Review: Kai: Food Stories and Recipes From My Family Table

Reviewed by Lauraine Jacobs

Honest, authentic and truly refreshing, Kai is a cookbook that makes me proud to be an Aotearoa/New Zealand food writer.

This bold and beautiful book goes a long way to providing an answer to the perplexing and perennial question of identifying distinct New Zealand cuisine. The majority of cookbooks published in Aotearoa New Zealand during the past 70 years are filled with recipes that have been mainly rooted in traditions and flavours of our colonial past and reflect our reliance on the food our farmers produce.

With few exceptions, these cookbooks tend to echo cuisines and recipes that Europeans, Chinese and Indian settlers and immigrants carried with them. Continual changes spring from the worldwide trends that influence our food writers; each decade sees more of these trends incorporated and adapted into our ‘Downunder diet.’

More recently we’ve been inspired by Southeast Asia and there’s now no denying you can eat your away around the world without leaving our biggest cities. Restaurants and cafés provide not just authentic international cuisine, but many go even further and play on the ‘fusion’ aspect that is modern cooking. But the continued obsession on good old roasts, the stir-fry and pavlova are testament to what is produced in our home kitchens. It’s less often that we see evidence in our cookbooks of incorporation of indigenous food and flavours. 

In order to stake a claim to an identifiable cuisine of Aotearoa several factors need to be considered: heritage, local and indigenous ingredients, seasonality, tradition, culture, passion and authenticity. Along comes Christall Lowe, née Rata, (Ngāti Kauwhata, Tainui and Ngāti Maniapoto) with her exciting new book simply titled Kai which ticks all those boxes. There’s no way this book could be imagined as anything other than authentically flavoured and New Zealand home-cooked food. It is truly made in and of Aotearoa New Zealand.

(On a side note, Monique Fiso’s book Hiakai boldly confronted us with food that placed indigenous fare on the plate. Her recipes are firmly rooted in her excellent restaurant of the same name. It is a comprehensive and brilliant insight into foraged, and sometimes farmed indigenous ingredients – yet it needs a patient and knowledgeable cook to turn to her book to put dinner on the family table every night.)   

From the very first page, Lowe stakes her claim to authenticity and heritage with two pepeha (a personal introduction), respectively and respectfully from her Dad’s and Mum’s sides of her family. Her careful use of te reo Māori throughout the book is impressive. There’s a deeply personal mihi (tribute) in the Tainui dialect opposite the pepeha, written by Lowe’s Aunty, not translated, as Aunty felt that it was written for those who truly understood. Chapter headings are in both te reo Māori and English, appropriate Whakataukī (proverbs) are placed throughout the book and, most importantly, there are lovely stories of the delicious food Lowe grew up eating. This is authentic family food, heavily influenced by everything from her diverse family heritage, which plays into the cuisine she now calls her own. 

Honest, authentic and truly refreshing, Kai is a cookbook that makes me proud to be an Aotearoa/New Zealand food writer.  

Every good recipe always has a story. Lowe tells these well in her book, through her kupu whakataki (preface), excellent tales in her recipe headnotes, fabulous photography and clearly informed instructions. The recipes are never too complex, with short and simple lists of easy to find ingredients. Kai is divided into sections, each beginning with more of her stories of a family where food was treasured and revealing the underlying philosophy that makes her recipes authentic. 

The second section, Parāoa/bread, is where this influence clearly shines to mark her Māori heritage. Lowe shares some great doughy recipes to tempt us. Rēwena bread, both no-knead and the slightly sweeter version you’d find on the marae, classic fry bread, gorgeous pani popo (she has Samoan heritage, too) and some island-style donuts that can only be genuine South Pacific fare. The later baking sections are equally tempting and although displaying colonial influence (feijoa cake, her nana’s rice pudding, ginger horopito kisses with raspberry cream, chocolate cake and more) they’re genuine tastes of our culture.

The most standout sections are Kaimoana/from the sea and Hapa/mains. Creamed paua, kaimoana chowder, an astonishing recipe for pāua & venison meatballs with rosemary syrup, oyster stuffed steak, smoked fish bites, creamy lemon crayfish, are all perfect New Zealand treats. In the mains, the Boil Up, an incredibly clever oven-cooked Hāngī Kono, simple cabbage-wrapped meat, stuffing and vegetable creation to be cooked in a home oven, and the roast horopito lamb are all genuine, too. Lowe’s Manuka honey-roasted tītī may be the most convincing of all, as this unique culinary taonga (treasure) is given the best method and Manuka glaze ever, appropriately garnished with puha or watercress and chunks of kumara and Māori potatoes. 

Kai is also an artistic delight. Lowe studied interior architectural design but her love of food directed her to a successful career in food styling and photography. She worked on this book for more than five years and managed to capture her beloved grandmother in the kitchen before she passed away. That photo and many more shot in the bush, around the coast, in the kitchen and at a genuine hāngi, set a style that is moody and yet completely captivating and enlightening. I can forgive Lowe for some white typography set on a dark background as although that makes it difficult to read in anything less than bright light, it creates a strong and positive mood for her book. 

There’s lots of movement in the food photography, not easy to accomplish by a photographer who has to prepare and cook her own food for the shots, but Lowe has nailed that, too.  Her coconut buns shot with the icing dripping back to the bowl, the steam rising from a pan of mussels or from a classic steamed pudding still wrapped in its cloak of cloth, and the jar of pumpkin seeds tumbling into the bowl show just how clever this cook/stylist/designer is. Honest, authentic and truly refreshing, Kai is a cookbook that makes me proud to be an Aotearoa/New Zealand food writer.  

Reviewed by Lauraine Jacobs