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Shared scents and the memories they hold
On the kai smells that waft around our cities and towns, flying pizzas and a local take on candy floss.
Nau mai, haere mai. Welcome to The Boil Up, The Spinoff’s weekly food newsletter produced in partnership with Boring Oat Milk. Written by me, Charlotte Muru-Lanning. It’s lovely to have you here!
You could say a market is a shrunken down and condensed version of the communities, cities and worlds it inhabits. Teeming with stories, among their vegetables, fruits and herbs, they carry knowledge, social connections, culture, langauges, history and trade. It’s the untamed multi-sensory experience that tells these stories, more than the savings, that leads many of us to the markets most weekends for our produce shop. Everytime I’m at the market, in between searching for the cheapest kūmara ($4.99 last weekend) and the tenderest dou miao tendrils, I always find myself compelled to snap pictures.
These photographs serve no practical purpose beyond taking up the precious memory I have left on my phone, which I take to mean that they’re simply my feeble attempt at capturing something I worry one day might be lost. But a picture can only tell us so much. When I flick back through the photos, the brilliantly fresh blush of the radish bunches and the impressive verdant abundance of choy sum, boy choy and ong choy is clear, but there’s a glaring piece missing from the entire picture, that my iPhone can't and probably never will capture. The smell of the markets. The whiffs of keke pua’a frying in oil, the fresh fish heads, piles of pungent alliums and celery, the nuclear hot cup of long black that burst open all over my hands last Saturday.
The significance of food smells in public life and how fragile they can be has lingered on my mind for a while. It was perhaps sparked when I read about four Hindi writers who lamented the loss of gandh, or smells that typified their home cities, as globalisation and modernisation has seen traditional markets and bazaars disappear in place of malls and multiplexes. “I feel it’s becoming very difficult to take care of one’s roots today. Once we forget our gandh, we forget our roots,” Shehar Dar Shehar, one of the writers, said at the 2009 Jaipur Literary Festival.
In New Mexico, where the smell of green chile roasting on an open flame permeates the American state each autumn, a group is trying to protect this unique aroma. This year they began attempting to pass legislation to make the smell their official state aroma – the first of its kind. “Chile is in the hearts and on the plates of all New Mexicans, and the smell of fresh roasting green chile allows us to reminisce on a memory of eating or enjoying our beloved signature crop. We like to call that memory a person’s ‘chile story’, and each of us as New Mexicans have a chile story,” said Travis Day, executive director of the New Mexico Chile Association was quoted in The Guardian.
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It makes me think about what kinds of uniquely local food smells the city I live in, Tāmaki Mākaurau, holds. In the evenings, Dominion Road is heady with cumin and charcoal. Walk down Sandringham Road at any time and the air lingers with a bouquet of spices. In Newmarket, you can tell a lot about someone who takes a detour to avoid the York Street underpass which is imbued with the scent of the busy fish shop underneath.
I grew up in Kingsland, and for most of my life I have wondered what the curious burnt toast smell that would fill the air of the gully at certain intervals in the day was. At school we’d speculate about the mysterious olfactory phenomenon – it’s only embarrassingly recently that I’ve come to realise that the smell, which still occurs daily, is Atomic Coffee’s roastery, which opened in the suburb a year after I was born. Living in the area for the majority of my life means that has become entangled with my sense of home and identity.
If public food smells can be lost, I can’t help but wonder what scents would have wafted about pre-colonisation that we don’t experience any more. I recently borrowed a book from 1978 called Māori Food and Cookery by Pākehā author David Fuller. Parts of the book are admittedly questionable, but it provides an invaluably detailed account of traditional kai Māori and how it was prepared. Reading it this week has made me wonder what the nikau cooked in hāngi till it formed brown sugar crystals might have smelt like. Or whether the pungent smell of kooki or dried shark would have permeated the radius around it. And how embedded the whiff of fish prepared fresh from the moana might be in everyday life. How totally ordinary the smell of the ngahere might have been when it came to collecting kai. Then there’s kānga pirau or rotten corn, affectionately named after its contentious aroma.
