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The language of food

17 November 2022
020 naomitoilalo

Via her much-loved social media account @whānaukai, Otago-born Naomi Toilalo’s special recipe for feel-good baking – shared in a mix of te reo Māori and English – is a celebration of contemporary Kiwi food and culture. This month, she releases a bilingual cookbook of the same name, featuring 70 of her tohutao reka (delicious recipes).

Cooking, baking and feeding people have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I grew up on a farm in Tuapeka West, Lawrence, in beautiful south Otago. Sharing kai (food) with friends, visitors and neighbours was a key part of life in our rural community and I was always keen to be involved.

I loved going through Mum’s recipe books, making classics like hokey-pokey and chocolate chip biscuits. Disasters never deterred me (and luckily, Mum never stopped me from making a huge mess). She was a very talented cook and artist who added a special flair to everything she made. Most importantly, she taught me that making recipes that don’t work or that taste weird is all part of the creative process.

Nana Lilly, my dad’s mum, was another huge influence. Nana was always busy cleaning and sewing, tending to her amazing vegetable garden or cooking up a storm. We often spent our school holidays with our grandparents and it was so exciting to discover the treasures in Nana’s baking tins.

More than that, though, I always looked forward to helping her in the kitchen. While Mum was a true creative in the kitchen, Nana was much more of a technical baker who measured everything precisely. She stuck to her tried-and-true handwritten recipes, never adding an extra dollop of this or splash of that. We loved eating her heavily spiced ginger loaf, spreading it liberally with creamy butter and salty Marmite.

With Mum’s Māori flair and Nana’s European precision I really do feel like I had the best mentors in the kāuta (kitchen). So many of my recipes are inspired by the traditional recipes that were commonly served in our country upbringing, but always with the Whānaukai touch.

When I was about 11, we joined my māmā and her sisters at a whānau (family) reunion in their hometown, Te Araroa. This was the first time that my siblings and cousins had been on Ngāti Porou soil, in the place of our tīpuna (ancestors).

We were called on to our marae, Awatere, by karanga – words called out to us in our reo (language), which we couldn’t understand. We stayed together on the marae and witnessed the power of whakapapa that instantly bonded us to everyone there. We swam in the awa (river), we walked up the maunga (mountains) and we stood in the urupā (cemetery) where our tīpuna lay – it was a moment of true connection to our taha Māori (our Māori side).

Our kai was prepared by all the whānau mucking in together. We saw that everyone on the marae had a role to play, whether it was peeling spuds, carving meat, serving pudding or setting the table. We’d grown up with close connections to our whānau in the South Island, so this part felt very familiar. The food was simple because it had to feed many people, which was something else we were used to at home.

The biggest difference was that te reo Māori spoken by our wider whānau echoed throughout the week. We understood nothing of what was being said, sung or chanted, but the sounds resonated with my wairua (spirit). I knew that the reo belonged to me. Nā te Atua te kākano i whakatō i roto i tōku ngākau – a seed had been planted within me at that moment.

When we returned to the South Island I pursued learning te reo in any way that I could; correspondence learning, kapa haka and finally through polytechnic and a degree in Māori studies at university.

Learning te reo Māori has been one of the hardest but most rewarding things I have ever done. One of the biggest challenges with learning a language as an adult is overcoming the inbuilt fear of getting things wrong. No one wants to look silly or say things back to front and upside down.

But just as we encourage our pēpi (babies) to try again when learning new skills, the language learner has to push through that self-consciousness. As I learned te reo, I began to recognise the pain that my māmā and her whānau had endured. Their generation had been taught in so many varying ways that they would be better off ignoring their Māori culture. It’s heartbreaking to ponder, but also empowering to know that our tīpuna had the foresight and kaha (strength) to fight for our people and our reo.

While I still have so much to learn, I feel honoured to be able to speak te reo daily. I encourage everyone to embrace this poetic and beautiful language. I hope that this book can be a place where you come to learn some new words and phrases in a light-hearted way.


