Lesley Chandra, head chef and owner at Sidart.
It’s remarkable what just two years and a public holiday can do for catapulting an under-valued part of our cultural and food story into mainstream acceptance. We should be jumping and whooping from the rafters to see the demise of the dreaded mid-winter Christmas and the rise of Matariki feasts as a truly unique Aotearoa celebration of the harvest, food and people. All people. The New Zealand food story has to be more than simply indigenous or colonial – let’s ditch the references to being the pantry basket of the world and instead reflect something more modern and future-focused. Perhaps we’re the long kitchen table – a gathering place of people who celebrate what we grow here with the influence and welcome of all cultures that have made a home here on our shores.
For three years on this platform and many more before, across hui and food conferences the almost endless circular diatribe surrounding the question, ‘What is the New Zealand food story?’ has hummed like a dull drone. Dull because no one is prepared to cut through the chaff, potentially offend someone and draw a line in the sand. A good debate requires a solid this vs that definition and that’s what we’ve been lacking.
Matariki provides just the clarifying opportunity to silence the dull beat of that drum and move on the exciting part – turning the volume up on the story, instead of debating what it is. And key to the argument is the broad spectrum, all welcome invitation into a cultural celebration of the New Year starting with the harvest and gratitude for the work that has gone into it.
This year, families and friends gathered around formal and informal feasts – from regional hosted celebrations by iwi and councils to potluck dinners on mismatched china up and down the street. For some, it started with classic Kiwi onion dip and chips and a few beers, while an assortment of seafood, bbq’d meats and other dishes were laden on tables. Some tables even had the audacity to not serve a single kumara.
And it was glorious and wonderful and invitational. I think we nailed it – up and down the country from school yards to fine dining restaurants because the one common ingredient and dish in this New Zealand food story is – people.
Our Aotearoa food story is both indigenous and immigrant. Much of what we grow here now didn’t grow until it was brought here – but what the land, forests and sea give us is generous and a tribute to those who care for and coax goodness from the land.
I explored this idea with Sid Sahrawat from Sid at The French Café, Cassia and KOL, whose own food career mirrors some of the culinary journey New Zealand has been on – bringing both his indigenous and migratory experiences into food expression that rests solely on what is grown here and in season at the time. Much of this he attributes to the growers and producers.
“People make the place and that’s what we can define New Zealand food as. It comes down to the artisan producers and growers and also the amazing chefs and winemakers and those working in our restaurants… they are adding so much to our culture. We get immersed into top chefs which is great – modern Chinese, Korean, Thai and Māori – it’s people making the food shine in all the different ways.,” he says when we talk about the New Zealand food story.
“It’s the head chefs, sous chefs, they all the option to create and come up with improvements… that’s where the New Zealand food story is – it’s a progression of all the people in the industry, we’re leaders who are nothing without our teams. Whether it’s a business or a person, that’s how people grow.”
Sid’s background encompasses an early start at age 14 in Chennai, a story he’s shared a few times now. After graduating from culinary school, he followed family around the world – from fine dining Italian, learning to cook meat from scratch in a woodfire oven – he recalls the pressure was amazing but he found the food progression wasn’t as interesting. So he followed his parents to New Zealand. Again he found himself immersed in Italian cuisine, first as a CDP at Non Solo, then on to Toto’s – and back to fine dining Italian.
A chef’s story is akin to the New Zealand food story – as you travel adding new work experiences and flavours to your palate, your knowledge and understanding expands. You travel through different cuisines and add techniques to your toolkit but never limit where and how you might embrace or utilise those skills. What might start as classic French technique can be equally utilised in refining a modern Indian curry dish or pani puri – but the idea is essential: people and food stories travel, migrate, return and then enrich.
“I wanted to do interesting and risk-taking food. When I was head chef at The Grove, I didn’t think there was much Indian influence in my food – it’s really freestyle cooking based on what is in season, it’s about the moment. I wouldn’t call it fusion – but I might instinctively use little strokes of Thai influence or curry on the lamb rump. Subtle touches that enhance the flavours,” Sid shares.
Sid’s commitment to people as essential was demonstrated when the Sahrawats handed over the keys to Sidart, his first independent restaurant, to head chef Lesley Chandra. Lesley says he’s an immigrant, twice over.
