Good meaty stuff, Dale Williams

From Kai to Kiwi Kitchen: New Zealand Culinary Traditions and Cookbooks
Helen Leach (ed)
Otago University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 978877372759


Graham Kerr famously said that New Zealand had no culinary tradition, but, as a chef, he probably judged us against classical or ethnic cooking styles. Helen Leach adopts an anthropologist’s broader definition: a country’s culinary tradition consists of the part of our culture which guides what we choose to eat, how we prepare it, how we compose our meals and how we think about them.

But then culture generally is something which seems obvious when looking at other countries, but which is largely a set of ingrained, invisible assumptions in one’s own. We’ve got food traditions whether we know it or not, and they are recorded in our cookbooks.

Being an anthology, not a narrative history, and aimed at an academic rather than a popular readership, From Kai to Kiwi Kitchen has horses galloping off in all directions as each hunter pursues his or her own hare. The result is bitsy, but always absorbing.

It opens with three overview essays from Leach; starting life as Macmillan Brown Lectures in 2008, these were later broadcast on National Radio, and are published here as transcripts. Her first talk outlines the history of Maori food preparation before 1769; the second deals with the colonial era, and the third the traditions of the 20th century. All good meaty stuff, exploring some fascinating territory such as the carbohydrate starvation of pre-European Maori (whose tropical yams, taros and bush arrowroot did not survive the New Zealand climate), the measures they improvised to combat it, and the joy with which they fell upon flour and sugar, once introduced.

The book’s second section, strikingly different essays from five writers, sprang from a Marsden Fund-supported research project based on local cookbooks.

Jane Teal’s technology-focused chapter chronicles successive revolutions in the heating of food. From early settler accounts of pots slung over campfires, she works her way through camp ovens, dutch ovens, cast-iron ranges (the names Shacklock and Atlas were early arrivals in our kitchens), the marketing of the first gas and electric stoves, and the microwave revolution. Through cookbooks, including those obligingly provided by manufacturers of the new appliances, she traces the adaptation of some individual recipes to technology shifts.

Janet Mitchell’s chapter, exploring the uptake of nutritional advice in the 20th century, tackles it in two eras – 1900-39 (after which the war interrupted food supplies), and post-war to 1970, when she detects a major change occurring in New Zealanders’ lifestyle and food supplies. We are introduced to the first mentions of vitamins in local cookbooks, the valiant efforts of the Health Department to improve the diets of the poor during the Depression years, and the changing nature of recommendations for invalid diets.

Enthusiasts for purification via food intake have always been with us: the Women’s Christian Temperance Union promoted vegetarianism to curb alcohol consumption, and the Bread Reform League urged adding wholemeal to bread and cereals. A carefree public cheerfully ignored their sage advice, or as Mitchell puts it: “Community response to nutritional information in cookbooks was limited”.

After an all-too-brief look at the impact of food rationing on wartime cookbooks, she notes the emerging health issues of the 1950s, where for the first time we see a concern with slimming, and an association made between animal fats and coronary heart disease. These worries intensify in the 1970s as more health-risk factors are identified. Cake and biscuit recipes start to form a smaller proportion of cookbooks, and the types and quantities of fat used change markedly. The era of blissful ignorance is beginning to be replaced by modern food anxiety.

In more recent community cookbooks, does a younger age group contribute increasingly health-conscious recipes? The change starts only in the 1980s, Mitchell finds, consolidating in the 1990s and accompanied by a rise in vegetarian content. Playcentre and kindergarten mothers appear more aware of dietary trends than do Country Women’s Institute members. Those of us old enough to remember the oozing suet puddings, and ubiquitous roasts cooked in dripping, of yesteryear will not be in the least surprised.

