Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

KaiMay 18, 2023

How an everyday Māori cookbook brings the past into the future

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

This newly-awarded cookbook should be as much of a staple in any New Zealand cookbook collection as the Edmonds, writes Charlotte Muru-Lanning.

Cookbooks might have a reputation for being a modest form of literature, dismissed as prescriptive manuals that solely inhabit the domestic sphere, with lightweight content made to be flicked through absentmindedly. In practice though, cookbooks and their encased recipes feed us stories of who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Published in 2022 by Bateman Books, Christall Lowe’s (Ngāti Kauwhata, Tainui, Ngāti Maniapoto) Kai: Food Stories and Recipes from my Family Table is a taonga of a cookbook. Lowe, a commercial food stylist, food photographer and recipe developer has spent most of her life in Fielding in Manawatū. This week, the compendium of recipes, stories and really quite dazzling photographs won the Judith Binney Prize for Illustrated Non-Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards – only the sixth cookbook to win in the national awards since they began. 

Among the varied pages, Lowe has detailed instructions and troubleshoots for creating and taking care of a rēwena bug, recipes for coconut cream-doused pani popo and an opulent-looking boil up, a take on Toppa ice blocks and a porridge recipe that evokes memories of her nana.

Kai is a delicious and remarkable book in itself, but even more so when you consider how it fits into the broader culinary history of this country.

Cookbooks are essential in developing a national cuisine, which in turn, becomes a vital element of how we see ourselves, forging the story of who we are as a country. A defining feature of New Zealand’s cookbook history has been the comparative absence of Māori recipes and stories. It’s an erasure reflecting a more general situation whereby, despite being the original and indigenous food of the country, kai Māori has mostly been greeted with a shrug of disinterest from our dominant culture. As with land dispossession and cultural and language suppression, colonisation has tried with all its might to keep kai Māori on the outside.

The first cookbook to include Māori cooking was published in 1908, but it was only when the growing Māori renaissance took hold over sixty years later, in the 1970s, that Māori, wāhine Māori to be specific, began publishing recipes in printed cookbooks for Māori readers. Perhaps most notable of these is the Māori Women’s Welfare League recipe books, which turned Māori recipes not only into a fundraising opportunity, but a celebration and expression of mana motuhake and Māori identity. 

Coinciding with an ongoing Māori cultural renaissance, in the 2000’s Peter Peeti, Anne Thorp and Charles Royal released cookbooks, each of which, in their own distinct way, redefined Māori cuisine with unique blends of culinary styles, techniques and ingredients from Aotearoa and beyond. Then, in 2020 Monique Fiso published Hiakai, a groundbreaking compendium of Māori ingredients and techniques, along with a final section of technically-forward recipes, which won the Judith Binney Prize in 2021.

Christall Lowe. (Images: Supplied)

As Māori cookbooks have slowly but steadily taken their rightful place in the cookbook section once sparsely populated by our kai, they’ve set a foundation for the literary tradition of Māori cookbooks. Each has played a role in expanding upon the possibilities of what kai Māori is and where it can go. You can see where Lowe’s book fits into a whakapapa of Māori cookbooks, but it also conjures its own kind of kai Māori magic. 

Part of this magic is in the book’s notable accessibility – the kind of cookbook that collects accidental kitchen splatters and sticky fingerprints as recipes become part of the rhythms of day to day life. In a world where kai Māori has been seen as something relegated to tourist attractions or presumed to solely exist in marae wharekai and never beyond, there’s a power in delineating kai Māori as everyday comfort food.

Then there is the uniquely Māori way the book weaves diverse kai traditions together. Pillars of traditional kai Māori like hāngi, kūmara, tītī and kai moana are plentiful, but those pages are often flanked by recipes one might not immediately associate with the cuisine: tahini drizzled toast, Chinese pork belly with rice or rhubarb-filled donuts. 

The recipes might regularly divert from typical definitions of kai Māori but they’re all held together by a central pou steeped in te ao Māori understandings of kai as “an extension of our very person”. An approach defined by how we see those connections between where kai has come from, how we prepare it, how we ensure it’s not wasted, how it fits in among notions of tapu and noa and how we enhance the mauri of what we’re eating.

“I’m not a chef – I’m a home cook who is obsessed with flavour and absolutely passionate about capturing the mauri of food,” Lowe writes. “Mauri acknowledges that everything has a life essence, and when we take something from where it belongs, it is crucial that we add another dimension to its life force and enhance its value.”

Māori have always adopted an eclectic array of outside culinary influences, while retaining inherently Māori approaches to our kai. Lowe contributes to an ever-evolving definition of kai Māori which is that, far from something that’s monolithic or consigned to history, it’s a kai tradition that’s multidimensional and continuous. 

As you peel through this book, you’ll find recipes imbued with abundant memories and links to whakapapa. Descriptions for fry bread, Horopito roast lamb and a tamarillo and apple crumble are brimming with nostalgia and mentions of grandparents, aunt and uncles, cousins and parents. “My food story begins at home on my nana’s lap, as she fed me kamokamo mashed with butter when I was a young thing,” Lowe writes in her introduction. 

Kai: Food Stories and Recipes from my Family Table exemplifies the way in which cookbooks are as much about the past as they are the future – pulling the complex interconnected strands of the past forward with us through delicious, everyday meals.

Keep going!