Harissa at home, Sharon Crosbie

Forget socio-political analysis. If you want to gauge the extent of change in this country just look at the cookbooks, study the restaurant section of the Yellow Pages and think about what you’ve eaten during the past week. Was it roast or rissoles? Junket or Fielders cornflour sponge? I think not!

If we are what we eat then we New Zealanders have surely morphed into some sort of Euro-Asiatic Pacific rim culinary hybrid, obsessed with the new but clutching nostalgically at the traditional.

Or to put it another way: at the great international smorgasbord we hover, greedy but hesitant, determined to try everything — but only if it’s the taste of the moment. No trendy boy chef’s going to sneer at us, we think, as we drive miles out of the way to the Asian grocery or stand desolate in New World because the last bunch of coriander’s gone; amazing our friends because we made harissa at home.

The trouble is that the taste of the moment keeps changing: is it Thai, is it Mediterranean, what about couscous, is gourmet pizza still in, warm salad out? Help!

Like circling sharks, the food writers keep the pressure on — today, mayonnaise made properly; tomorrow, clever ways with fish-lips.

And then there are the books. They may as well all be published by the Medellin cartel in Colombia, they’re so expensive and addictive, but they do give one such a rush. Here we have a fresh supply fighting it out for our attention. Like mighty tectonic plates grinding away, they represent three of the main forces in culinary contention: the flash, fast and truly trendy; the healthy, wholesome, hearty and sometimes humourless; the traditional, nostalgic but time-consuming.

Which force will triumph? You’ll decide in the end, even as the fast-food barbarians slip inside the gates. There are 21 McDonalds outlets in Beijing now. So, pinnies on and let’s see what’s worth cooking.

First, the flash and fast. This is at the cutting edge, high-wire stuff without the safety net. It is intended to assault the palate, kick-start the taste buds and allow entree to the in-crowd. At cafes, brasseries and all it usually comes stacked and tottering, surrounded by colourful smears, pastes and puddles and draped in exotic greens. Some minutes are required to reconnoitre the cooling stack, that is, figure out how to eat it. Demolition skills help. Currently the best exponent (that is, the least threatening) is Nigel Slater of Marie Claire and the Observer. The worst are the megastar chefs who have immorally expensive restaurants and shout at and threaten their guests; most of them penned up in London, not here, thank God.

Dianne Taylor’s Cafe Cookbook is at the cutting edge as well as being small and expensive, the cost justified, perhaps, because the reader does not have to go to any of the cafes and be assaulted by the sort of background noise that is murderously amplified by hard wood floors — definite advantage. In the privacy of your own home you can tackle salmon steaks topped with wild mushroom and sundried tomato salsa, served on chilli grits or a millefeuille of Nelson scallops with a sweetcorn and red pepper relish and a lime and chive beurre blanc — and serve it sideways if that’s your fancy.

What charms the reader far more than the recipes is Ms Taylor’s introduction. As she says, life’s too short to eat boiled mince and she reminds us how it was when we did. Were vegetables made of tougher stuff in the 1950s and 1960s as she suggests? So tough they required a good 40 minutes to reach a particular shade of grey pliability?

No wonder we’re up there in the bowel cancer stakes. No wonder too that we wanted something different and pursue it so assiduously still. But, but … this food seems like a lot of bother … isn’t it a hassle to ask your tame butcher to smoke a fresh chicken for Mediterranean chicken cassoulet … first you’ve got to find the tame butcher, eh?

Also near the cutting edge is the NEXT book of Fabulous Food. Allyson Gofton writes for the magazine and certainly offers less complex approaches to trendy eating and lots of quick tips. I suppose we all need reminding from time to time that parsley is wonderful; do you feel a sudden nostalgia rush at the thought of boiled carrots and parsley sauce? Yes! Then hang on till we get to the nostalgia stuff. Back at NEXT, however, there may just be a teeny too much dependence on couscous (semolina gentrified) but it’s a non-threatening collection of the new standards: garlic prawns, Thai fish cakes, parmesan gnocchi (harder to say than make) and there’s not a mille-feuille in sight. In defence of flash and trendy though, it mostly tastes good — what a friend calls food that sits up and barks!

We enter a more difficult taste zone when we get into the healthy and wholesome. How dread those words “low fat”. Vicki Hoffman has had a lotta media with her book Low Fat Food on the Run, which is spoiled, alas, by the world’s most irritiating sub-title: Grazing and Snacking for Busy People. — three appalling concepts that sum up the decline of the west.

Let’s deconstruct them:

Grazing: gruesome term to describe the activity of the undisciplined and self-indulgent who flit through life leaving little trace, one hopes. Helping themselves to a little of this, a little of that: the heart of the palm, the camel’s feet. People who ruin lunch by ordering two small appetisers. People for whom between meals is all there is. People who stick their forks into your food for “just a little taste”. “Grazing” gives a sense of wanton destruction, of things half-eaten and the ruination of the culinary environment. It’s bad enough that there are still people starving in the world without those of us with food to spare just bloody grazing! Do I make myself clear?

Snacking: Not much better but suggestive of adolescence — they’ll grow out of it.

Busy People: why? Why are there so many when we have lemon zesters, bread makers, fan ovens and dehydrators, computers and EEO? Why is life today like a scene from the last part of the Sorcerers Apprentice?

