Back in 2008 I was lucky enough to be invited to deliver a paper I wrote on kumara at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. Since the theme was vegetables I wrote a paper called “Sweet As. Notes on the New Zealand sweet potato or kumara as a taonga or national treasure”.
In it, I outlined how the early Maori had brought kumara with them to New Zealand from northern Polynesia (it came originally from South America) and succeeded in growing this cold-tender vine in the chillier southern lattitudes of New Zealand. New Zealand is the furthest south the plant has been grown and testifies to the skill of Maori horticulture and to the cohesion of early Maori society (in order to grow kumara, vast amounts of well-organised labour were needed as well as communities that could work together).
Kumara is also the only food that pakehas have adopted from the Maori culinary repertoire. (I have never heard a New Zealander refer to kumara as “sweet potato”). It is indeed a taonga in that it was traditionally a highly prestigious crop for Maori as well as a much-loved ingredient for pakeha settlers and cooks today.
With Matariki (the appearance in the sky of a group of stars known as the Pleiades, signifying the Maori new year) happening in June, what better way to celebrate than by making kumara the centre of a meal. (In fact when is Matariki going to become a national festival with special food? It is already being celebrated in some New Zealand areas but it could be a unique event everywhere here.)
Make an easy curry — peel orange kumara, cut into 3cm dice and steam or boil in plenty of salted water until tender but still firm. Cool and reserve. Fry a chopped onion, plenty of finely chopped garlic and ginger with chilli flakes and toasted cumin seeds in vegetable oil until the onion is soft. Add the kumara, a couple of cans of crushed tomatoes and a little turmeric, mix well. Simmer 10 minutes or until thick, taste, season with salt and serve garnished with a drizzle of coconut cream, plenty of chopped roasted unsalted peanuts and coriander sprigs, steamed jasmine rice to accompany.
Place well-scrubbed purple kumara side by side in a dry roasting dish and roast at 200C for about an hour or until completely tender (test with a skewer). Remove from the oven and slice in half, lengthways. Place side by side on a warm serving platter. Fry plenty of diced bacon in extra virgin olive oil until crisp and sprinkle it all over the kumara. Place the pan back on the heat and add a big splash of cider vinegar. Let it bubble for a few seconds then pour the pan contents over the kumara. Serve sprinkled with thinly sliced spring onions and flat leafed parsley sprigs. Good as a side for roast chicken or pan-fried steak, or as a salad.
Dry roast any variety of kumara until tender (see above). Meanwhile cut the stalk ends off plenty of brussels sprouts, then slice each into four and slowly pan-fry in extra virgin olive oil with finely diced preserved lemon peel, a thinly sliced leek and lots of chopped garlic. When the sprouts are tender and browned, split the kumara open lengthways and scoop the flesh out in spoonfuls. Add to the sprout mixture and fold through, pan-frying until hot. Serve with a dollop of yoghurt. Good with lamb.
Make fried kumara cakes — peel and grate kumara then rinse well in cold water and squeeze dry in handfuls. Mix with a couple of tablespoons of flour, a couple of beaten eggs, a small finely chopped onion, and season with salt and pepper. Heat plenty of extra virgin olive oil in a large frying pan and fry large spoonfuls of the mix in the hot oil. Do not try to turn over until the underside is well-browned or they will fall apart. Once all are fried, drain on paper towels and serve with paper thin slices of prosciutto, a dollop of sour cream and spicy chutney.
Peel and cut purple kumara into 3cm chunks. Season with salt and pepper and toss in a little extra virgin olive oil. Spread out on a large baking paper-lined oven tray and roast at 200C for about 45 minutes or until tender and browned. Meanwhile pan-fry lamb mince with lots of chopped garlic, a little ground cinnamon and salt and pepper until the lamb is browned. Add the roasted kumara, chopped mint, coriander and parsley, mix well and serve, wrapped in warm flatbread, with halved cherry tomatoes, sliced cucumber and a dollop of plain unsweetened yoghurt.
Peel orange kumara and cut into 3cm chunks. Place in a saucepan with a big splash of Japanese soy sauce and mirin (sweet Japanese cooking sake), a tablespoon of miso, a little water and a teaspoon of sugar. Cover and simmer over low heat until the kumara is tender and most of the liquid has evaporated. Uncover and add thin-sliced spring onions. Serve with barbecued boneless chicken thighs and steamed green beans.
Peel and cut purple kumara into 3cm chunks. Season and toss in extra virgin olive oil. Spread out on a baking paper-lined oven tray and roast at 200C until tender and browned. Serve on baby cos leaves, sprinkled with toasted walnut pieces and a generous drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Good with steak or roast chicken.
For a great first course or lunch make a Bloody Maria ceviche — steam peeled bite-sized chunks of purple kumara until tender then cool. Cut skinned, boned kingfish into 2cm pieces and marinate in lime or lemon juice until it has changed colour. Drain and place in a bowl with the kumara. Add thin sliced red onion, more fresh lime or lemon juice, tomato juice, a slug of tequila, Worcestershire sauce and a splash of hot sauce like Kaitaia Fire or Huffman’s. Serve sprinkled with coriander, with warm flour tortillas on the side.
Roll out some Paneton made-with-butter flaky puff pastry into a rectangle. Place dry-roasted, peeled purple kumara along one of the long sides. Place a layer of slow fried thin sliced onions and leeks and diced pancetta on top. Sprinkle with toasted walnut pieces and chopped parsley. Roll the pastry into a large sausage roll shape, brush with beaten egg, make some slits on the top to let the steam escape, place on a baking paper lined oven tray and bake for 30 minutes at 200C or until very well cooked (don’t undercook or the pastry will be greasy and won’t separate into crisp layers). Serve, sliced, with spicy chutney.
For a kumara sweet finish, try a sweet potato and pecan tart. Roll out some sweet short pastry and use it to line a 28cm diameter tart dish. Cover with baking paper or foil and baking beans and bake blind at 200C for about 20 minutes or until browned. Remove from the oven, uncover the pastry and reserve. To make the filling, steam 700g peeled purple kumara cut into small chunks until very tender. Cool. Place in a food processor with a pinch of salt, a teaspoon each ground cinnamon and ginger, 4 eggs, ½ cup cream, and ¾ cup brown sugar. Puree until smooth. Pour into the tart shell, sprinkle with plenty of pecan halves, place in the oven and bake at 150C until set. Remove from the oven, cool to warm and serve with whipped cream.