People in the various countries where I have lived have often asked me what constitutes a classic example of New Zealand cooking and though I have a very strong idea of what New Zealand cooking means to me, I find it difficult to articulate in a single phrase, which I think perhaps is a good thing, a sign of the complexity of our food culture.
There are the old favourites that we share with Britain of course: fish and chips, roast meals and baking and also the style of cooking we have in common with the Islands – steaming meat and vegetables for a crowd on hot rocks in the ground – the Maori hangi or Pacific Island umu.
My own cooking is informed by my Japanese background and my time overseas as well as the British dishes of my nana but I cannot think of any of my friends whose cooking, or at least eating, like mine, is not also passing conversant with Vietnamese, Indian, Thai, Malaysian, who hasn’t eaten sweet kumara or gnawed meat from a bone steamed in a hangi, boiled some pasta or eaten beans and rice.
I know I recently posted about my Japanese grandfather but I just made rhubarb cake, and when I think of rhubarb, I think of my poppa. He was a curious mix of traditional and forward thinking; he supported his only daughter in her wish to go to university and then fly to Japan to study further in a time when young women were rarely encouraged to think further than home and hearth but he was happiest in that most New Zealand male of institutions, tinkering in the back shed. He was gregarious and social, perfect for his job as a publican but he loved solitude and spent hours reading. He loved New Zealand; he frequently pronounced Stanmore Bay, where he lived until recently with my nana “the most beautiful place in the world” but he considered himself, in many ways, Irish, like his mother though he was born and raised in New Zealand.
This notion that England, or Ireland or Scotland or Wales is “Home” (and I use the capital advisedly) is not at all prevalent now as it was in his generation of Pakehas and the burgeoning sense Kiwis of all extractions now have of Aotearoa-New Zealand as a unique and dynamic young country is what makes it special. Many of the countries I have travelled to have a long and turbulent history but have also had their time in the sun – sometimes the sense of that time being over is palpable and has become part of the national psyche, while for me, the feeling I get from the culture in New Zealand is that the best is yet to come.
This is reflected strongly in the food culture – there are few places with so fresh and varied a food scene. While there is beauty in being strongly rooted in one’s local food culture like the Italians – who in general, still only ever eat Italian food at home – to me the greater excitement is to be found in the availability of produce that originates from all around the world but is grown in New Zealand soil or a technique from an old world country, enthusiastically embraced with New Zealand ingredients or tools, one example being that of our fledgling boutique cheese industry.
In my memory, nana and poppa’s garden was huge and sprawling with plum trees at each end, lemon trees dotted in between and an aged and soot-dusted banana tree next to the environmentally suspect bin he used for burning rubbish. The lawn was quite steeply pitched and therefore perfect for roly-polying down or riding a stuffed orange dog down to the bottom, if such a thing took one’s fancy. While one of the garden beds was dedicated to nana’s flowers, the other grew a messy profusion of acid free tomatoes, silverbeet and rhubarb which nana would stew to go with our breakfast cereal, only the first course in what was invariably a two course affair, with bacon and eggs or mince on toast to follow.
The ultimate New Zealand dish to me is a chameleon thing: united only perhaps in that it be eaten somewhere outdoors. Whether it be cooked on a barbeque, in the ground, on a camping stove or prepared in a kitchen, enjoying food lovingly prepared overlooking the sea or the forest or just the back yard is what makes me the happiest. Take onigiri, or barbequed shrimp, a perfectly ripened Puhoi cheese or a piece of this moist rhubarb cake, but give it to me in the fresh air and I guarantee you’ll raise a smile.
What is the food culture where you come from like?
The chef, restauranteur and television personality Rick Stein will visit New Zealand in August as part of his Food Odyssey and this post has a chance to appear on the programme, wish me luck, my lovelies!
Rhubarb, Yoghurt and Pinenut Cake
While I’ve made quite a few rhubarb cakes this spring, including a rhubarb and polenta one, I pinched the base of this one from the gorgeous Debra of Smith Bites. I have, however, taken rather a liberal interpretation as is my wont; I’ve increased the amount of lemon zest, reduced the amount of sugar, swapped the walnuts for pinenuts because that’s what I had, doubled the amount of yoghurt because I didn’t want to waste the rest and omitted the topping.
Zest of 2 lemons
620 grams (2 3/4 cups) sugar
115 grams (1 stick) softened butter
1 teaspoon vanilla (or not, if like me you have vanilla scented sugar)
250 ml (1 cup) yoghurt
500 grams (4 cups) flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
A pinch of salt (or not, if you use salted butter)
4 cups of rhubarb, chopped into 1 cm pieces
50 grams (4 tablespoons) pinenuts, chopped
Preheat the oven to 170 celsius (340 fahrenheit).
Add lemon zest to sugar and rub together with your fingers until the sugar is redolent of the lemon.
Cream the butter and lemony sugar until light.
Beat in eggs, vanilla if using, and yoghurt.
Sift together flour, baking powder and salt (if using) into the wet mixture in two additions.
Fold in the rhubarb and nuts.
Spread batter in 2 loaf tins and bake for an hour or until a skewer inserted just comes out clean.