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Our kumara goes to Oxford

Media Release 29 September 2008

Our kumara goes to Oxford

The humble kumara has made its way to Oxford University thanks to Cuisine food editor Ray McVinnie who presented the Kiwi staple to the revered 2008 Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery at St Catherine's College, Oxford, in England last week.

Ray was selected to present a paper on kumara at the symposium, which brings together writers, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, scientists, chefs and others who specialise in the study of food in history, its place in contemporary societies, and related scientific developments.

His topic, to meet this year's theme of vegetables, was infused with a Kiwi flavour - titled Sweet As: Notes on the Kumara or New Zealand Sweet Potato as a Taonga or Treasure. The paper explored the history of the kumara or native sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, considered a unique New Zealand ingredient and a taonga (treasure).

"If a national cuisine is one with an instantly recognisable set of dishes, then New Zealand's is still emerging," said Ray in the 5000-word research paper. "With so much recent change in our diet, kumara is a true and enduring product of the terroir and can surely be classed as a national treasure with something like the regard porcini have in Italy.

"I was brought up on purple-skinned kumara and love their earthy, robust flavours. Staples in our household, they continue to be inexpensive and taste just as good as ever," he said.

The Cuisine food editor was the only New Zealand presenter at the symposium, which was attended by over 200, mainly European and North American, food enthusiasts and academics. Ray presented the paper on Sunday 14 September:

Casting an eye back over history books, Ray examined the status of the kumara as a food source from its arrival with Maori in pre-European times to sub-tropical growing requirements, cultural importance and whakapapa. He then explored the culinary features of the vegetable's natural sweetness and its application in cooking history - from Maori cuisine, to the diets of early European settlers, to how it is used today as a key ingredient in New Zealand's emerging national cuisine.

The other papers presented at the symposium took a gastronomic tour of the wonderful and exotic world and history of vegetables, ranging from an insight into Akkoub (Gundelia Tournefortii - Tournefort's gundelia), an edible wild thistle from the Lebanese mountains, to exploring sustainability and traditional vegetable markets in India and Renaissance Italy and the rise-and-rise of the fabulous, flamboyant insalata.

Ray said the paper was well received by the audience. "They were fascinated by its history and the novelty of an unfamiliar ingredient," he said.

He finished his paper with a recipe for kumara at its best - slow roasted kumara salad. "Dry roasting the kumara is the absolute best way to get them as sweet as possible and this dish combines a collection of international influences that are the hallmark of modern Kiwi cuisine," he said.

Slow Roasted Kumara Salad
One of Ray's favourite ways of eating kumara, this can be a first course but is also good with barbecued or grilled chicken, lamb racks or steak.

1.2kg purple-skinned kumara, well scrubbed
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
200g rindless bacon, diced
50ml cider vinegar
salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 spring onions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup roasted, unsalted peanuts
1/4 cup coriander leaves

Preheat an oven to 200°C. Place the kumara in a large, dry roasting dish and roast for 1 hour until the kumara is completely soft inside. Remove from the oven and slice each kumara into quarters. Place in a large salad bowl.
Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the bacon until crisp. Remove from the heat and add the vinegar. Scrape the pan with a wooden spoon and pour the liquid over the kumara.
Season the kumara and bacon with a little salt and plenty of pepper. Sprinkle the spring onions, peanuts and coriander over the top and serve. Serves 4-6.

ENDS

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