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Eat NZ Kaitaki, Vicky Young, a chef and pastry chef, explores the full spectrum of Mana Kai concepts, from her own personal perspective - a bicultural lens as a Chinese New Zealander....
Mana Kai: from a bicultural lens as a Chinese New Zealander
As an Aotearoa New Zealand Chinese - or Chinese Kiwi you could say - food has always been central to both my cultural upbringing in Cantonese household, and as a proud kiwi. I grew up hanging out for the annual school hangi and the hundreds of dumplings folded for Lunar New Year.
Mana Kai: Natural energy of the environment
ATUA: I grew up in a market gardening family, where I learnt from a young age to honour the produce in it’s entirety - broccoli stem and all (the best part, we’d fight over it in a stir fry, and we fed our chickens the broccoli leaves… yes, green eggs came from here first Dr Seuss!). While we sent the best of the crop to the markets, we were often eating the “unsaleable” product (tag 3, if that) at home. I have memories of long afternoons of vege prep with my nana, where we would sort through the veg, picking out what was good and what wasn’t - she always cooked lunch and dinner. I don’t know how she did it, but she certainly made the produce shine in each dish. There is something I can’t explain about my preference for juicy, the just-over it’s prime broccoli flower that catches oyster sauce so perfectly. We would eat with the seasons and rarely did we buy produce from the supermarket. I look back now and think how lucky I was to grow up eating a hot lunch in my office work stint, where I would spend my lunch hour with my nan, and my parents would drive back from the farm to eat together too.
TUAKANA / TEINA
As a kid, I remember watching my Dad back-breakingly crouched over to plant each seedling by hand, the single table lamp hanging off the edge of the workbench in the dark garage, working late into the night with the damp smell of soil lingering as I peeped through the door in my pjs. I always wondered why he worked so late, and as I got older, I appreciate the how hard he worked, revolving around the produce and the seasons. The care he placed in making sure the seedlings flourished against the harsh elements. Sometimes we lost produce due to flood, draught and even rabbits - the heartbreak on Dad‘s face finding that the plant hearts were all eaten (unlike us, rabbits are picky eaters it seems!). I remember fields alternating between brassica and alliums, a nod to the work of Papatūānuku for each harvest nutured with healthy soil from her arms.
As a tight knit collective market gardening community, we’d often share and trade produce, and it was a regular thing to save and swap seeds - before it was cool on Facebook gardening groups! It’s truly inspirational to see my parents pass on the knowledge during lockdown to their fellow neighbours, helping one another with starting up a vege garden in their backyards and going fishing together in return. Now, as a chef, I have even greater awareness around where my food comes from. I took it for granted growing up - and leaving home for university I found myself sharing resources with our friends. We’d get an abundance of vege from my parents who’d visit, and we’d share it with our mates who all wondered how we’d feed a flat of hungry students. I found myself utilising produce from a wonderful garden as a private chef, and had access to premium produce outside of the garden - beautiful localised produce which I had the honour to taste from across Aotearoa New Zealand. It wasn’t until lockdown when I realised the importance of food accessibility for fresh produce and the sharing of knowledge around foraging edible weeds, that we all had a responsibility to share our knowledge and resources. Supporting local was bigger than ever, as our beautiful capital rallied together networks for where to shop and for those who were just planting their first vege patch - where they could go for produce in the meantime! The market gardening parents who relied largely on the Sunday markets were unable to trade, and it was heartbreaking to hear the produce had nowhere to go. The tech savvy kids stepped in with online advertising, google docs, and contactless delivery begun. I felt proud and inspired by their collective responsibility and innovation.
Mana Kai: Sustenance from food
Food has always been the centre of every discussion, meeting and celebration. It is a way of connecting and expressing care and love without words. Food, in other words, is an expression of love, when words aren’t enough, right? We grew up eating around a lazy Susan, sharing and talking about our days as a family. During my university years, our flat of seven would utilise the crates and crates of tag 3 produce from our parents on their visits to the flat, and make creative meals for the week based on whatever vegetable we got. One week cauliflower soup fiesta, sharing soup with roadworkers outside. Flat party favourites of broccoli pizza with homemade dough during the year of 21sts and catering for friends. Sunday roasts with leek gratin every week. We ate pretty well for students!
I think of this in both cross-cultural tikanga and also in the tikanga of the culinary world. The acknowledgement and being respectful of the food traditions between cultures, harvesting and collecting protocol (particularly when foraging) and Chinese customs at the dinner table and what it represents. For the latter, take the humble potato for example. I have fond memories of scowering the fields already picked of “to-size” potatoes for commercial sale, to find the baby potatoes left behind. We’d fill our overall pockets full of them, so full they’d bulge and press into our thighs as we walked across the field back to the car. We’d get home and steam them as is, with a bit of soy sauce for dipping. The taste and smell of fresh potatoes is pure happiness to me. In my later years as a chef I would then honour the produce by using all the parts - the peels and boiled potato water for parāoa rēwena, or making a bao dough starter.
I think this concept speaks to me in the sense of supporting and sharing local produce with my community. For me that is bringing my friends’ products and produce to the forefront, supporting their work through my menu and using their product where possible. Educating consumers about the product, the maker and why I choose to actively use it, and why they should too. Yvonne, from Food Nerd, started up a local freeze drying business in lockdown purely for her own use but found it was something our community needed and a way to use excess fruit and veg. I am now proud to use these products on my menus and collaborate with Yvonne to test and develop produce never freeze dried before - freeze dried sea bananas, anyone?
Mana o te Tangata: Harvesting and fair distribution of food
What we can do to encourage growing native produce (through seed swaps, education, access to his information) and empowering New Zealanders to take a collective responsibility in keeping our food story alive across generations? This is something I hope to bring through Eat NZ Kaitaki 2021 - to be able to utilise my networks and beyond to preserve oral traditions of passing down information down from generations into an accessible format for anyone and everyone interested in Chinese market gardening history in Aotearoa. I hope that with this project, I can encourage discussion and awareness on a community who have contributed towards the kai of Aotearoa.
Manaaki is in my blood and food is our connection between the tangata and across cultures. How can we offer access to tag 1 produce to everyone and not just the big corporate markets?
Upholding the mana of gardeners: How can growers distribute their product with more than just the option of fighting for their product’s place on the supermarket shelf or the drive to the local markets in the capital at the crack of dawn? What happens when growers don’t have the resources to distribute their product?
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