Parāoa Pani Reka (Iced Buns)

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My dad has always had a thing for iced buns. He’d munch through six of them for lunch as a hungry teenager at South Otago High School, and we always had them in the pantry for his smoko on the farm. While he prefers to eat them with a little butter, I love to eat them as baked cream doughnuts. Either way, they are absolutely delicious and perfect for sharing. These buns are best eaten the day they are made.

Makes 15 iced buns


Kia kotahi me te haurua kapu wai aromahana, 1 ½ cups lukewarm water

Kia hautoru kapu huka hāura, ⅓ cup brown sugar

Kia toru me te haurua kokoiti īhi, 3 ½ teaspoon yeast (Surebake)

Kia toru me te haurua kapu puehu parāoa, 3 ½ cups flour (high grade)

Kia kotahi kokoiti tote, 1 teaspoon salt

Kia 50 karamu pata, ōrite te mahana ki te rūma, 50g butter, at room temperature

Kia 15 karamu pata kua rewaina, 15g melted butter


Place the wai aromahana, huka hāura and īhi in a bowl and leave to activate for 10 minutes. Stir in the puehu parāoa and tote until a dough forms. Mā te mīhini whakaranu, mā ō ringaringa rānei, pokepokea te pokenga mō te 10 miniti. Using a stand mixer (fitted with a dough hook), or your hands, knead for 10 minutes. Now for the butter. If you’re using a mixer, keep the speed low and add it all in one go. If kneading by hand, stretch the dough out and ‘dot’ the butter on top. Knead for a further 3–5 minutes, until the butter is mixed in and the dough is shiny and springs back when pressed.

Place the dough in an oiled bowl. Cover and set aside for 1–1. hours, until doubled in size. Whakamahanatia te umu kia 170 te pāmahana. Heat the oven to 170°C.

Tip the dough onto a lightly floured bench. Divide the dough in to 15 equal portions, each weighing about 55g. Roll into 15 sausages and line up on to a 40 x 30 cm oiled tray.

Leave to rise again for 40–45 minutes. Bake for 20 minutes, rotating the tray halfway through baking so they cook evenly. Remove from the oven and brush with the melted butter. Leave to cool completely on a rack.

Te Pani Reka (The Icing)


Kia 100 karamu pata kūteretere, 100g softened butter

Kia hautoru kapu tiamu hua, ⅓ cup mixed berry jam

Kia toru hauwhā kapu kokonati pūtī, ¾ cup desiccated coconut

Kia toru hauwhā kapu puehu huka, ¾ cup icing sugar


Add the pata kūteretere to a medium bowl. Whakamahia he paoka ki te whakaranu i te pata kia māene ai. Using a fork, mix the butter until smooth. Mix in the tiamu hua, kokonati pūtī and puehu huka. Spread the icing thickly on each bun. It should be a little thick and glorious. If desired, split the buns and fill with jam and cream as follows.

Add the pata kūteretere to a medium bowl. Whakamahia he paoka ki te whakaranu i te pata kia māene ai. Using a fork, mix the butter until smooth. Mix in the tiamu hua, kokonati pūtī and puehu huka. Spread the icing thickly on each bun. It should be a little thick and glorious. If desired, split the buns and fill with jam and cream as follows.

Te Kirīmi (The Cream)


Kia 300 ritamano kirīmi, 300ml cream

Kia rua kokonui puehu huka, 2 tablespoons icing sugar

Kia kotahi kokoiti pē wanira, 1 teaspoon vanilla paste

Kia haurua kapu tiamu hua, ½ cup mixed berry jam

Kia hauwhā kapu kokonati pūtī, ¼ cup desiccated coconut


Place the kirīmi, puehu huka and pē wanira in a bowl and whisk to form soft peaks. Cut the buns vertically down the middle. Pipe or spoon in some jam, then pipe or spoon in some whipped cream. Dollop a little blob of jam on top and sprinkle with extra coconut.

Extracted from Whānaukai: Feel-good baking to share aroha and feed hungry tummies by Naomi Toilalo (HarperCollins NZ, $50). Photography by Sarah Henderson.

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