Dionne Christian discovers our traditional Sunday roast is changing with the times.

Tsehainesh Hibtit hunches over a small charcoal brazier niftily designed for brewing Eritrean coffee - a mellow blend of green coffee beans and spices which fills her home with an invigorating aroma. Over the next two hours, Tsehainesh carries out the intricate Eritrean coffee ceremony taught to her by her mother. The coffee beans are roasted, then ground and put into a pot (jebena) for boiling and poured from the jebena to another jug three times.

The resulting spicy brew is heavenly and complements perfectly the food Tsehainesh and her younger sister, Rahel, have spent the past few days preparing.

There's a piquant chicken-on-the-bone curry made with whole boiled eggs, onions and tomatoes; an equally flavoursome lentil dhal, a vegetable dish of fried cabbage, carrots, beans and potatoes and a plate of chopped silverbeet pan-fried with garlic and onions. It is scrumptious, most unlike the boiled-to-death silverbeet many Westerners remember from childhood.

Spoonfuls of each dish are placed atop injera, pancake-like flatbreads made from rice flour mixed with water left to ferment for a couple of days - much like a sourdough starter - before being fried in a large pan. That Eritrean food is so good - and believe me, it is - may surprise many. Until 1993 Eritrea was part of Ethiopia but its inhabitants had fought a protracted battle for independence since 1961.

War contributed to famine, meaning hunger and want became the most common images associated with food - or lack of - in these parts of North Africa. It was television news footage of starving children here that inspired singer Bob Geldof to start his Live Aid famine relief mission.

But Tsehainesh and Rahel's brother, Aklilu, says as with most cultures, food plays a vital role in Eritrea.

It is used to bring people together, reciprocate other's hospitality, celebrate special events and/or enhance feelings of identity and belonging. To think about food in this way means seeing it feeding body and soul, nourishing individuals and communities.

Tsehainesh and Rahel are determined their six daughters, all New Zealand-born, will learn to cook Eritrean food and keep alive their culinary traditions now they live here. There isn't time to prepare traditional food everyday but the family does so on special occasions like religious holidays, New Year and for community gatherings.

"After all, it's part of our culture, part of who we are," says Tsehainesh.

The Sunday roast - meat with piles of potatoes, kumara and pumpkin served with a green vegetable (usually peas) and lashings of gravy - is often given as the prime example of a Kiwi culinary tradition.

In New Zealand Food and Cookery, writer David Burton declared: "Like the TAB, the 'Sunday roast' is something of an institution in New Zealand, with a strong nostalgic pull for members of an extended family."

But it's an institution some fear is going the way of the moa. Lack of time, lack of cooking skills, rising food prices and family break-ups have all been blamed for the Sunday roast going off the boil.

Selaks Winery claims to be so concerned it has Sunday, August 1, as National Roast Day. It wants to revive what it describes as the much-loved but fast-disappearing convention which brings family and friends together. No doubt over a drop or two of its product.

Food traditions like the Sunday roast are also on the menu at Kai to Pie - Auckland on a Plate. Auckland Museum's latest (and free) exhibition celebrates the role of food in the city. A range of interactive technology and static displays are used to bring food-themed stories to life.

There's an intriguing statistic within the exhibition's promotional material: 181 ethnic groups call New Zealand's largest city home. It raises a question worth discussing over the dinner table - assuming you still have one and it's used on the odd occasion for family meals.

The Sunday roast is a culinary tradition common only, really, to New Zealanders of European and more specifically British descent. So what is the "Sunday roast" equivalent for members of some of Auckland's other 180 ethnic groups?

And if we consider these special occasion meals as "Sunday roasts", is it a gathering that is disappearing or being re-created by a new generation to better suit modern lifestyles and a new-look New Zealand? The "you are what you eat" cliche in action, if you like.

Each Sunday, the Toleafoa family gather after church to eat lunch and enjoy each other's company. It was an event brought from Samoa by Saunoa and Lealofi Toleafoa at their Ponsonby home five decades ago and now shared by their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

In the 1960s, the late Saunoa would wake early on Sunday mornings to scrape coconuts, peel taro and scale fish and marinate them in coconut milk. The family then headed to church, arriving back in the early afternoon for lunch.