The smells of kai Māori above might be less omnipresent than they once were, but they obviously haven’t entirely disappeared. My mind wanders to Ngāpuhi perfumier Tiffany Witehira, of Curio Noir, and her perfume Pūrotu Rose, an expression of the fragrant notes of her grandfather’s tangi: the smell of smoke and hot soil from the hāngi and roses adorning the tables in the wharekai.
It’s a regularly repeated fun fact that smell has a stronger link to memory and emotion than any of the other senses. Something to do with those parts of our brains being so close together. When we’re considering kai and its links to our history, it seems worthwhile to consider and to protect the shared food smells that give perfumed colour to our daily lives. To lose those smells is to lose memories.
Join us for the next instalment of Boring Breakfast where host Sophie Gilmour and guests Angus Brown (Ārepa) and Te Puoho Kātene (Te Pūtea Whakatupu Trust) will discuss how New Zealand food businesses are innovating now, how the shape of local innovation has changed over time, and where the sector could be headed.
RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I don’t see ravioli being described as “square stuffed pasta” but I almost always see chole being called “chickpea curry” and dosa being incorrectly described as a “fermented crepe”,” writes Perzen Patel in her essay on food writing, culture and the problem with white washing. Patel argues that the whakapapa and authorship of recipes, along with the stories surrounding them and what we name them, is vital. “When we reduce a dish to its literal description, we’re not just taking away its history but also the emotion it evokes for the people who have eaten it for centuries.”
“Piping hot pizza will soon be winging its way across the skies of Huntly,” read a headline on the front page of Waikato Times last week. Newspapers, radio and television across the country were filled with excited stories prompted by the proposition of drone-delivered Domino’s in the town. Interestingly, as RNZ’s Colin Peacock pointed out on last weekend’s Mediawatch, flying pizzas gave rise to similar media attention seven years ago – with the then transport minister Simon Bridges even eating a slice of drone-delivered pizza. So is this all just a PR stunt? Mediawatch explains.
After a 2016 earthquake devastated the pāua population in Kaikōura, the recreational fishery was reopened last December for the first season in six years. Last weekend, the second season since its closure began and fisheries officers spent the weekend monitoring the fishery. The season, which will run till 15 June, got under way with new rules and daily catch limits in place to protect the fishery, with the previous season being described as a “disaster” as recreational fishers took “more than the commercial and customary take combined and more than eight times the recreational allowance”, according to RNZ.
A sachet of powder transformed by milk and an egg beater into an artificially flavoured chocolate or butterscotch or vanilla or strawberry gloop: magic. Instant puddings have existed for over a century. In Aotearoa, they’ve been a mainstay of many households’ dessert repertoire since the 1950s when Gregg’s first introduced its version of the shortcut dessert. And while they used to be plentiful in supermarkets, there are signs their star is fading, with one major supermarket champion deleting the product entirely from its range. So why have instant puddings seemingly fallen out of favour? I spoke to experts about the place of the instant pudding in the past, and whether or not these convenient puddings have a place in our future.
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The weekly snack
Candy Cutique feijoa candy floss, $3.99 from Farro: A snack-sized portion of boutiquey feijoa-infused fairy floss seems like it would have a relatively niche target audience. Contemplating this, I couldn’t help but wonder, who was this tiny package of candy floss for? Rather than the airy puffs of sugar that you’d find in a freshly made floss, this was decidedly compressed and tuft-like. The threads of spun sugar are imbued with an ever-so-slight hint of feijoa, but hidden among the fluff are airy fragments of freeze-dried feijoa. Teeny zingy respite among a mound of spun sugariness. Despite any initial trepidation, it was actually tremendously joyful to delve into a snack both entirely new and incredibly nostalgic. Embarking into the ridiculous-sounding world of gourmet candy floss and then actually enjoying it is somewhat perplexing, but I’m so glad I did. This is exactly the right way to meddle with a classic. I’m still unsure of the correct context to eat this in. As a garnish atop cakes or ice cream, the pared-back flavour would be entirely lost, I fear. It’s slightly awkward to share. Most children would be unimpressed by the comparatively small-sized bag. It’s an unusual, even if charming, kind of desk snack. But perhaps that’s the whimsical beauty of it. So who is this tiny package of candy floss for? I suppose it’s for me. 9/10
Talk next week!
Hei kōnā mai, Charlotte