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Curried Kumara Soup (honouring Alison Holst)

Alison Holst's curried kumara (sweet potato) soup

In the barely imaginable days before food blogs and websites, recipes came only from cookbooks, your female relatives, or TV shows. How the world has changed, but how much that past life still informs us. I bet that all self-confessed foodies can trace their early food influences. My first memory of being interested in food was as a child of 7 or 8 reading Famous Five books, and realising that I was just as interested in what the characters ate (so much warm crusty bread!) than in their adventures. During a long illness as a teenager, I spent several hours each day watching TV. My favourite shows were cooking shows – Jacques Pepin, who religiously saved every scrap of vegetable trimmings “for stock”, Graeme Kerr, on a mission to reform his saturated fat-laden past, and always, Alison Holst, New Zealand’s own home-grown and dearly beloved celebrity cook.

Alison Holst as a young TV presenter and Dame Alison Holst in 2010

(Left) Alison Holst as a young TV presenter during the 1960’s (photo credit here); (Right) Dame Alison Holst in 2010, honoured for her services to the food industry (photo credit here).

Dame Alison Holst is as quintessentially New Zealand as jandals and hokey pokey icecream. Endearingly referred to as the “Mother of the Nation”, Alison was the first woman to front a cooking show in New Zealand, only a few months after the introduction of television in 1965. At a time when there was only one channel on TV, Alison’s show Here’s How beamed into our homes, showing us how to make simple, nutritious and economical food. The first dish she ever cooked on TV was a meat loaf which contained hard boiled eggs embedded at one end. Alison’s advice was to eat the egg-less half hot for dinner, and the second half cold the following night. She went on to have an amazing career as a television chef and has written over 100 books (at last count). Alison’s name became so trusted that her endorsement was advertising gold.

Alison Holst's famous Curried Kumara Soup

The first cookbook I owned was Alison Holst’s Meals Without Meat, inherited from Mum when I moved away from home at 18 to attend university. Off into the big wide world of Auckland I went, a jar of homemade chocolate chip cookies and Alison by my side, secure in the knowledge that I wouldn’t starve. I cooked my way through this book during my 20’s, and in a sense, it served as my training. I recall that Alison’s Vegetarian Shepard’s Pie was received surprisingly well when my grandmother, always suspicious of my vegetarian tendencies, came to stay. The Cream of Lentil Soup was the star of a potluck dinner at the Women’s Centre, the Self-Crusting Quiche made a perfect lunch for Colin’s auntie and cousins, and I frequently made the delicious Oaty Muffins, storing half of the uncooked batter in the fridge (as Alison advised) to bake a fresh batch later in the week. Just about the only recipe I didn’t like was the Hummus, but I think that was my fault.

Alison and Simon Holst and their book Very Easy Vegetarian

(Left) Alison Holst and her son Simon, with whom she has published over 27 books (photo credit here); (Right) Just one of their bestselling cookbooks, another favourite of mine (photo credit here).

Alison has never pretended to be fancy (her lifetime focus has been on easy food for the home cook), but she has been responsible for introducing all manner of kitchen gadgetry, new ingredients and eating habits to the nation. Beattie remembers her demonstration in the 1970s of the fabulously new electric frying pan, and she certainly produced her fair share of microwave and bread machine books (my Mum had her food processor book). Meals Without Meat appeared in 1990 at a time when the traditional “meat and three vegetables” New Zealand dinner was beginning to shift, with more people – including Alison’s children – thinking about eating meatless or vegetarian meals. By the time that Very Easy Vegetarian Cookbook appeared in 1998, Alison was highlighting the use of exciting new ingredients, such as basil pesto and thai curry paste. However, her ability to translate the new into a digestible form never lessened her love of classic kiwi favourites, like corn fritters and lolly cake.