Brian Laing, who married daughter Lata, remembers being amazed to see the man of the house so involved in food preparation. Cooking Samoan-style can be heavy work. "Back in Samoa in the old days, a lot of food was cooked in an umu [an earth oven like a hangi] which the men would dig," says Brian's brother-in-law Alec Toleafoa.

"Dad didn't put in an umu pit, except for family weddings, but he continued doing a lot of the food preparation."

Today, everyone contributes a dish to the Sunday lunch, which begins with a blessing. Traditional Samoan food features strongly: two types of taro, oka (raw fish marinated in coconut milk), a warming and tasty chicken curry with potatoes and sapasui (moreish chop suey with beef, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, onions and vermicelli noodles).

"Food is a crucial link between the past and the younger generation coming through," says Alec's partner and anthropologist Dr Melani Anae.

"Food is more than a means to an end for us. It is central to sociality and a means to strengthen family relationships. The food that is served shows how much you hold someone in esteem."

Samoan-style dishes have been joined by foods like sushi, salads and pasta because food, like many aspects of a culture, seldom remains frozen in time. It is adapted as tastes change, new ingredients and cooking technologies develop or the ethnic make-up of a family diversifies - as it has with the Toleafoa family.

Health reasons play a part in Soana Muimuiheata's decision to "tweak" her family's equivalent to the Sunday roast.

A dietitian who works with Pacific people in South Auckland, Soana spent some years working between New Zealand and Tonga, teaching ways to make traditional Island-style food healthier.

The Sunday lunch Soana and sisters Temaleti and Hulita prepare consists of a big salad with lettuce, tomatoes, grated carrots, radish and cucumber, a zesty ota (Tongan-style raw fish) marinated in lemon juice with diced onion, tomatoes and cucumber, whole prawns in a chilli, garlic, onion and capsicum sauce, beef chop suey with lots of ginger and vegetables served with plantain (a starchy vegetable similar to a green banana) boiled with coconut milk.

It is fresh food packed full of flavour and capable of making you feel like you're no longer in wintry Auckland.

"There are many simple things you can do to eat healthier, like incorporating more fruit and vegetables, cutting down on starchy foods and reducing portion size," says Soana.

"I've reduced the amount of meat in each dish and added more vegetables but these are still basically the dishes we grew up on. The cost of food is a major factor in our food choices, and eating healthy within the budget is a key message for Pacific people."

Heihufe Sisepi, who came to New Zealand from Niue in 1972, follows these suggestions. Hei, her five children and 13 grandchildren still enjoy Niuean food like takihi, a rich mix of sliced taro, pawpaw and coconut cream served as a savoury dish, and polofua which is layers of leaves, corned beef and coconut cream.

But vegetables feature more prominently. A lamb neck chop stew, for example, includes cupfuls of frozen - and easy to incorporate - peas, corn, beans and carrots. Roast chicken, always a favourite, is cooked with vegetables like potatoes, pumpkin and kumara.

Hei says the family celebrates special occasions like Mother's Day, with a Sunday dinner such as this. "It's not the type of food we eat every day, which I suppose helps to make it special. I would hate for my family to lose the ability to make our Niuean food and to get together to enjoy it."

Jette Kolle has also changed the way she eats. From Denmark, Jette remembers as a child eating meat with every meal - usually hearty variations on the traditional meat, potatoes and three vege. She points out that some of the featured foods of Scandinavia, like reindeer meat and pickled herring, are more commonly found in Sweden and Norway than Denmark.

Sixteen years ago, Jette decided to turn vegetarian and adapted Danish dishes accordingly.

"Denmark was a country of five million people, yet the farming industry was producing 20 million sheep. I didn't like the idea of intensive farming. It seemed wrong to me. In some respects, it was quite easy to go vegetarian but in others it was difficult because the cookbooks of that time tended to be a bit, well, dour. My mother was really taken aback. She would make meat soups - soup features a lot on Danish menus - and just take the meat out for me. But I know a meat stock when I smell one."

