While most of us are repeatedly hitting the snooze button on a Sunday morning, the duo behind Wellington’s first Sichuan street food enterprise are firing up the woks down at Chaffers Market. Kiwese caught up with Jing and Brad from Sichuan:Spice in their nifty Panda trailer for a chat and some deliciously spicy street food!
Hey guys, what’s on the menu tonight? *salivates excessively*
- Panda Pockets: 猪肉韭菜饺子 zhūròu jiǔcài jiǎozi, our handmade pork and chive dumplings.
- Panda Mian: Sichuan Street Noodles, a wheat noodle with pork and a soya-based sauce.
- Panda Sheets: 酸辣粉 suān là fěn, which is glass noodles made of sweet potato starch in a sour and spicy soup!
The Panda trailer looks great! How long have you had it now?
This is the third week we have had it now. We got it made from scratch, its pretty special. We used to do everything with a gazebo down at the market on Sunday, which was just so fucking horrible with the wind! One time Jing was trying to pour food into a bowl and she was having to face the wind for the fire cooker to work, then noodles just went all down her front… It has been so much better and easier with the trailer, we are really pleased with it so far!
Have you guys got a regular schedule each week?
We rent the parking space here from Ideal Electrical, they are really good people and its not so expensive. That way we don’t have to go through Council. In the summer we’d like to get some tables and stools out the front too!
What got you interested in food and cooking?
Jing: I’m from Mianyang, Sichuan, its really close to Chengdu. I taught myself how to cook and had never really cooked for people other than my family and friends before coming to New Zealand. When we got to Wellington, I really missed the flavours of home. Being brought up in a restaurant environment, I ate a lot of stuff – so I find I can just recall these flavours in my memory while I am cooking.
What was the inspiration for starting Sichuan Spice?
Brad: I spent 12 months in Sichuan. When Jing and I came back here, we found there was nothing in the way of Sichuan food in Wellington, and definitely no real Sichuan street food. We are lucky that Jing can cook it! Her family in China are involved with restaurants, they know a thing or two about food! We just started out at the Friday Night Market on Left Bank for the first twelve months and had a much better response than we expected.
What were you two doing in China and how did you meet?
Jing: I had graduated from University with an accounting major, then I went to Shanghai for six months, but it didn’t work out so well for me so I moved back to Mianyang. It was really tough to find a job as new graduate with no experience. I was working crazy shifts as a hotel receptionist, but it got pretty boring and I felt had no direction, so I started using my spare time to study English and sit the IELTS [International English Language Testing System] test, then see what would happen from there. Even though you have to study English the first two years of uni in China, its not really properly learning it in a way… “老师的口音很重!” “the teacher had a really strong accent” [laughs].
Brad: At the same time, I was teaching English to little kids in Mianyang, which was heaps of fun. I left NZ in 2009 and stayed for six months in South East Asia before running out of money! Both my parents were teachers so I swore never ever to be a teacher, but the teaching job was a fun, easy way to stay out of New Zealand and explore China. I was gonna go have dinner with this other girl [everyone laughs] and then an American guy happened to give me Jing’s email address. Well one thing lead to another and now we are here selling Sichuan food!
What is the ethos of Sichuan:Spice?
Sichuan food the way it should be. We want our dishes to taste the same as they do in China. We’ve been doing it for two years now and every time we set up we’ll have some of the food, its still just as good now as when we started. Between the two of us they are all dishes we like to eat. If we can’t make something we wanna eat then why bother selling it? First and foremost its about sharing the food with people and getting all that sort of thing across, then of course we gotta try make a profit too.
Can you tell us a bit about your chilli oils?
Jing: We make them all ourselves in a commercial kitchen across the road from Briscoes, its hidden in the back and no one knows its there! I infuse the oil, then infuse the chilli into the oil. The mildest one has one type of chilli while X Claw has three different types. They all have a málà 麻辣 spice, a lot of that flavour comes from the Sichuan peppercorn which is part of the sauce. Pretty much everyone in Sichuan has a chilli oil at home that they’ve made themselves, so you wouldn’t see many people selling it there. It’s such a big part of our diet – everything from noodles to dumplings involves this chilli oil.
Brad: The biggest difference between our food and the food in Sichuan is that we offer different degrees of spiciness through the chilli oils to make it more accessible. Over there it is either spicy or not spicy.
How have Wellingtonians responded to your food?
Brad: We thought 70-90% of our customers would be Chinese or Asian, but it’s the other way round! We love getting people to try something a little different and introducing them to the Sichuan flavour. Our cold noodle Panda Sheets 菜凉面 cài liáng miàn are amazingly awesome and have been really popular. People are pretty keen on the Panda Hat wontons we do on Fridays – that really motivated us to keep going with the business. People come back and tell us about how they have developed their own recipes with our chilli oil, one guy did a hot pot with chilli oil on top, its really nice for us to have people enjoying it and experimenting with it at home.
What do you think about the street food scene in Wellington?
Brad: Its kind of lacking at the moment, but the quality of the stalls that exist are all pretty good. I think Kiwis don’t really have the same attitude to eating as in Asia, where people eat lots of little bits all throughout the day. Kiwis are often more accustomed to just sitting down for lunch and dinner, although there are definitely more and more people that are getting keen on street food now. That’s what I miss about Asia. There is something different about sitting in a restaurant with a window between you and the outside, and sitting on the street and watching the world go by. It has a push and immediacy that restaurant dining doesn’t have.
What’s next on the cards for Sichuan:Spice?
We are always looking for ways to improve, pick the right dishes for the menu and just grow and develop the business. It’s really fun. We are working towards a Wednesday-Sunday week, but that will need some time to organize. We have lots of people asking for lunch times so we are sorting out the right spot on either Cuba Street, up Courtenay Place end or even somewhere around uni. The trailer makes us a lot more portable, so its all pretty exciting!
Wednesdays: Outside Ideal Electrical on Egmont Street, off Ghuznee Street, 6pm till late
Fridays: Left Bank Night Market, 5pm – 11pm
Sundays: Chaffers Harbourside Market, early till 2pm