I must admit that I love Asian cuisine – even if my favourite type does happen to be of the almost-impossible-to-find Balinese variety.
As to whether I’m just looking at things through rosy-coloured glasses, I don’t know. But the scrumptious plates of rice and bowls of noodles that I indulged myself in endlessly in the little wooden backstreet cafes of the cultural capital, Ubud, just amazed me when I visited the country in the late 1990s.
I’d simply never tasted anything quite like the delicate and exquisite layering of flavours that, thankfully, weren’t compulsorily doused with chilli, which I really don’t get on with.
Unfortunately though, I’ve never found an authentic Balinese restaurant outside of the country itself – even in London with all of its immense multicultural variety. And Ubud is now apparently hostage to large upmarket hotel chains and mass tourism, so I don’t think I’m likely to find one there now either.
Luckily though, my second favourite kind of Asian food is Japanese, which is a tad easier to find – although not much in South Africa, it must be said.
But we’ve been spoiled in the UK. Our large, established communities from places as far flung as Hong Kong, Thailand and India/Bangladesh mean that we now see such cuisine almost as our own. But South Africa simply isn’t blessed with the same choice – or quality.
Don’t get me wrong: there is the fairly reasonable national chain of Thai-based ‘Simply Asia’ restaurants. And there’s also the really good ‘Red Chamber’ Chinese place in the upmarket shopping mall at Johannesburg’s Hyde Park, with its tasteful décor and tasty cuisine that we came across by chance only recently.
But on the whole, they really don’t know how to do it over here. The worst I’ve sampled, possibly anywhere in the world, was at Hokkaido in nearby Greenside, which, I was initially excited to see, pitched itself as Japanese – as you will recall, my second fav on the Asian cuisine list.
Despite serving sushi, the menu was, disappointingly, predominantly Chinese in orientation though – and I managed to completely confuse the waitress by ordering stir-fried veggies to go with my chicken in oyster sauce. The overcooked mush and somewhat blackened main course that resulted were obviously her revenge.
But if you are going for Japanese over here, it’s worth bearing in mind that the ever-trendy sushi is definitely where it’s at, with very little, if any, alternative selection on the menu – that I’ve discovered so far anyway.
So, just imagine my delight when I spotted a glowing review of weekly Asian cookery classes called ‘The Kitchen Space’, right on our doorstep in Parkhurst.
Billed as offering hands-on demonstrations of how to cook traditional food from countries ranging from China to Malaysia, with a bit of participation in the form of chopping things and eating the end results thrown in, I leapt at the chance – particularly as there were a couple of places free on one of the Japanese evenings.
And, bizarrely, it turned out that the hosts were of British extraction. Providing the chef-ing skills was the exuberant Su-yen Thornhill, who grew up in Hong Kong with her Chinese mother and Scottish father, while her counter-balance, Rachel Thomas, a former TV producer from London, seemed to run around doing everything else.
Having met via their kids going to the same school in Johannesburg and being just as disappointed as we were in the standard of Asian cuisine here, they decided to give cooking it for themselves a go, while teaching others to do likewise.
And the result was a fun, informal, if slightly chaotic evening, sitting around a large wooden table with what appeared to be a bunch of their slightly tipsy friends. As my Beloved pointed out, it was like walking into an episode of ‘Loose Women’.
By far my favourite dish of the evening was the Salmon Nanbanzuke, for which we dutifully julienned a load of veg, before popping it into a tasty marinade and steeping it alongside bits of deep-fried salmon. Lovely.
The only downside for me was the excess of chilli, which I must admit I’d heard that the Japanese rarely cook with because they don’t do hot. So maybe just a wee bit of the old Chinese influence creeping in there. But hey – what do I know.
One really useful spin-off of the evening, however, was finding out just where to get my grubby little paws on all of those elusive Asian ingredients, most of which may be staples of your average UK supermarket these days, but are a nightmare to find over here if you’re not in the know.
While it’s possible to pick up your basics like soya sauce and rice at supermarkets like Pick ‘n Pay, and your more fancy exotic mushrooms or udon noodles at Marks & Spencers’ equivalent, Woolworths, anything more adventurous than that and you’re struggling.
So learning of the existence of Cyrildene was a veritable godsend. Cyrildene, I’ve since found out, used to be a predominantly Jewish area until the turn of the Millennium, when Johannesburg’s old Chinatown in downtown Newtown started becoming increasingly rundown and dodgy.
So the Chinese community, the first members of which migrated to South African shores in the early 19th century, simply upped sticks and moved to this so-called ‘New Chinatown’ in the eastern suburbs.
And there’s something endearing about the authentic scruffiness of the place – it reminded me very much of parts of Hong Kong or a smaller version of San Francisco’s much bigger equivalent.
Because Cyrildene’s main street, Derrick Avenue, is lined with loads of basic little restaurants with formica tables and dark, cavernous shops selling egg noodles, spices and smelly salt fish, with beautiful, fresh Chinese vegetables sitting in rows outside.
In fact, it had everything that you could possibly want there, including a pretty decent Thai restaurant called the Sai Thai where we treated ourselves to lunch.
Next on our sampling list, meanwhile, will be another Kitchen Place recommendation – the rather unprepossessing-sounding Japa Express Sushi Bar in Rivonia Village shopping centre.
According to social review site, www.zomato.com/southafrica, it warrants an excellent four out of five in the rankings and, thankfully, doesn’t limit itself to sushi. Can’t wait.