But back to the book. It’s a vigilante text warning that water crackers are full of hidden fat, but if you just hold your mouth right and the wind’s from the west, low-fat baked cheesecake can be good for you. There’s all the usual stuff, and very worthy it is, about exercise and fibre and drinking lots of water. Vicki’s not a martinet — there’s room for a little fat — 5gms per snack serve — but for a small person on a weight reduction diet that’s just one or two snacks a day!!! Oh, send out for a Sara Lee sticky date pudding, willya.

But lest you think I am unkind, this book roams the culinary world for interesting things to do with low-fat milk and mostly suceeds. Couscous pops up again, the chicken plum steamed buns sound more than OK, a lot of the recipes look distinctly comforting and there is sushi — the most perfect food on earth! Also someone who can offer banana pikelets can’t be all bad.

In Evelyne Pytka we strike healthy trouble. Choice Snacks was first published in Canada, there are some interesting Jewish recipes but mainly its stodge (but then Canadian winters are cold). Still, if you’re trying to avoid sugar, fat, cholesterol, sodium and calories — like they’re camped outside your house and the police are too busy — Evelyne’s your gal. She has cornered the market on cottage cheese and oatbran.

And now, nostalgia time. Remember? The smell of baking and roasting. When “stylish stout” was a respectable description of a body shape. When there were no busy people or if there were they shut up and got on with it and didn’t whine till people wrote cookbooks for them.

Robyn Martin, cooking editor at the Woman’s Weekly remembers. She’s a good-food, no-fuss person. She’s a transitional cook. Up there with the need for “good and quick” but with one eye on the better aspects of New Zealand food of the recent past. And she’s prolific. Perfect Pasta is pretty ho-hum but Taste of New Zealand Winter is sound, it’s rock solid. Welcome to soup and casserole country. I prayed there’d be no couscous and she didn’t let me down, a little polenta, a little pesto maybe, but so what? Here we slip back to the warmth, the safety of New Zealand the way we want it but never seem to get it: curried sausages, the return of the crockpot, Nelson topside beer casserole, sports practice meatballs, corned beef, fundraiser apricot pies, lemon curd, lamington cakes. Heaven! But there’s a price. Commitment and dedication to getting it ready. This is not ready-in-10-minutes fare. This is “nothin says lovin’ like somethin’ from the oven” stuff.

It’s hard to believe but this is also starting to be endangered species cooking. The wise and wonderful Alison Holst has for some time worried that we are not passing these skills on, that the generations coming along behind us are losing the knack. It would be tragic for a host of reasons if young people thought all food came from the polystyrene farm. Even couscous management should be taught in schools so that when life lets you down you can look after yourself, from scratch, rather than being sucked in by those TV ads for frozen dinners that boast of being 98% fat-free but have an all-pervasive watery cardboard taste.

Also on the nostalgia pile are books for the summer’s glut. Lovely little books for those days when everything ripens at once or you drive past the countryside stalls and just have to have a case of apples or tomatoes because they’ll never be that cheap again.

Carole Ruta’s Terrific Tomatoes is a bit of a mystery but a godsend. Who is Carole Ruta? We are not told but by golly she’s on the ball when it comes to tomatoes. And she’s right when she says they’re “high on impact; there’s nothing quite like the impact of a ripe tomato delivered unexpectedly when bending over. But seriously, who’d have thought of boiled egg and tomato curry, tomato and ginger jam or hot tomato mousse with basil cream sauce? Keep this one in the glovebox.

Along with An Apple a Day by Jocelyn Sonne. Faced with huge quantities of apples you can rest assured that there is something you can do with them if you’ve got the time and the will. This is traditional cooking with an appley twist: soups, salads, vegetables stuffed with apples, sausage dishes, beef, pork, chicken, lamb and fish all seem to be the better for an apple or two. This wonderful collection represents Sonne’s passion for the fruit and the recipes come from everywhere. Naturally, there’s even one for toffee apples. Now that’s nostalgia.

Gilian Painter’s A New Zealand Country Harvest Cookbook is a thing of beauty, understated and honest with wonderful photography by Norman Zammit.

She writes: “It may be that I look back with nostalgia but I also look forward with confidence for I feel sure that, in spite of the apparent takeover of technology, many people still find happiness and fulfilment living more quietly in country surroundings, growing and harvesting good food in the age-old pattern of the seasons.” Who, in middle age and sick of change, could disagree?

But, be warned, we are entering the temple of puddings, pickles and jam-making where you need a clear head, a steady hand and a lot of sugar and vinegar. It is also vouchsafed to few these days to feel the total satisfaction that comes from a row of sterilised jars full of chutney … time-consuming but worth it. Jelly bags and preserving pans, pectin and jam covers are the implements for these very special rituals. They calm the soul.

Maybe the erstwhile Prime Minister’s “springtime” might yet be realised if we put a little more emphasis on the disciplines needed for quince marmalade, rhubarb jam, pickled walnuts and elderflower champagne and a little less on the vagaries of the market. But these days there’s no room for sentiment – now what could you do with apples, tomatoes and couscous, I wonder?

Sharon Crosbie is chief executive of Radio New Zealand and a very good cook

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