Annabel Langbein: Food of the God (+ recipes)
Climb any of Auckland's volcanic cones and you notice lots of large grassy indents in the earth, the remnants of the food storage pits of the early Maori. Known as rua kumara, they were used to store kumara after harvests.
A huge variety of kumara were cultivated throughout the Pacific long before the first Europeans arrived. Known under many names, including kuara, kuawara, uala, umara and kumara, these sweet, starchy tubers were an important food source.
In Maori mythology, Rongo was the deity appointed to cultivated foods generally, but more particularly the kumara. Rongo represents the moon, and the 28th night of the moon, when the sweet potato was planted, was called orongonui. Planting was done under rigid laws of ceremonial tapu. Kumara plants, set with their sprouting ends to the north, were planted separately on little hemispherical hillocks. Great care was taken in their cultivation, and often skulls or bones of the dead were brought to the field and elevated on stakes at the head of the cultivation, to ensure vigorous growth and a good crop.
The kumara or sweet potato (ipomoea batatas) is the tuberous root of the morning glory family - and its leaf (which is edible) is similar to that of the invasive weed convolvulus (which is poisonous). The kumara grown here more than 1000 years ago were tiny - no bigger than a finger - until a larger South American variety brought over by the whalers in the 1850s quickly superceded them. The red kumara we enjoy today, Owairaka, has evolved from this South American variety.
Of the two Japanese ones coming on-stream here, Kokei is red-skinned with a creamy white flesh and Kogenesengan has a creamy white skin and flesh.
Plant and Food Research has bred two new varieties - Purple Dawn, which has purple skin and flesh and is not as sweet as other varieties, and Orange Sunset, which has bronze skin and orange flesh with a purple fleck. The Orange Sunset flesh is soft and when you cut it a white, sugary, sap appears.
Due their high natural sugar content, kumara are prone to spoilage by fungal organisms. Care must be taken before storing them to ensure there are no breaks in the skin or damage to the roots from insects or tools. This risk of fungus and mould also means that commercial kumara, unless organically grown, are treated with a fungicide, which is a good reason to buy organic whenever you can. Peel non-organic kumara or, if baking whole, don't eat the skins.
Throughout South and Central America meal-in-one soups like this are called "puchero". They are often prepared using a piece of brisket or a whole chicken as the base, with corn, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and peppers added to the flavoursome broth. They make a great weekend lunch. Get the recipe
I love the idea of bowl meals - where you roast up a big tray of vegetables and then combine them with a grain. Here I've used couscous but you could use quinoa, barley or any other grain you fancy. Get the recipe
This a great prep-ahead salad. To hold the green colour of the beans dress the salad just before serving - the acid in the dressing will turn them brown if they sit in it for long. To curl spring onion greens, cut into strips lengthways and place in a bowl of water with ice cubes for about 10 minutes. Get the recipe
Essential Annabel Langbein (Annabel Langbein Media, $65) is a beautiful compendium of Annabel’s best-ever savoury recipes and cooking tips — on sale at Paper Plus, Whitcoulls, The Warehouse and all good bookstores or visit annabel-langbein.com