Author Spotlight Q&A: Naomi Toilalo

author naomi toilalo in front of a banquet of food

Naomi Toilalo (Ngāti Porou) is a Māmā, wife, former Māori Television presenter, she once was a contestant on TVNZ’s Great Kiwi Bake Off – and now she’s the proud author of Aotearoa’s hottest bilingual cookbook of the summer WhānauKai. Photo credit: Sarah Henderson


Sometimes writers talk about their book as if it is something they’ve birthed – a struggle as well as a gift. If you were to think of your book this way, who are its whanaunga? Who helped you bring this book into the world?

This cookbook has absolutely felt birthing a new pēpi. There is a vulnerability to writing a book that I don’t think I was prepared for. I have included my children and whānau in the photo’s which I do not do on my social media page. I also share the story of my te reo journey and the origins of my love for kai. On top of that my cookbook is bi-lingual, a task that I do not think anyone has tackled in our country up to this point. All of these things combined made it feel like a very personal journey that I was journey with anyone who wanted to read this book. I grew more grey hairs, shed many tears and worried about how it would all be received. However, as with a newborn I have been blown away with the result. I have been shaped and moulded for this moment by the amazing wāhine that have shaped my life and this book is for them, for our whānau and as a taonga to be passed on to my four beautiful daughters.


WhānauKai is jam packed full of nostalgia, that will take many readers back to the baking tins of their Nannies, heoi, it’s full of new twists and modern adjustments. What do you think your Nannies would have to say about your new take on the classics?

I think they would be so proud of what the recipes have become. I love the creative element to baking. How do I twist it to make it less sweet or a little bit fancy using a simple ingredient. My Māmā was an artist in many ways and I know that creative expression comes from her and flows into my food.


WhānauKai recipes switch between te reo Māori and te reo Pākehā in a really fluid way. What was the process like writing the recipes in both languages?

This process was a lot harder than I anticipated and took on many edits until I felt like it was right. I realised half way through the writing process that a book has the ability to slow people down and so I knew that I could add in a bit more te reo than I use on Instagram page. My dear friend and te reo consultant, Niwa Milroy helped me so much with this process. Niwa made sure everything was right and I knew if it had her backing then the reo was going to be ok.


What was it like to hold your book in your hands for the first time?

I opened the freshly printed book with my husband. We videoed it and shared the experience on my Instagram page. It was so emotional and we cried together. It was a momentous moment. I acknowledged the fact that my Māmā was disciplined in schools they spoke te reo and yet, 50 years later a bi-lingual cookbook had a place on the bookshelves across the land. I am so proud to be a small part of the preservation of our beautiful reo.


What advice do you have for emerging Māori authors?

You don’t have to have all of your ducks in a row before you tackle a book. If you have a strong kaupapa (subject matter) that you are passionate about, then just go for it. I was hesitant when I was asked to make this book. Was I ready? Was I good enough? So many moments of doubts tried to creep in but I knew with the support of my whānau and those around me, I could do it and I am so grateful that I did.

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