There’s as many paths to cooking as there are cooks, I’m sure. But last weekend I found myself in the unusual position of starting a recipe because I’d been spending some time with our library rauemi on World War One.
Here at Te Matapihi ki te Ao Nui we’re gearing up, like the rest of the country, for the anniversary of WWI, the Great War as it was known. And we kaitiaki pukapuka who look after the Māori and New Zealand sections, well, we’re researching. Less famous than the 28th Māori Battalion, the “Native Contingent” of Māori men were sent in the Great War to Egypt, to Malta, to Gallipoli, to France and to Belgium. You can read more about this here at New Zealand History Online, or come in to browse our collections on the subject (start here).
Reading about all this got me thinking about the food the ope taua must have eaten on the move in the Mediterranean. I’ve heard stories before of soldiers finding pūhā ki tāwāhi, and a quick search confirmed for me that pūhā, the sow thistle (and endemic New Zealand variety, sonchus kirkii), is found all over the world. It’s part of Italian peasant cuisine as “Minestra con Pollenta”, and is used as a salad herb in Malta and Greece, where it’s called zohos. Though I have no records, I can well imagine army rations being supplemented by sweet, fresh pūhā, or even combined with more traditional Mediterranean cuisine. And since I hankered for something new to spread on my rēwena bread, Sunday afternoon had me pulling out the blender to mix up an experimental batch of pūhā pesto.
Pesto is a mediterranean spread that can really have anything in it, but in its most common form, it’s a paste made from basil, pine nuts and parmean. Quantities are approximate, but make sure you have:
1 bunch of pūhā (when I was eating it in the rohe o Hauraki, pūhā was always what we called the sow thistle sonchus. I learned, talking to other people since, that watercress (wātakirihi) is sometimes called pūhā as well. But for this recipe I used the less bitter, spikier thistle pūhā)
50g parmesan cheese
50g pine nuts
Juice of ½ lemon
Oil (I used rice bran, but olive oil is standard, and goes with pūhā in Crete)
You’ll also need a blender, unless you want to be shredding leaves and pounding them up for a while.
I only used the tender leaves of the pūhā, and dicarded the stalks and spiky leaves, because I wasn’t about to cook them, which softens their sting. So I plucked off all the leaves and blended them up until finely shredded.
Then, because I wanted to keep a close eye on proportions and what I was doing, I transferred the shredded leaves out of the blender into a measuring jug before adding the pine nuts, grating in the parmesan and, because I don’t have a mortar and pestle anymore, smashing the three ingredients together with the end of a very solid rolling pin. Use your number eight wire ingenuity, and something in your kīhini will work.
Then I added the oil, a drizzle at a time, and mixed it in til it was a nice, spreadable consistency. When I tasted it, the flavours of the pūhā and pine nuts made a very nutty taste, so I squeezed in the juice of half a lemon to help counteract that – it worked nicely. Now is when you can adjust the ingredients as you see fit – more tīhi, more nuts, a little more lemon for the sour taste – I spent a while playing around with the taste. But in the end I had about half a jar of delicious pūhā pesto. The leaves worked really well and it tastes fresh – definitely my new favourite way to eat pūhā!
This I’m sure will go well with rēwena – but since my potato bug (which I’ve discovered is called a kōtero) was in recovery mode when I made the pesto, we had to be contented with crackers. They were both eaten very quickly – the only downside to mahi kai! But if you’re on the lookout for inter-cultural recipes (or a good reason to make more food) while we commemorate Māori overseas, here’s a starter for you.
Nāku te rourou is a monthly food blog focussing on Māori food and recipes. Don’t think Julie and Julia. Think kīhini chaos, kānga pirau, and kai for the soul. Nau mai ki tāku kīhini… Welcome to my kitchen.
Māori words used in this blog entry:
rauemi – resources
Te Matapihi ki te Ao Nui – Wellington City Libraries
kaitiaki pukapuka – librarian
sope taua – troops
ki tāwāhi – overseas
rohe o Hauraki – region of Hauraki (the Hauraki plains and Thames Valley)
kīhini – kitchen
tīhi – cheese
mahi kai – cooking