Is the coun­try’s hottest culi­nary trend also its old­est? Kim Knight on why it has taken so long for Pakeha taste buds to dis­cover Maori food.

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When flour and wa­ter are ag­i­tated by hand, the gliadin and glutenin pro­teins in the pul­verised grain ex­pand to form strands of gluten.

Re­cently, on prime time tele­vi­sion, a woman com­mented on this sci­en­tific phe­nom­e­non: “Nice and soft,” said Tash, pat­ting a du­vet of bread dough. “Like my puku.”

And just like that, Maori food moved a lit­tle more main­stream. Tash and Hera are con­tes­tants on My Kitchen

Rules NZ. Judge Pete Evans can’t pro­nounce paua, but he likes the way th­ese Ro­torua soul­mates cooked it. At a home restau­rant called Makue, Tash and Hera pre­pare kawakawa, ku­mara and fry bread with aroha – and no­body asks for an English trans­la­tion.

A few weeks ear­lier, Auck­land food­ies had taken the lift to level 53 of the Sky Tower and paid $230 a head to eat pork and puha. The din­ner, billed as “a taste of Maori fine din­ing”, started with rewena and titi but­ter (read: potato-bug sour­dough and mut­ton­bird fat) and fin­ished with hangi ice­cream and spon­ta­neous wa­iata from the crowd.

Maori food is in fash­ion. It’s only taken a cou­ple of hun­dred years.

How did bouil­l­abaisse beat boil-up to the coun­try’s restau­rant menus? Why does ev­ery home kitchen con­tain a bot­tle of stinky fish sauce but most Ki­wis have never tasted the fer­mented corn funk of kaanga wai?

Jar­rad McKay, half of the Auck­land food truck oper­a­tion Puha & Pakeha, has some thoughts: “When I was a kid, there were jokes run­ning around, like, ‘What do you call a Maori driv­ing a Mercedes?’”

The an­swer, he says, was “bus driver” – be­cause the buses at the time were man­u­fac­tured by Mercedes. Jar­rad (Tainui and Ngati Kahun­gunu) says an Ital­ian or a French ac­cent might have been cool, but, in the 1980s and 90s, “brand Maori” wasn’t.

It’s two days be­fore golfer Ly­dia Ko head­lines the New Zealand Women’s Open and Jar­rad and Belinda McKay are get­ting ready to feed “mod­ern Maori fu­sion” to an es­ti­mated crowd of 10,000. Puha & Pakeha’s menu runs to a reuben sand­wich with hangi-cooked pas­trami and rewena bread. The seafood chow­der is made with smoked ka­hawai; the cray­fish roll comes with kawakawa dress­ing.

Belinda: “We just saw there was a gap in the mar­ket. I think it’s great that New Zealand is em­brac­ing lots of other cuisines, but it was like, ‘Oh, where’s our own?’ It’s pos­si­bly be­cause we’re a ‘travel-and-see-the-world coun­try’, so ev­ery­one brings back thoughts and ideas with them and the flavours of our own coun­try have been over­looked, over time.”

Mo­bile hangi trucks are be­com­ing more com­mon, but the McKays say con­tem­po­rary Maori fu­sion is still a rar­ity at street-food level.

“The aim is that Ki­wis see Maori cul­ture as ours, not some­thing ‘mouwries’ do at the marae,” says Jar­rad. “Our news­read­ers say ‘kia ora, good evening’; we like ta moko tat­toos; we love the All Blacks and the haka; and we eat hangi ku­mara balls rolled in panko crumbs. It’s ours. What we re­ally want is for this chunk of Maori cul­ture to be seen as for all Ki­wis, whether you turned up from Eng­land 10 years ago, you’re a sixth-gen­er­a­tion South Is­lan­der or Tainui or Ngati Porou. You eat it and it’s ours.”

In 2010, Massey Univer­sity lec­turer Dr Carolyn Mor­ris sought to “ex­plain the ab­sence of Maori food in the pub­lic culi­nascape” in a pa­per called “The Politics of Palata­bil­ity”.

“Pakeha com­fort in mi­grant restau­rants and dis­com­fort around Maori restau­rants is re­veal­ing of the state of the projects of bi­cul­tur­al­ism and mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism in Aotearoa New Zealand,” wrote Mor­ris. “If we only eat the oth­ers we en­joyed, then this lack of taste for Maori food sig­nals a lack of Pakeha taste for Maori them­selves.”

To provoca­tively para­phrase: Maori restau­rants failed, be­cause Pakeha din­ers were racist.

