along with us and enjoy the journey that is Operation Dumpling.

0 comments Posted by B on Tuesday, March 04, 2008