Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Pair of New Zealand Food Traditions

So I'll start with the sure crowd-pleaser and leave the blood and (eel) guts for later.

Kiwis love their sweets and have a long tradition of home baking. In fact, many of the older New Zealand cookbooks were heavily weighted in favor of recipes for baked goods. Just the fact that the main national cookbook is produced by Edmonds, a flour company, tells you something. Things have changed, of course, as they have changed globally, and more baked goods are purchased now than baked at home. In addition to manufactured supermarket versions of Kiwi favorites like thickly frosted ginger slices (slices are bar cookies here) and crispy, World War 1-evoking Anzac biscuits (cookies), all the local cafes have a standard selection of the classics, some better than others.

One of the types of biscuit you see everywhere is called an Afghan, pictured above. Although chocolate is not my usual choice, I had a really good version from the same place in Raetihi where we enjoyed the best pies we've had here and that got my attention. It's a not-too-sweet, buttery, melt-in-your mouth, cocoa-flavored shortbread cookie with a satisfying crunch from the surprise ingredient, cornflakes, and a smooth frosting. It's super-simple and it's likely you have all the ingredients on hand.

Here is the recipe, adapted from a book the Wanganui High School food technology department head gave me in thanks for my presentations to her classes on my work (which only a few students slept through and prompted insightful questions like, "Do you drive a cadillac?" "How much money did you make on the cookbook?" and "How much is a pair of Nikes in America?" To be fair, there were a few other more topical questions, too.)

The book is "The ABC of Kiwi Food: Afghans, Barbecues and Chocolate Fish" by Jane Hingston. It is quite amusing and enlightening, but falls short at explaining why the Afghan is called the Afghan. Theories include that the cookie looks like the terrain of Afghanistan, that it looks like a type of woolen hat known as an Afghan (check them out at, or that it is named after the Afghans who controlled camel trains in Australia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. None seem very plausible to me but I have nothing better to offer.

Whatever they're called, they're really very good.

Afghan Biscuits (Cookies) - adapted from "The ABC of Kiwi Food," which is almost exactly the version in the "Edmonds Cookery Book."

For biscuits:
200 g (7 ounces or 1 stick plus 6 T) butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups flour
1/4 cup cocoa
2 cups cornflakes

For icing:
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon cocoa
1 teaspoon butter
about 2 tablespoons boiling water
Walnuts, if desired

For biscuits: Preheat oven to 180 C (350 F). Lightly grease cookie sheet or line with nonstick paper or liner. Beat together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Sift together flour and cocoa and beat into butter mixture. Beat in cornflakes. (It is OK if they get crushed, just not completely pulverized.) Roll small walnut-sized balls of mixture in your hands and flatten slightly on cookies sheet. (They don't spread, so you can put them fairly close together.) Bake for 12 -15 minutes until just set. Cool before icing.

For icing: Sift together confectioners' sugar and cocoa in a small bowl. Add butter and then whisk in enough water to create a soft, smooth icing. Quickly spread icing over cooled cookies, decorating each with a walnut half if desired. Makes about 30 2-inch cookies.

Now for the eel. (As I mentioned on Facebook, the photos below should be avoided by vegetarians and the squeamish.)

A couple weeks ago, Alex and a few buddies (mates as they call them here) went eeling. Eels, known a bit confusingly as "tuna" in Te Reo Maori, are a big part of the food culture in New Zealand, particularly in our region on the Whanganui River and particularly for the Maori. Any museum with Maori artefacts will feature woven flax eel traps and there's a beautiful stained glass window in the Wanganui District Council building of an eel trap in the river.
But enough about history and tradition, we got our very own modern-day eel fishermen pictured below: Mark to the left; Lachie, eel and fishing expert in the middle;and Alex. Not pictured is Toby. They caught four eel that afternoon, of which they kept two. I had promised Alex I would cook what he caught and selected the smaller one to keep. (It was also quite still and dead while the larger one Lachie is holding was still twitching a bit, much to the delight of his mom - not.) Cooking was the easy part. First, it had to be skinned and gutted and all that stuff. I vaguely remembered something about nailing the eel to a post and cutting the skin around the neck and pulling hard. We did something like that. Unfortunately, I was mostly on my own since Mark had been violently ill the night before and was recovering in the bedroom. I figured that seeing an eel-skinning was not the best remedy for his tender tummy. (To be honest, despite his professional ability to deal with all sorts of human body stuff, he's not the best when it comes to dealing with dead animal bodies, so probably wouldn't have been much use anyway.)

We nailed.

We sliced. Mark (the younger one, not the father one) and Alex were actually quite good helpers.

We speared and skinned. (We gutted too - but I'll spare you that photographic image.)

Then we marinated - in olive oil, red wine vinegar, lots of garlic, salt and pepper, and bay leaves. (This is not a traditional Maori recipe, needless to say - they most often smoke the eel whole, no skinning required. I should have thought of that -- but then I don't have a smoker.) And then we grilled - or barbecued as the Kiwis would say. It was really quite delicious and I recommend the basic but very good marinade above for any substantial white-fleshed fish you plan to grill. I don't, however, recommend skinning and gutting your own eel.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

An entertaining read as always, Melissa. I think I'll give the Afghan recipe a go. As for the eels...maybe not! ;-)