“Why don’t you use them in a raita?” That was Jan Bilton in New Zealand, giving me tips on how I could cook with kiwi fruits. And no, unlike the five percent of the Kiwi population that is of Indian origin, Jan Bilton has no desi blood. Neither, for the record, has she visited India. So, how does she know so much about Indian food, living as she does in New Zealand? Well, for one, she’s a recipe writer, and she is famous for her recipe shows. We were having a chat about kiwi fruits and their use in cooking, but let me begin at the beginning.
Brought to New Zealand from South China by school teacher Isabel Fraser over a hundred years ago, Chinese gooseberries as they were then known, soon were christened kiwi fruit and became, de facto, the national fruit of New Zealand. If you are very short-sighted, their brown, fuzzy skins and oval shapes are not unlike that other emblem of New Zealand – the kiwi bird.
The last thing on my mind was delving into the history of kiwi – or any other – fruit or vegetable, but after my first day in Auckland, there was plenty of evidence around. Departmental stores had piles of a rather funky, not to say unique, object: the kiwi lunch-box. Apparently, the boxes were oval and perfectly shaped to protect the fruit. Mothers would give their children one kiwi fruit in its own unbreakable plastic cover, complete with a spife – another nifty contraption that was a combination of a spoon and a knife. Supermarkets did a brisk trade in kiwi soaps and kiwi candles.
I spied Jan Bilton’s recipe book using kiwi fruits and promptly bought it. Apparently, there is an enzyme in the fruit that is such a powerful digestive, that you can use slices of kiwi fruit to tenderize meat! The Kiwis themselves stick to making sauces and chutneys out of the fruit besides using them in desserts and as garnish. And of course, they go through kilos and kilos of them a year: the two favoured fruits in New Zealand are – hold your breath – kiwi fruit and bananas.
Before I knew it, I was subsumed into the world of prime New Zealand ingredients. There are dozens and dozens of wineries, some quite tiny, all picture postcard pretty. There are fewer olive oil producers, who, sadly, are not as visible as one could wish. I spent the greater part of one precious day looking for New Zealand’s famed produce. I found plenty. More promising than the ho-hum cheeses were the fruit oils. I had never before heard of avocado oil, but with its magical deep green colour and pleasing viscosity, it is perfect for salads and to mop up bread. Ditto for the Dukkah spice mix that is sprinkled over grills, vegetables and sauces to give them an indefinable Asian edge.
I found it quite fitting that shopping is not a national pastime that it is elsewhere. The New Zealanders are a hardy bunch, whose idea of fun it is to drive to the wilderness, pitch up a tent and go surf-boarding the whole weekend long. If parts of the country resemble Switzerland’s famously pristine hills with forests here and there, nature has given New Zealand a few tricks up its sleeve that Switzerland, on the other side of the globe lacks – volcanoes, hot springs and geysers.