Christall Lowe: Our life of kai

An interview with Christall Lowe — food stylist and photographer, cookbook author and recipe developer.

Christall Lowe (Ngāti Kauwhata, Tainui and Ngāti Maniapoto descent) is a Manawatū-based food stylist, photographer and recipe developer. One thing that Christall knows inherently is that the gathering of food and the gathering of people to share a meal are at the heart of Māori family life. Her book, Kai: Food Stories & Recipes From My Family Table, is a passionate homage to a life deeply rooted in food, where exquisite flavours weave seamlessly with cherished food memories.

A life filled with creativity, entrepreneurship and a heart for family life, Christall’s creation of a photojournalistic cookbook encapsulating her fondness for food that is special to Aotearoa (New Zealand) is a natural fit.

Five years in the making and more than 100 recipes later, Kai is finally here. During the formation of the book, Christall journeyed from the mountains to the sea so that the book would envelope the essence of her whānau’s uncondensed life of kai.

In the below interview Christall shares more of what was behind the creation of Kai, along with stories of her wider family’s plentiful edible garden (māra kai), and the effect of nature has on her creative practice…

— Interview as told to Emma Sage. Photography by Christall Lowe.

Christall, tell us a little about yourself and what lead you to where you are today…

I’m from the beautiful town of Feilding in the Manawatū. The place where I grew up, and the place that I returned to when I got married. I never thought I’d ever end up back in this little town, especially after leaving for big city life when I went to university! I graduated with a degree in Interior Architecture from Victoria University School of Design, but I never really worked in that field (besides a little stint as an architectural designer). My entrepreneurial ways and my tendency to almost accidentally turn ideas into businesses saw me pursuing a number of other creative paths. 

In 1999, when I was still in university I stumbled upon a new and unique way of processing harakeke (NZ flax) leaves, transforming a simple flax leaf into a net-like fabric. One big thing led to another big thing and before I knew it I had the process patented, and I was exporting these leaves – now branded as ‘Hāpene‘ – all over the world. We planted a pā harakeke (flax plantation) on my parents’ property all those years ago, which is still there. 

We still continue to use and harvest from it, even though I sold the Hāpene business about ten years ago. I still use harakeke for its many purposes, including as food baskets for our kai, and I still create Hāpene for my own personal use – such as the centrepieces that graced our tables at my recent book launch. 

A woven harakeke food basket holding Māori potatoes

I’ve always been drawn to food though, and more specifically, food that is special to Aotearoa. I guess you could say harakeke and kai (food) have always been the mainstays of my life, even from childhood. I would create with harakeke during my school holidays, constructing my own whare under the feijoa tree. I would play “restaurants” with my brother, and put on lavish feasts complete with menus and flax table decor when I was ten years old. 

During my university studies, I managed to find a way to incorporate both harakeke and kai into my final year thesis, in turn designing what I would deem “more than a restaurant” – a space that encapsulated the concepts and processes of kai, from planting, to harvesting, to preparing and cooking, to eating and enjoying. I feel like I’ve gone full circle and done that all again – but this time in written and photographic form – in my book, KAI

You’ve just released your first book — a cookbook and photojournalistic journal. Can you tell us more about it?

Just as my thesis was “more than a restaurant”, my book is what I consider to be “more than a cookbook”. It’s a book about our life of kai. Our world of flavour memories, and the mauri (life force or essence) within our kai and its source. It’s not just a cookbook about Māori food, although obviously that is a major part of our life of kai. 

What it is, is a collection of recipes garnered from and inspired by my childhood, my whānau, and my life – but it’s also interwoven with memories, stories, anecdotes and mauri. It’s about our way, our inspiration, our story, celebrating the food from my very diverse heritage. It is me and my whānau on a plate, and everything from my photography, the recipes themselves, and the stories that are woven throughout are crucial to the story being told. 

It’s a book about our life of kai. Our world of flavour memories, and the mauri (life force or essence) within our kai and its source.

