Book Review: Kai and Culture – Food Stories from Aotearoa, edited by Emma Johnson

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

We need to come back to eating what’s available and sustainable. We need to remind people where food comes from. …Respect is what we need more of – for each other, our land and our food.
Fleur Sullivan – p. 32-33

cv_kai_and_cultureThis is a thought-provoking book exploring New Zealanders’ connections with kai. It encourages reflection on the social, cultural, historical, ethical and environmental issues linked with the food we grow, import, export, and eat.

The introduction explains that Kai and Culture covers ‘a range of ideas, projects and stories through essays, profiles and recipes’. The narratives incorporate multicultural perspectives, including reference to the mahinga kai central to Ngai Tahu identity that focuses on how and where traditional food and other natural resources are gathered. There’s also a profile of the Māori-owned Yellow Brick Road sustainable seafood company whose business is based on kaitiakitanga principles (of guardianship, protection and preservation) that focus on preserving New Zealand’s seafood resources. This ‘involves responsibility, respect, a deep connection to place and knowledge of provenance’ – such as knowing who caught the fish, when and how.

There’s discussion, too, of the positive impact that immigrants have had on the food grown, purchased and eaten in New Zealand homes and restaurants. Historically this includes the new varieties of vegetables established by Chinese market gardeners, and the parmesan cheese and olive oil introduced by Italian immigrants. As we are a multi-cultural nation, there continues to be many influences on what we grow and eat. For example, the book tells of a restaurant that honours and celebrates Pasifika food, and describes the innovative Middle Eastern meals prepared by refugees who cook for the non-profit social enterprise Pomegranate Kitchen.

Kai and Culture challenges our thinking about our interactions with food, including not only what we prepare and consume but what we waste, and why. Most of us know that seasonal variations influence the quality and availability of fresh produce – but do we consider where out-of-season produce has come from and how it was handled along the way? We learn about the skills and resources required to plant and nurture a self-sufficient fruit and vegetable garden, and whether or not this is a realistic goal for the average New Zealander. Kai and Culture also outlines alternative ways of gathering food, such as foraging – for wild parsley and other herbs, fungi or edible seaweed, for example – as a complement to fishing and hunting.

The book raises the issue of whether consumers have a right to know which country the food they are buying came from. (It’s a yes from me: I’m irritated by the fine print on many packaged foods declaring that the product was ‘packed in New Zealand from local and imported ingredients’, with no further information provided.)

Contributors include chefs, architects, writers, film-makers, academics, producers and restaurant-owners. Most sections are well-written (with references included if you’d like to learn more), although some of the longer sections would have benefited from tighter editing. There’s a fine balance between describing a business model or venture objectively and sounding like an advertisement or product endorsement. I would like to have heard more of the voices of individual contributors, instead there’s a certain sameness to the writing style across many sections.

Photos accompany most stories. The strangest depicts four adults bobbing in a spa pool full of heated milk. (You’ll have to read the book to find out why.)

There’s an unconventional mix of both narrow and wide margins throughout the book and a somewhat pedestrian two- and three-column layout and font. I found the typographic ornaments (swirly icons and the like) accompanying the heading of each section a distraction. Few seem to have any relation to the section content.

The 30 recipes at the end of Kai and Culture were provided by contributors to the book and most have links to particular sections. I wonder whether the recipes might have been more appropriately placed together with the associated story. This would mean, for example, that the simple pasta with tinned tomatoes recipe might have sat alongside Rebekah Graham’s essay about families that struggle to afford nutritious food, which she argues is a human right.

Some recipes include foraged ingredients, such as beach spinach. At the other end of the scale several recipes involve expensive or unusual ingredients and complicated methods. I’m keen to prepare the Ika Mata recipe for marinated raw fish, one of the more straightforward recipes, based on techniques and ingredients shared by people from the Cook Islands.

I can imagine Kai and Culture being used by secondary school teachers as part of a food and nutrition module, or as assigned reading for a tertiary education course that focuses on food production and consumption. It could also appeal to people interested in challenging and changing how they source, grow and/or use particular foods, and consumers wanting to make more informed and responsible purchasing decisions at supermarkets and even restaurants.

The topics and issues discussed in Kai and Culture have given me a greater appreciation of the efforts made by New Zealand growers, farmers and other food producers and of the challenges they face in providing us with healthy and sustainable food.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Kai and Culture: Food stories from Aotearoa
Edited by Emma Johnson
Published by Freerange Press
ISBN 9780473412241

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