Her Danish vegetarian equivalent of the Sunday roast is a decadent dish she calls mushroom pate. It's made with rice, mushrooms, onions, garlic, thyme, cream and eggs, all baked in the oven and served with warm pickled red cabbage, carrot batons and the most delicious toffee potatoes.

That's right, potatoes coated and baked in sugar like that New Zealand school fair favourite, the toffee apple. Dessert is equally sweet and tasty. It's a cherry rice risotto with arborio rice, vanilla and ground almonds mixed with cream and oven-baked.

Jette arrived in New Zealand eight years ago and introduced her flatmates to the Danish tradition of a Christmas Eve celebration. The mushroom pate, accompanying vegetables and dessert risotto are what she makes for the annual gathering.

Her friends say they couldn't imagine Christmas now without the Danish gathering.

"It's become part of our New Zealand Christmas," says Melanya Burrows.

"It just wouldn't feel right not to get together on Christmas Eve and eat Jette's wonderful food."

National Party list MP Melissa Lee appreciates the food of her Korean childhood after a hard week at Parliament. While she, her mother and soon-to-be-teenage son eat a wide variety of food, including the occasional roast dinner, there's usually some sort of Korean food or condiment on the table.

That condiment is frequently kimchi. The condiment of choice in most Korean homes, it is so favoured that Austin Lee, the first Korean astronaut, was packed off into space with a specially designed "space kimchi".

"It's the food you grow up with, so you're used to it," says Melissa.

"I remember when I was pregnant and had really bad morning sickness, I couldn't bear to eat anything but I would go the fridge, open a jar of kimchi and just smell it. I instantly felt better."

Koreans believe in harmonising within each meal the five flavours of hot, bitter, sweet, sour and salty and attempting to include five colours: red, green, yellow, white and black.

This is reflected in the Lees' Sunday lunch where fiery red kimchi is served along with fluffy white rice, Korean-style minced beef rissoles, fresh prawns, fresh green lettuce and perilla leaves (for wrapping bite-sized morsels of food in and eating in one mouthful), Korean caviar, crisp black seaweed sheets and a selection of pickled vegetables. It's washed down with a refreshing drink made from cinnamon, sugar and dried persimmon.

It's so colourful and fresh-looking, not to mention appetizing, that it makes me feel like signing up for a Korean cookery course.

"There's some kind of saying that when people immigrate, the language is the first thing they forget and the food the last but I don't think the food ever really goes," says Melissa.

It all begs the question: Has the Sunday roast ever really been a tradition?

Yes and no, says social historian Tony Simpson. In A Distant Feast: The Origins of New Zealand's Cuisine, he traces the evolution of the country's food culture - at least among European New Zealanders.

He says many of those who arrived in the 19th century couldn't afford to eat meat at home in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. They were agog to discover in New Zealand, they could earn enough to pay for meat three times a day if they wished. Simpson says letters back home and diary entries make much of this abundance.

Given the limited cooking technology of the day, roasting meat together with starchy vegetables like potatoes and kumara made sense. Families had time to gather together after church on a Sunday so would do so to eat.

There were other advantages of a Sunday roast. Leftover meat could be used in sandwiches for school or work in the early part of the week or made into other dishes like shepherd's pie.

"I think New Zealanders' tastes have perhaps become more sophisticated and we would rather strike out in other directions and try new things. And let's face it: a roast dinner can be a bloody nuisance, with a lot of preparation involved, trying to make gravy without lumps and the like. Then there's the clean-up afterwards which can be horrendous with all the meat fat and grease on the dishes.

"The whole thing about traditions is that they were all made up by someone at some stage. If we all start to have Sunday roasts, we have to ask ourselves whether it's really a self-conscious re-creation of a tradition which means it's not really authentic at all."

Like many, Simpson thinks families still come together for special occasion meals but are likely to do so in different settings - a Chinese Yum Char restaurant, for example - or over other kinds of food.

Nevertheless, if cuisine is a link with the past, there could well be merit in a tradition of making a special effort in a meal now and again. All food for thought.

Auckland Museum's Kai To Pie Exhibition runs until October 25. For more information on National Roast Day, see nationalroastday.co.nz.