I started working on it five years ago, and it was important to me to have recipes that journeyed from the mountains to the sea, so that it would encapsulate our entire life of kai. It’s a book of over 100 recipes – some very special recipes to me from my whānau such as rēwena bread, fry bread, steamed pudding, rice pudding and oven cooked hāngī. But also lots of other very simple and achievable recipes, as it really is a book for the everyday home cook. There’s nothing overly complicated (probably the steamed pudding is the most technical it’s going to get), and the ingredients are all easily sourced, local ingredients. 

There’s also recipes which are inspired by my childhood – flavour memories or riffs on food I grew up with or discovered in my early adult life when I left little ol’ Feilding. Passionfruit or black doris plum sorbet being a flavour memory of homemade passionfruit raro ice blocks, and the big old plum tree in my great grandmother’s backyard. Honey roasted yams with feta whip from the yams we used to have to dig up at my Grandad’s. Kamokamo fritters, a flavour memory of my first “solid food” as a youngster. Cream-filled donuts – that incredibly nostalgic memory of school lunches in the 80s.

It’s about our way, our inspiration, our story, celebrating the food from my very diverse heritage. It is me and my whānau on a plate…

Kamokamo in Christall’s Grandad’s māra kai (vegetable garden)

What are your favourite things to grow and why? 

Kamokamo is a staple in our whānau, and my Grandad has a huge māra kai (vegetable garden) for the whole whānau to harvest from. 

We like to stagger the planting of kamokamo so that we get to enjoy it all summer long, and even into autumn. We usually have the first fruits just before Christmas, and then it absolutely explodes throughout January and February. 

Best eaten when small and immature, because they are softer and sweeter and creamier. And my favourite way to eat them? Simply cubed, pan fried in butter, and seasoned with salt and pepper. 

In the māra kai we also have a year-round supply (when in season) of silverbeet, beans, broad beans, yams, potatoes, cabbages, brussel sprouts, rhubarb, leeks, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuces, turnips, radishes, spring onions and all the herbs.

My own garden is a bit wild, and I let a lot of things go to seed so that they self-seed elsewhere, and I always have a LOT of pūhā popping up. I love that a “weed” such as pūhā can be a major component of a meal – in fact I prefer pūhā over watercress in my boil up! 

I’ve recently planted natives in our home garden such as kawakawa, horopito and kūmarahou, as a start to my own little piece of paradise, and will be planting fruit trees soon – I’d love a mini orchard in my own backyard. 

I love to plant flowers that I can use in my dishes and food styling, as well as ones that can be enjoyed by the bees, and us! And ferns and harakeke. Coming back to those native plants that not only look wonderful and have a beautiful life force (mauri), but that can be used in everyday life as well. I will always have a strong connection to harakeke.

How do you believe creating and tending to a garden impacts your and your family’s life?

I think when it comes to kai from the garden, knowing that it has been grown in your own māra kai by the hands of your whānau, it helps us to connect and appreciate our kai so much more. Things can’t just go to waste in the fridge because “Grandad grew that! Enosh fertilised that soil! Asher dug that up!”. And of course, homegrown veges just taste SO much better!

How does nature and your surroundings affect your creative practice?

We are always looking to nature to reset and revive ourselves as a whānau. Going out for walks in the bush, to the beach, to waterfalls, to mountains – it’s so invigorating. I am incredibly inspired when out there, looking at the way nature operates from the forest floor to the canopy, and I can’t help but capture different moments and aspects of nature. 

A lot of that imagery makes its way into my books (I say books, because I’m already working on the next!). And again, it’s all about capturing the mauri (or life essence) of the subject or scene. Easy to do when surrounded by so much natural beauty.

Try Christall’s recipes:



Christall Lowe, née Rata (Ngāti Kauwhata, Tainui and Ngāti Maniapotodescent) is a food writer, stylist and photographer based in the beautiful Feilding, Manawatū. Christall specialises in creating detailed, rich, and moody photographs with an ethereal sense of depth. As well as being a busy mum of three, she creates and photographs food and lifestyle images for food brands, publications, top chefs and cookbooks.

Words and recipe extracted from Kai: Food stories and recipes from my family table by Christall Lowe

(Photography by Christall Lowe, published by Bateman Books)

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