Alison Holst's Curried Kumara Soup

One of my all-time favourite recipes from Meals Without Meat is the Curried Kumara Soup (kumara is a type of sweet potato with purple skin and yellowish flesh grown in New Zealand that is sometimes available in Australia). It’s a simple recipe, but it has such a punchy flavour from the garlic and spices. I tend to use the larger amount of curry powder and the smaller amount of milk to achieve a thick, colourful soup – perfectly warming on cold winter days. It’s a recipe that I never get tired of and I expect to make it all my life. I remember eating it in every house I’ve lived in. I remember one time putting in far too much curry powder so that we had to eat it cold (it was still good).  I remember that it’s easy, but each time I’m still amazed that such little effort produces such amazing flavour. So for this recipe, not to mention all the others, I’d just like to show my appreciation and say thanks to Dame Alison: “you’re simply the best”.

Curried Kumara Soup

Slightly adapted from Simon & Alison Holst, Alison Holst’s Meals Without Meat

75g butter
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1-1 1/2 tsp curry powder
500g kumara, peeled and sliced into 1cm thick pieces
1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
2-3 cups milk, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste

Melt the butter in a large saucepan on medium heat. Sauté the garlic and curry in the butter for a couple of minutes, taking care not to burn the garlic. Toss in the chopped kumara and cook for a further minute or two. Add the stock, cover, and cook for 10 minutes, or until the kumara is tender.

Puree the soup using a blender or stick blender, then thin with milk until you reach a consistency and flavour that you like. I tend to prefer a thicker soup with a more intense flavour, so usually use about 2 cups of milk. Adjust the seasoning if required. Reheat gently to serve, adding garnishes such as a swirl of cream or coconut cream and/or chopped fresh parsley or coriander.


  1. maggie davis

    Yes Dame Alison truly is the best. I loved the way she’d always “explain” a cooking process in a way I could understand as I cooked the recipe.
    She understood that a person didn’t necessarily learn cooking techniques at home with parents.
    Truly a beautiful lady.

  2. Nik

    Loved reading this blog. Found it because I’m part of a soup club at work and this is one of my personal favourite soups too.
    So lovely to hear your homage to Alison holst.
    She too was one of my early subconscious role models and kiwi icon. I was very moved last year while doing a local community art course, to discover the lovely older lady in the corner with altzheimers called Alison was the one and only heroine of mine!
    So heart breaking. After all that work, success and brilliance, to be brought to a place of confusion and anxiety. She has a lovely bunch of friends that care for her and she enoys her water colour painting. I felt so protective of her and can’t imagine what it must be like for her family.
    Hearing your praises for her is lovely. That’s how her great works and memory can live on. Long live the kumera curry soup. Xxx

    • Hi Nik thank you for this lovely comment. I am so pleased that you connected to what I wrote! It was meant to be a homage and now I know that it worked. My book club had a cookbook themed session late last year and I chose to talk about Alison and kumara soup, again, but that reflects how I feel about her and her work. I didn’t know about Alison so that is sad news indeed. It’s hard to know what to say really, but I’m pleased to hear that she is still active and enjoying life, even if she needs support now. That’s the very best outcome in this situation. Have a great day xxx

  3. Mmm, so tasty! Thanks for that recipe. I tried Curried Kumara Soup at a café yesterday and loved it, and went searching for a recipe today. Yours was almost the same as the cafe’s, just not as thick. So thank you – I’m not even usually a soup person but I plan on making this many times over! P.S. I used orange kumara, not red kumara to get the rich orange colour. Do you think it would be better using red kumara?

    • I think it’s probably a personal thing – I’m from NZ and can’t imagine making this soup with anything but the red skinned/yellow flesh kumara. It’s practically a matter of national pride for me! In real life, make it with what you’ve got or can get easily, and I’m sure it will still be lovely. You could adjust the thickness by increasing the quantity of kumara, and/or reducing the amount of stock. All the best!