Visit any pro­vin­cial town in New Zealand and you’ll find an In­dian or Thai take­away. Auck­land’s hottest food trend is Filip­pino. Last year, a Rus­sian restau­rant sell­ing Korean-style kim­chi-stuffed dumplings opened in Pon­sonby. It’s not true to say there has been no Maori cui­sine — think Peter Gor­don, Anne Thorpe, Jade Te­mepara, Peter Peeti, Jeremy Rameka, Charles Royal, Karena and Kasey Bird, and busi­nesses like Nel­son’s Kono and Wai­heke’s Rin­gaw­era — but un­til very re­cently when tourists asked about “New Zealand cui­sine” they were di­rected to pavlova and lamb be­fore they tasted puha and mut­ton­bird.

Hangi used to be the chicken and cab­bage add-on to a marae-based cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence. At next month’s Taste Auck­land, six top chefs will work with “hangi masters” Riki Ben­net and Rewi Sprag­gon to pro­duce gourmet dishes (think miso and sea­weed-mar­i­nated goat, oc­to­pus, and more) from the tra­di­tional hot earth oven.

Mean­while, in Ro­torua, David French, di­rec­tor of op­er­a­tions at the Princes Gate Ho­tel, says a new indige­nous de­gus­ta­tion menu is a fine-din­ing re­sponse to that “where is the New Zealand food?” ques­tion.

“There’s ac­tu­ally a real, rich cul­ture of food be­tween Maori and the early set­tlers,” says French. “It was a melt­ing pot of not only th­ese new in­gre­di­ents, but also the ways Maori pre­pared food. There are things there that we love and take for granted, but visi­tors don’t get to try those things. Things like a boil-up. We’ve re­fined it, but the en­thu­si­as­tic re­sponse we’ve had from peo­ple with a very deep Maori cul­tural back­ground ... this is what chefs have the abil­ity to do. To take some­thing tra­di­tional that we all know from grow­ing up, but just put a twist on it.

Ro­torua-based chef Charles Royal, 55, re­calls when he started his indige­nous food sup­ply busi­ness, Ki­naki.

“Our food iden­tity as Maori peo­ple was be­com­ing fast-food, es­pe­cially for young peo­ple ... there was a lot of laugh­ing from our own peo­ple. ‘Ha ha ha, has the pikopiko dried up?’ It was just jeal­ousy. ‘Who does he think he is, sell­ing our leaves?’ I just put my cloak on and put my head down and kept go­ing for­ward, re­ally.”

Royal, who is Te Whanau-a-Apanui, Ngati Raukawa ki te Tonga and Ngati Maru, trained as an army chef and learned about for­ag­ing from ex-Viet­nam War veter­ans. He worked for Air New Zealand and mul­ti­ple in­ter­na­tional ho­tels be­fore open­ing his first restau­rant, Brier Patch, in Para­pa­raumu. The food was Ca­jun-Cre­ole but the ba­sis of his gumbo was all Aotearoa. “I’d start at home, mak­ing a boil-up and I’d make a gravy from the boil-up juice and add all the seafood to it.”

Royal has worked with Princes Gate on its new menu. Sam­ple kai: Te Kain­ora paoa (smoked veni­son with horo­pito and manuka honey) and Te whakarite i te Palate (“pre­par­ing the palate” via smoked eel mousse).

Think Maori food, think hangi – and then think harder. Royal is a judge in Waikato Food Inc’s Matariki Chal­lenge. This year, 25 eater­ies cel­e­brated the Maori new year with dishes like paua and kina brulee and tu­atua and fen­nel broth. He for­ages for fungi for top Auck­land restau­rants and reck­ons lichen might be the next big thing from the New Zealand bush. What about kaanga wai? Are Kiwi con­sumers ready for the in­fa­mous corn dish?

“Yep,” says Royal. “Look at French cook­ing and all their mouldy cheeses. Bugs are another one –

We saw there was a gap in the mar­ket. I think it’s great that New Zealand is em­brac­ing lots of other cuisines, but it was like, ‘Oh, where’s our own?’ Belinda McKay

It’s fine to use dif­fer­ent bits and pieces from other cul­tures, but if you’re not do­ing it re­spect­fully, then that’s kind of in­sult­ing. Monique Fiso

I have restau­rants want­ing huhu grubs all the time.”

(Top tip: If you’re in the bush with Royal and he says it’s pro­to­col for guests to eat the first grub live, he might just be pulling your leg – “but it works!”)