“I was born in Fiji but to an Indian immigrant family, so now I’m here, I’m a twice immigrant. I grew up with Indian food but we also ate Fijian food like taro, lovo (cooked like a hangi but seafood). Seafood was a really important part of our food growing up. Instead of chicken or lamb it was be crab or prawn curry. That’s a challenge for my food now – I can do Indian but I don’t want to do that kind of Indian – butter chicken, you know? But trying to incorporate different spices and techniques into the food is how I do it, rather than making traditional dishes. It’s hard to get taro leaves here – so we use spinach and coconut, so it has the same flavour profile,” Lesley explains.
Exploring Lesley’s experience in the New Zealand food story naturally leads into a discussion about more typical Pasifika flavours and why they can be hard to find in New Zealand restaurants.
“There just aren’t that many people who do Fijian food – you see a few Fijian-Indian curry houses in South Auckland. But there are so many food cultures here in New Zealand that you can go out for almost anything – so you eat traditional at home and go out for something different, just like we all do,” says Lesley.
New Zealand has long embraced international cuisines – Malaysian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, traditional Chinese and the Anglocised versions. But Pasifika and traditional Māori cuisine can be harder to find. Some of it is down to lifestyle and practicality, Chandra says. “The hangi is hard to get. Some of those traditional cooking techniques take hours – so you don’t cook that way at home anymore… in the islands it’s easy but over here it’s a different lifestyle. Boil-up more so. Fijians have their own version of boil-up with seafood instead of pork and taro leaves instead of watercress.”
I propose that the evolution of New Zealand and Pasifika cuisine is an important question – that there’s something important about expanding beyond roast lamb as a default classic Kiwi dish.
“I think as chefs we always try to educate our customers with the food that we do and so the evolution of New Zealand food is going on a good path… it’s the customers sometimes not open to it. Roast lamb is kind of boring – our job as chefs and hospitality people is to educate people who come in. We have an abundance of seafood and incredible ingredients – we don’t have to import a crazy amount of stuff, and we’re starting to grow more diverse ingredients, with the best meats in the world. As a restaurant, it’s often down to what people want – but we are pushing.”
Both Sid and Lesley refer to a playfulness in New Zealanders attitudes to food, both in simple indulgences but also the ability to explore flavours and not take food too seriously, and Lesley likes to play with the canapés and snacks on the menu.
“It’s playful for customers. So it’s childhood memories growing up in Fiji and here – a version of fish and chips, smoked trevally and tartare sauce. We’ve got a steak and cheese pie but in a consomme form – I reduced those flavours with cheddar foam and a pastry crumb. We’ve also got a savoury croissant – a marmite custard, a play on marmite on toast – something I grew up with. It’s the first thing you get when you sit down. And that’s where I do incorporate a bit of Fijian Indian and Pasifika – a play on Kokoda (a traditional Fijian dish similar to ceviche), using scallop – a set panna cotta with coconut and apple for acidity.”
I couldn’t resist asking these two icons of cuisine who capture the essence of this story what their favourite New Zealand food story is. It wasn’t roast lamb but almost as unsurprising. Fish and chips – whether lemonfish or flaky blue cod in a crisp batter gets the nod from both Lesley and Sid, who also gives honorable mention to the humble pie.
“A steak and cheese pie or a potato top pie, so New Zealand and so satisfying on a winter’s day.”
When it comes to the use of New Zealand native ingredients, Sid expresses restraint:
“I have my own style and I don’t use kawakawa, horopito and bush pepper – I find them too strong and I try not to use it because that’s other people’s lane. We use fresh wasabi at the moment but there is a place for some of those native botanicals, Manuka and pine needles. But it doesn’t have be the focal point, we don’t want to limit ourselves either. There’s something pure in staying true to what is grown in New Zealand but to expand and extend it with global sources – accentutate the ingredients without insisting you can find a native replacement for everything.”
He captures the heart of really. Matariki is that essential celebration and gratitude for the harvest and the work that went into gathering it. And so much more. It’s an invitation to reflection, to a vision of the future – the past, the future and the people that hold it all together both with us and passed on.
That’s why I think Matariki is our New Zealand food story – what grows from the land, the forests and the sea and the people of Aotearoa, born here and who travelled here to celebrate, accentuate and push us all on towards the future.