Food for WHĀNAU

WhānauKai author Naomi Toilalo on family, food and why she wrote a bilingual baking book.

- Words Maddie Ballard. Photograph­y Sarah Henderson

Naomi Toilalo first fell in love with te reo Māori at the age of 11. The daughter of a Māori mother and a Pākehā father, she grew up in the tiny farming town of Lawrence in South Otago and had little contact with her Māori side. But when she was 11, she went to Te Araroa on the East Coast of the North Island, where her mum had grown up. There, Toilalo visited a marae for the first time and heard her extended family speaking te reo all around.

“I didn’t understand anything, but I remember thinking even as a young girl, this is who I am. It felt like it belonged to me,” says Toilalo. “From that point on, I was determined to learn Māori.”

Despite the limited opportunit­ies for learning te reo back in Lawrence, Toilalo started a correspond­ence course right away and joined the local kapa haka group – and after finishing school, she got a degree in Māori studies and landed a job working for Māori Television. Every step of her journey was shaped by the desire to learn and celebrate her family language.

A creative rut

Life took its course and after marrying and having four daughters, Toilalo found herself frequently at home with her kids while her husband went to work... and a little bored.

“Creatively, I was dying,” she laughs. “But I’d always done lots of baking and that was keeping me afloat.”

Baking runs in Toilalo’s family. Having grown up in a farming community, where ‘smoko’ breaks for a cuppa and a couple of biscuits are part of daily life, baking was part of her childhood.

“In farming communitie­s there’s a real celebratio­n of food and no one’s on keto or sugar-free,” says Toilalo. “Because a lot of the farm work is such hard work, having a piece of caramel slice is just what you need.”

Toilalo inherited her mum, nana and great-grandmothe­r’s passion for baking – and after a few months of watching Toilalo bake up a storm while looking after the kids, her sister suggested she start a blog.

“She just said, why don’t you start a page that combines your loves of baking and Māori? That was a turning point.”


Within a few months, Toilalo had started her Instagram page, Whānaukai (@whanaukai), and it proved to be exactly what she needed: a creative outlet she could access without leaving the house. She began developing recipes for classic Kiwi treats, providing text in both English and Māori in the hopes of helping readers pick up a couple of new te reo words with every recipe.

The page was already reasonably popular by the time Toilalo entered The Great Kiwi Bake-O in 2017, encouraged by her husband Paul. She says her time on the show was not entirely enjoyable – “Reality TV is really full-on,” she admits – but it showed her that she wanted baking to be a bigger part of her life.

Lockdown love

Then came the moment that turned Whānaukai from an Instagram page with a few devoted fans to a full-on phenomenon.

“I had this epiphany that the joy of baking, for me, is not just creating it but also giving it away,” says Toilalo. “I don’t want to sit on the couch and eat all the cake. I love the pleasure of making something beautiful, but then I want to give it to somebody – so that sparked the idea of an Instagram series where Kiwis could nominate someone in their life who deserved some special baking sent their way, and I would bake it.”

The timing couldn’t have been better: Toilalo got the funding through Te Mangai Pāho to make an online video series (titled Whānaukai: The Giving Series) the week before Aotearoa entered its first-ever lockdown. Huge numbers of Kiwis nominated loved ones to receive baking and Toilalo says many of the requests she received were incredibly meaningful.

“It was like, ‘My cousin passed away and I can’t be with my whānau. Can you send them a cake?’,” she says. “It became this beautiful process of hearing people’s stories and actually being able to help people in that space of real need.”

Writing a cookbook

The project produced not only a host of special memories, but also 40 original recipes – which came in handy when Toilalo was

approached four months later to write a bilingual cookbook – something that had been a long-time dream of hers.

Toilalo spent the majority of the long 2021 Level 4 lockdown creating new recipes (“all that time at home turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” she says) and finessing her existing ones for what became WhānauKai: Feel-good baking to share aroha & feed hungry tummies (HarperColl­ins, 2022).

She says it was a process of ups and downs, and she struggled with imposter syndrome while working on it.

“I think as Kiwis, we’re not really good at backing ourselves,” she explains. “I was constantly wondering, how am I worthy of this moment? But you’ve got to push through and say, I’ve been o ered this opportunit­y and I need to do what I can with it.”

Bilingual baking

Something that kept her going was knowing that she was working on what is believed to be the first bilingual te reo/English baking book published in Aotearoa.

Toilalo finds it immensely meaningful to be able to share aspects of Māori language and culture with new audiences through baking and hopes the physical format of her book will encourage Kiwis to slow down and absorb some of the reo.

“I wanted to write something that would get people to sit down and take a moment to see how beautiful the language is,” she says. “You can do that much more e ectively with a book versus an Instagram post – a book helps you slow down.

“Plus, I think because I learnt te reo as an adult, I have this real compassion for everybody who is learning. I wanted to help people who are learning without making them feel pressured or overwhelme­d.”

For Toilalo, food felt like the perfect medium through which to celebrate te reo and te ao Māori, because it’s something that already unites people. Integratin­g te reo phrases into a cookbook – both in the recipes and in the material between them – means she can introduce Kiwis of all background­s to Māori words in a way that doesn’t feel like a tutorial. People will come to the book for a recipe, but walk away with something else as well.

“My hope is that people might learn just one word or take one little saying I’ve used, or just take away a sense of how beautiful our reo is,” she says.

Family recipes

WhānauKai’s recipes – three of which you can find from page 81 onwards – were a long time in the works, and the care that’s gone into them shows. Toilalo decided to focus on baking recipes, given her passion for the genre (although her publisher originally proposed an ‘everyday’ cookbook, featuring recipes for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and so on). She drew her favourites from the 40 recipes she had developed for her lockdown video series, then developed others inspired by her family history.

“In our whānau, my dad is the cheese scone maker and I really wanted to develop one as a nod to him,” she laughs. “And my nana used to make the most exceptiona­l Belgian biscuits – that’s such a nostalgic treat for me, so I knew I needed to create a recipe.”

Toilalo’s favourites from the book include the opening recipe for cinnamon doughnuts, which her mum used to make when she was little: “The smell of those is what kickstarte­d my love for baking, really,” she says. Beyond that, she says readers shouldn’t go past the custard slice: “I’m really proud of that recipe, and all the elements are quite dreamy there!”

Food for whānau

Above all, Toilalo hopes that Kiwis will get stuck in and give baking for their loved ones a go.

“Baking is such a good connector and a great way to show love to your whānau,” she says. “And by whānau, I don’t mean just people you’re connected to through whakapapa but also through aroha. It’s all the people you do life with, you share food with, you raise your kids with. Whānau is those you are woven together with.”

With recipes for goodies from classic cheese scones to fanciful feijoa and lime macarons, you won’t struggle to dive in.

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