Royal mar­kets indige­nous in­gre­di­ents, rather than “Maori cui­sine”.

“Once you start dab­bling in the realm of ‘tra­di­tional’ then you have bound­aries. If you can take it into the con­tem­po­rary, your hori­zons get big­ger and longer ... you can push the bound­aries with­out some­one try­ing to tell you off, with­out some­one say­ing ‘you’re not do­ing it like how we used to do it, eh?’”

And that’s the co­nun­drum. Is “Maori food” a method or an in­gre­di­ent or a kau­papa? If Pakeha do it, can it still be called Maori? What would a “Maori” restau­rant even look like?

In her his­tory of New Zealand culi­nary tra­di­tions Duned­in­based food an­thro­pol­o­gist He­len Leach writes about the bla­tant racism ev­i­dent in the coun­try’s ear­li­est com­mu­nity cook­books. Maori cui­sine (and, by ex­ten­sion, cul­ture) was ei­ther ab­sent or por­trayed as “un­civilised and alien in its own home­land”. Leach notes just one recipe col­lec­tion, printed in Gis­borne in 1908, that stands out for its in­clu­sion of kina, puha and pre­served pi­geon, cour­tesy of Mrs Keita Ko­here, who wrote: “It is not too much to hope that some day Haangi par­ties will be­come fash­ion­able”.

Last month, Welling­ton-born chef Monique Fiso put down a hangi in Samish Bay, Seat­tle. Tech­ni­cally, ac­tu­ally, she made a re­verse hangi — the spon­sors had help­fully bull­dozed a pit that would have held food for 300 and she was feed­ing only 40. The dirt spoil was nowhere to be found on a site that was mainly mil­lions of bro­ken down oys­ter and clam shells. Fiso found her­self scrap­ing the sides of the pit and cart­ing wheel­bar­rows of wa­ter.

“I re­ally ques­tion ev­ery­thing, when I’m just stand­ing there cov­ered in dirt and soot. Why can’t I just go back to a stain­less steel kitchen ... that’d be a much eas­ier way to make money. But, no, I’m out there with a shovel, try­ing to get por­taloo trucks out of the mud.”

If con­tem­po­rary Maori cui­sine has a queen, it’s Fiso and her pop-up restau­rant, Hi­akai, which tends to pop-up in un­ex­pected and far-flung lo­ca­tions be­cause re­source con­sents for cen­tral city hangi pits are hard to come by.

Her re­cent Sky Tower gig for Auck­land restau­rant month (along­side Mor­gan McGlone of Belles Hot Chicken fame and The Su­gar Club’s Neil Bra­zier) was a rare chance to taste her food in a build­ing in­stead of a pur­pose built tent. The seven-course menu in­cluded creamed paua, braised puha, and slow-roasted pork shoul­der with hangi­cooked ure­nika and moe moe pota­toes. Mon­strous whole-roasted ka­hawai was kai moana as the oys­ter-scoff­ing fine din­ing set had never seen be­fore.

Fiso, 29, was raised on fast-food. Her par­ents were work­ing crazy hours set­ting up a 24-hour call cen­tre busi­ness and fam­ily din­ner came cour­tesy of the credit card.

“We had a lot of KFC and Pizza Hut and fish ’n’ chips ... I’d go to a friend’s house and say ‘what’s that?’ and they’d say ‘it’s just a stir-fry’. But it hadn’t come out of a can or a mi­crowave pack. I was fas­ci­nated.”

You could write a book on her jour­ney from there to here. The short ver­sion in­cludes stints with Martin Bosley in Welling­ton, Matt Lam­bert (Mus­ket Room) and Missy Rob­bins (A Voce) in New York and three-months at a pri­vate fish­ing lodge in Han­mer Springs, where the kitchen didn’t even have a man­dolin slicer.

“I re­mem­ber sit­ting out­side one night, drink­ing

wine and there are two pigs by the car. And I’m like, ‘Oh man, I can’t even do my emails here, I can’t go on Net­flix, I’m hun­gry ’cos I didn’t buy any food and I can’t go on GrubHub and order take-out.’ I’m just get­ting the city kicked out of me.”

She had a sous vide wa­ter oven shipped from the United States and sus­pects she was the lodge’s first chef to order xan­than gum with the gro­ceries. And yet: “There was a lit­tle in­side kitchen, but out­side were all th­ese pizza ovens and dif­fer­ent bar­be­cues and I had all day to kill ... I re­alised I was grav­i­tat­ing to­wards em­ber fire and smoke cook­ery.”