  4. Discovered your Blog while sitting on a sunny but chilly day here on the Central coast of Australia, trying to remember the exact ingredients for Allison’s Curried Kumara soup.I have miss placed my personal recipe book, which over the years I have added from various sources, many of them from Allison.
    I should know the recipe by heart, but as I have modified it so many times on the fly, it is sometimes nice to go back to the start and taste the original.
    I grew up with Allison (TV & Books), my Mother and Grandmother (both country cooks) as my teachers and cut my teeth on their collective advise to become fairly handy (if I do say so myself) in the kitchen. My wife and kids are very happy that Dad does not burn the dinner and can knock up a batch cookies, etc when in the mood.
    Another great reference in our house, that you might remember, is the “Edmonds Cookery Book”. I have destroyed more copies than I care to admit, over the years (In a good way). My kids have also been introduced and use it from time to time with very few failures (thank goodness, as we have a policy of “you cook it, you eat it… good or bad”, you learn fast not to repeat the mistake. HAHA)
    Thanks for the recipe… now to tip the house upside down to find my book.
    Regards Mark

    • Hi Mark, great to meet another Kumara Soup fan! I must admit that I bastardise the recipe too, just modifying it to the proportions that I have on hand and prefer. The recipe I posted is pretty close to the original though. Alison uses less curry powder (only 1/2-1 tsp), only 1 cup stock (which is 1 cup water plus 2 tsp vegetable bouillon), 3 cups milk, and she lists 1/4 cup cream as an optional extra. So there you go, you can make the original now without finding your book! We had the Edmonds cookbook too, such a classic. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your memories. Have a great weekend!

    • Hi Monica, no, the sweet potato grown in New Zealand (kumara) is generally the size of the regular orange flesh sweet potato. However, the flesh you describe sounds about right – pale yellow and usually has thin purple streaks running through as well. Maybe the Thai ones are related to the kumara? I’m sure they’ll work well in the soup.

  5. For me it was reading Gourmet Magazines with my mom and Grandma I still have magazines from the 70s! It’s fascinating to look back and see how food has evolved and trends come and go and come back again.

    • I’m getting a lot of enjoyment lately reading blogs focusing on retro food or recreating retro recipes. Some things are truely revolting and hopefully never come back into fashion (that’s you, aspic and SPAM) but others are just so delightfully kitsch. The cocktails are the best part – the 1960s and 70s were all about serious, boozy drinks!

  6. this looks so comforting and warming. i’ve never heard of kumara but i’m thinking the usual sweet potatoes, or even regular potatoes would make good substitutions.

    • Hi Lan, yes sweet potatoes would probably work although I wouldn’t try it with regular potatoes as I think they are too bland for this recipe. Kumara is really only called “kumara” in New Zealand. Here in Australia it is usually sold as red sweet potato, although the skin is more purple in colour I think. Keep your eyes open – you might find it!

  7. Ah….memory lane for me too! My mother was a big fan of Alison Holst. I don’t have any of her cookbooks, but I think I’ll try your curried kumara soup. My first cookbook was the Edmonds Cook Book, which is the biggest selling book ever in New Zealand, I believe (of any kind). My mother sent it to me when I was living in London in my early 20s, and all my friends used to borrow it. Eventually, many years later, when it was ready to fall apart, I bought a new, updated version. Still got that one!

    • Hi Lee, I don’t have the Edmonds cookbook, but as far as I know it is still selling pretty well. It was reinvented about 10 years ago as a cookbook for flatmates and my younger sister has that version. I hope you make the soup – try and get NZ kumara for it! I just cannot make it using the golden sweet potato commonly available here – whether that’s precious or patriotic…I’ll leave to you to decide 🙂

      • Ha! I agree with you, and was wondering about that. I often see that golden sweet potato being sold as “kumara” – and it just AIN’T! Tastes quite different. Might have to bide my time…

      • Coles sometimes has the real, purple skinned kumara, and I’ve also found it at markets occasionally. It’s never quite as flavourful as home grown kumara, but in this soup it still performs really well. Hope you find some!

      • How funny – I found some in Coles today! They were marked as being from Hawaii or Tahiti or somewhere exotic like that. But I bought them because they looked right…

  8. I remember Alison Holst, used to watch it. Curried kumara sounds great, althogh Btazil is not big on soups with the exception of traditional ones like mocotó (which I love), must post about that again one day. I have already, but that was on my original blog that disappeared.


      • Mocotó is made from cows feet, the part below the knee. Sound edible… it’s wonderful.

        All my Google thingies, 15 blogs, email, graphics just went phutt, disappeared. Google never even answered. I lost 7 years of blogging. I nearly gave up. That’s why I use WordPress now, don’t trust anything Google.


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