The astonishing Duncan Galletly manages to combine his extensive knowledge of New Zealand culinary traditions with a day job as Head of Surgery and Anaesthesia at the University of Otago, Wellington. His essay analyses the puzzling place of fish in the New Zealand diet, via a comparative study of the steadily dwindling number of fish and seafood recipes in cookbooks and the developments in commercial fishing before 1950. His scrutiny throws up some oddities: “At all periods, the single most common seafood recipe ingredient was the oyster, followed by tinned salmon.” Presumably recipes are redundant when all other kaimoana gets chucked straight into the frying pan or onto the barbecue.

Raelene Inglis contributes a respectful and straightforward chapter on the origins and history of Otago’s School of Home Science, described to me cynically many years ago as “that place they built to make sure doctors’ wives could cook”.

Finally, food historian and journalist Michael Symons adds a breezy and well-written chapter on two of the cooks who elevated domestic cookery to public view, contrasting the styles, life stories and culinary eras of Aunt Daisy and Lois Daish, and tying them lightly into changes in the international cookery scene. He believes that a major global shift in cookery, from modernism to postmodernism, was echoed in New Zealand in 1963 – coincidentally the year Aunt Daisy died – by the simultaneous publication of three innovative cookbooks: Graham Kerr’s Entertaining with Kerr, Madeline Hammond’s A Taste of France: French Cuisine for New Zealanders, and Noel Holmes’s Just Cooking, Thanks: Being A Dissertation on New Zealand Seafoods, all published by A H & A W Reed.

These contained scarcely any cake or biscuit recipes, tended to glorify French cuisine and encourage wine with meals, and, mirabile dictu, they let men into the kitchen. Sophistication was obviously on the march, and Kerr relished the opportunity to rethink New Zealand cuisine: “There was no [culinary] establishment to carp, criticise or snigger. There was a desire to learn, and above all, a love for the practical.”

Where From Kai to Kiwi Kitchen really comes into its own is in the glimpse it affords us of the emerging science of culinary forensics (recipevolution?).

The exceptionally large collection of New Zealand-written cookbooks started at Otago by Helen Leach is now over 1300 strong. And if a thousand maids with a thousand mops someday manage to enter all the recipes these books contain into a giant database, it will become possible to trace the origins and history of individual recipes, as well as fashions and innovations in cooking and eating. This valuable social history resource might be sliced and diced in many ways.

Sometimes the fruits of the forensics may nudge an international incident, as when Leach’s earlier recipe- book-based research traced a New Zealand source for the pavlova published at least six years earlier than the first known Aussie version, thus settling that particular score – to Kiwi satisfaction at least.

Some equally illuminating sidelights on national life as charted by its cookbooks are thrown by the evolution of Kiwi classics such as Lazy Lasagne, whose progress down the years is doggedly pursued in Teal’s essay. She charts its evolution from conventional oven cooking to the microwave era, minute adaptations including changes in the nature and treatment of the garlic, tomatoes, or beef stock, different varieties of lasagne becoming available, and the new necessity, with microwaves, to grill it to set the topping. Finally she finds a contemporary version, using a jar of ready-made pasta sauce. Practicality still rules in Kiwi kitchens, then.

Most intriguing of all to me was Leach’s own pursuit of the recipe that mingles a student flat-type combo of mince, cabbage, curry powder and chicken noodle soup, which became widely known in Australasia as Kai Si Ming. A mystery dish of no known international provenance, says a baffled Leach, it first turned up in 1960s community cookbooks. It initially confused local cooks unused to Asian names, who contributed it to their community cookbooks under such headings as Ming Ling, Ming Sing, Chong Wong San, Kisseime, Susie Wong, and Mrs Ming – or even Lebanese Chow Mein. Leach traces the name itself to origins in the Mandarin language, but says that can’t be so because of the curry powder, and she leaves us hanging.

My own subsequent searching located blogger P K Tan of TravelMalaysia mentioning and illustrating Kai Si Min (sic), in its original and unmistakeable form, as a classic regional chicken slice noodle soup dish of Taiping, in North Malaysia. Solved? Aah, Google.


Dale Williams is a Waikanae reviewer. 

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