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Beads of moisture dot Winston Peters' brow as he pulls out the familiar silk handkerchief from his pocket to dab them away.

'Round the table his dinner guests are flushed and sniffing, as the dark red chilli flows through their arteries and sinuses like lava.

And this is just the mild version of his Thai tom yum soup. On the kitchen bench sits another large chilli he had contemplated chopping into the broth - but thought it might be "over the top".

Arriving by taxi at his friend's house in the Porirua suburb of Papakowhai at the same time as most of his guests, Peters had walked straight into the kitchen, trading his suit jacket and red tie for a crisp blue-and-white striped apron.

Peters looks thoroughly at home with his enormous chiller bag of seafood emptied onto the bench, scraping, shucking, shelling, slicing. Concerns he will soil his Napisan-white shirt cuffs, with their silver cuff-links, are brushed aside: "I get it cleaned."

"This soup - it's all in the timing," he says. "You get the timing wrong and you'll ruin it. But better to undercook it than overcook it, because it'll finish cooking once it's taken off the heat.

"I only get a chance to cook really in the holidays ... When I finish politics, I'm going to offer to work for free for a Chinese restaurant for six weeks, then maybe a Greek one, then a French one, to learn more."

But behind his back, friend Graham Harding - also NZ First's chief of staff - is waving a Hell Pizza delivery brochure, a grin on his face: "A precaution, just in case."

"Eh?" demands Peters, head down as he carefully but confidently dissects the squid.

"Nothing, never said a word," and Harding tops up the pinot gris in the champagne flutes.

Peters knows his seafood: when he has a chance he goes out fishing with a friend in Tauranga who has a launch. Up north at his family home, he fishes off Whananaki Beach. In Wellington he can often be found holding court late at night at the Green Parrot restaurant, squeezing lemon juice over raw scallops or oysters in their shells.

"I try and eat lots of seafood - fish is meant to be good for you. At the beach I get a lot of fish. But this one I love because once you've done the prep, you're done."

And true to his word, he turns to the stovetop with the large plastic container of shellfish and tips it all into the simmering red broth. "Now, is everybody set to go in, say, 10 minutes?"

He could serve up in five but the extra time allows him to duck outside for a cigarette. Once back inside, his guests gather round the table and he claps his hands: "Righto," he bellows. He places the pot in the middle of the table, tosses the serving cloth back through the door on to the kitchen bench, and begins ladling enormous servings into the eight bowls. He distributes the coriander sprigs as well, with a dramatic flick of the wrist.

Eight o'clock: this is an early dinner for Peters, who says that as a boy he would usually have been out milking cows until 8.45pm.

Peters can come across in Parliament and on television as an angry man - but tonight he is grumpy only at the price of king prawns, and at a charity that had auctioned a "Dinner with Winston" which he then discovered he had to pay for.

A glass of wine is knocked over at the other end of the table, but no harm is done. Harding puts on a Reader's Digest country music compilation CD that Peters has given him, and soon the MP is singing along with Devil Woman. Harding picks up the crockpot to serve seconds, and Peters instinctively grabs at a nearby glass to avoid another spillage.

He and Harding begin discussing tomorrow's schedule. The two angry Iraqi immigrants expected at Parliament tomorrow will get no apology from him, Peters states firmly.

But then Johnny Cash comes on with A Boy named Sue, and Peters is soon singing along again. Funny really, because the next day Progressive MP Matt Robson would issue a press release stating that although he had heard of A Man named Sue (sic), no one had been able to track down a man named Jazwan, whom Peters had alleged belonged to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

Still wearing the apron, Peters explains Johnny Cash to anyone who will listen: "He did this version at Folsom Prison."

Asks someone naively: how much time did he do? "Not enough," snorts Amanda Harding, unconvinced by Peters and her father of the wonders of country music.

Harding tops up the wine glasses - we're on to about the fifth bottle - and politics is again forgotten.

- HERALD ON SUNDAY