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Kiwis in the kitchen: A bite-sized history of NZ cuisine

Shopping in 1963.

Lauraine Jacobs traces the evolution of eating in New Zealand, from the spartan diet of the war years to the vibrant multi-ethnic melting pot of cuisines we now enjoy.

When the Pacific Island trading ships Matua and Tofua berthed at Auckland’s port 80 years ago, my mother, then in her teens and living away from her Tongan homeland, knew there would be bananas for Saturday lunch and maybe Sunday supper. In the household where she and her siblings boarded, the table was set with piles of bread accompanied by butter or bananas, but not both. Others tell similar tales of the choice of jam or butter with their bread, a practice that stretched well beyond the war years.

The house had a gas hob and oven, and to keep food fresh, a zinc-lined safe hung in a cool, shady place out the back of the kitchen. Few houses had electric appliances and there was no refrigeration. The kids ate porridge for breakfast year-round. “I hated it,” my mother tells me, and for dinner it was always meat and three veg. It was a fairly spartan diet, but in the tins there was wholesome home baking inspired by the Edmonds Cookery Book. New Zealanders have loved the iconic baking bible since TJ Edmonds published the first edition in 1908.

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After the problems and scarcities of the Great Depression, the food scene brightened when the New Zealand Listener first appeared in 1939, with some interesting recipes appearing in the “Women and Home” column. Readers could try such newfangled ideas as “American doughnuts”, or “A German fish dish” with lots of butter, half milk and half cream and plenty of grated cheese and breadcrumbs. In one issue was “A Swiss recipe for something different – Rizotto [sic].”

Maud (Aunt Daisy) Basham began a regular morning radio slot in 1933, and by 1937 was broadcasting her programme as part of the new national network covering much of the country. Her influence over housewives in all matters to do with housework, hygiene, health and food was immense, and in 1939, the Listener ran an Aunt Daisy food-query column.

Basham continued broadcasting until a few days before her death, in 1963, and her influence on what Kiwis ate has probably been greater than any other cook in our history. Her chirpy introduction, “Good morning, good morning, good morning everybody!” still rings in my ears, as Mother tuned in each day when I was a child. Aunt Daisy wrote many simple but useful cookbooks, influenced by the food she discovered on the several US tours she did from the mid-30s, her endless repertoire of baking recipes and her knowledge of local specialities such as kūmara, toheroa, lamb and crayfish.

In her long career, Aunt Daisy published 11 books.

In the 1940s and 50s, Mother shopped for food at small family-run businesses, as did all the other housewives. An uncle had a vegetable shop in Symonds St, Auckland, and nearby was a fishmonger. She recalls that when money was scarce, they could go to the fish shop and buy a skinned rabbit for sixpence. Dad was a shopkeeper, too, and each week, he brought home a meat order from the butcher, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. Our diet centred on meat, always accompanied by three vegetables, harvested daily from our garden plot. We had a bowl of “dripping” to cook with, our cheese was Chesdale, or a soft, creamy imported cheese wrapped in foil triangles, and the only pasta we ever had was macaroni or tinned spaghetti in an unlikely “pizza pie”. There was, without fail, a dessert to conclude dinner.

In those days, chicken was a treat eaten for birthdays and celebrations. Milk in glass bottles was delivered daily to homes, along with a fresh bread order – we’d fight over the “kissy crust”– wrapped in waxed paper and pre-cut into “thick and thin” slices, which made it convenient for sandwiches and toast. Mother made us wonderful school lunches – I adored tomato soup in a Thermos and meat-loaf sandwiches.

A subscription to the US magazine Ladies’ Home Journal gave Mother and her friends ideas for avant-garde dinner-party dishes, although she recalls many of the ingredients, such as chickpeas, were not readily available. The heart of the meal would be a roast, followed by a dessert such as pavlova or spanish cream, and for drinks there would be a crate of large brown bottles of beer for the men and sherry or blackberry nip for the women. Local wines, unless you visited the Dalmatian winegrowers in West Auckland, did not grace our tables until the 70s. (Remember the imported German wines Black Tower and Blue Nun?)

Photo/Getty Images

Things began to change in 1958 when the first supermarket opened. The Foodtown store in Ōtāhuhu, started by the Ah Chee, Kent and Brown families, caused what was probably the country’s first traffic jam when it flung open its doors. That was a pivotal moment in the way we shopped and ate, as every item a cook needed could now be found in one place. It was a huge advance in convenience in a country where most families had only one car.

Hotels in the main cities had always offered dining experiences, but in the 60s, there was a rise in small BYO places and a handful of bold European entrepreneurs opened specialist restaurants where diners could order such exotic specialities as chicken kiev, hungarian goulash, crayfish curry, filet mignon or carpetbag steaks and chocolate mousse. I remember my parents going to a small boutique restaurant in central Auckland, Le Gourmet – Mother in a glamorous long gown with plenty of jewellery and Dad hiding booze in his coat, as it was illegal to serve alcohol then.

On special occasions, our family went out to dinner. I loved Zajj Diablo in Mt Eden, where I ate my first shoestring potatoes, and my baby sister was served a toasted chicken sandwich. In Wellington, there was fine dining: Valerie and Phillip Littlejohn opened Orsini’s restaurant in 1959, and “Madame Louise” established Le Normandie in 1961, to much acclaim. In most other centres and towns, dining was restricted to grill houses and hotels.
Lois Daish. Photo/Jane Ussher/Listener

Cookbooks changed, too, and if there is a crucial turning point in the way we looked at food, it came with the Australian Women’s Weekly sets of cookbooks, and with Alison Holst. The AWW books showed glossy full-colour photos of every recipe, something that is now standard in food magazines and cookbooks.

Holst was the mistress of simple family eating and had her first “Food Without Fuss” column in the Listener in June 1974. It became a weekly column from September that year.

In the 80s, the Listener sponsored a national restaurant-of-the-year competition, partnering with Montana Wines. Winners included Hoffman’s in Auckland, Scarborough Fare in Christchurch and Wellington’s Il Casino.

One of my most memorable meals was a spring lunch by esteemed restaurateur Lois Daish, who wrote a column for the Listener from 1984 to 2007, at her Brooklyn Cafe and Grill to conclude a food writers’ conference in Wellington: platters of fresh asparagus and bowls of buttery new potatoes followed by juicy strawberries and whipped cream. It was stunning in its simplicity and delivery.

Monique Fiso. Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Listener

Provenance and sustainability have become the buzzwords for cooks, chefs and food writers. We’ve adapted to a multicultural scene that is exciting, challenging and ever-changing.

We can expect more recognition for New Zealand cuisine and chefs internationally. London-based fusion food pioneer Peter Gordon was named supreme winner at the 2019 Kea World Class New Zealand Awards in June for his philanthropic efforts in support of leukaemia research.

Indigenous food and cookery are becoming popular with chefs such as Wellington’s Monique Fiso, who showcases foraged and farmed New Zealand ingredients in her restaurant, Hiakai. The world’s culinary influencers have their eyes fixed firmly on her kitchen.

And always, appreciation of food shared at the table in the company of family and friends remains one of the most rewarding pastimes of any age.

This article was first published in the August 10, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.