Fiso is Samoan and Nga Rauru, but she was in her 20s be­fore she re­ally em­braced her her­itage.

“All I’d been told was neg­a­tive stuff. And then, over­seas, peo­ple didn’t have that view of Maori. I was like, ‘Okay, it’s okay to be Maori’. “In a way, it was movies like Boy and Whale

Rider, it kind of made me a lit­tle bit proud. We’re ac­tu­ally pretty funny peo­ple, we’re pretty cool ... I re­alised there was a shift hap­pen­ing, and then, with the cook­ing style I was grav­i­tat­ing to­wards, I was like, ‘How come we can’t just in­clude a hangi pit too?’” Hi­akai was born. “I’m re­ally ... is the word ‘strict’? I am all about that. It’s fine to use dif­fer­ent bits and pieces from other cul­tures, but if you’re not do­ing it re­spect­fully, then that’s kind of in­sult­ing. You know, if you’re go­ing to make money off some­thing — it’s the equiv­a­lent of mak­ing money off some land but then com­pletely de­stroy­ing the land while you’re at it.

“For me, it’s about be­ing creative but do­ing it with some re­spect. Bor­row th­ese tech­niques, use th­ese in­gre­di­ents, but still fol­low the codes or the mythol­ogy. I feel like if I don’t ... yeah, maybe I am a su­per­sti­tious Maori.”

And so, on any given day, Fiso’s fridge might be full of freshly wo­ven flax bas­kets. Pro­to­col says un­less it’s for a tangi, harakeke can’t be gath­ered when it’s dark or rain­ing, and that means col­lect­ing when she can. Be­fore that though, the woman who used a glue gun in sewing class, had to ac­tu­ally learn to weave a bas­ket — Hi­akai is no just-addfern-frond Maori food busi­ness.

“It’s lead­ing by ex­am­ple,” says Fiso. “If you’re go­ing to be in New Zealand and be part of the cul­ture, then you can’t just pick and choose.”

Hi­akai is be­ing writ­ten about around the world; Fiso and her mod­ern food with old-school in­tegrity has, in the past two months alone, trav­elled from Seat­tle to Marl­bor­ough and back to Los An­ge­les. Maybe, she says, her tim­ing was right. She won­ders if she would have been this suc­cess­ful even five years ear­lier.

“That’s the good thing about the likes of the Food Network or An­thony Bour­dain go­ing around the world. Peo­ple are look­ing for some­thing new and ex­cit­ing and dif­fer­ent from what they would nor­mally get.”

Is it weird that an­cient Maori foods and tech­niques are sud­denly “new”?

“I know! Let’s face it, there was a lot of racism, and there was a lot for a long time. It’s been put in this cat­e­gory of ‘don’t eat that, that’s what they eat’, with­out even giv­ing it a chance. And I think Maori had sort of like an in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex, like, ‘Oh, our food is not good enough to be on a par with th­ese cuisines.’”

The lack of writ­ten culi­nary his­tory is a hur­dle. Fiso pores over books by the 1856-born ethno­g­ra­pher Els­don Best. She re­ally wanted to use ma­maku, for ex­am­ple, be­cause she knows the gi­ant tree fern tastes good fresh — but she was con­founded by a slime fac­tor. In a ran­dom Best chap­ter on preg­nancy is­sues, she dis­cov­ered it could be hung to drain.

“If I’m lucky there will be some notes on how a plant was used, food­wise, but most of the time it’s medic­i­nal ... which at least gives me an idea [of whether] some­thing is ed­i­ble, or if you just put it on your skin to get rid of a scab.”

Re­cently she’s been com­press­ing karamu (Co­prosma ro­busta), af­ter spot­ting a hill­side of the blaz­ing or­ange berries on the road to Murchi­son.

“It’s the per­fect ex­am­ple of some­thing that’s al­ways been here and we don’t re­alise its po­ten­tial. We play around with it, and peo­ple are like, ‘Oh my God, slightly sweet with a slight bit­ter­ness.’ So it’s per­fect for vine­gars and dress­ings.

“I’ve got one dish where I turn the juice into a mignonette foam and then I get some of the raw berries and take the seeds out, lightly pickle those and then put that on an oys­ter and then it’s just like ... there’s your New Zealand, if that’s what you’re look­ing for. Right there.”

Monique Fiso and her Ngai Tahu Bluff oys­ters with karamu berry mignonette foam and pick­led karamu berries, top right.

Charles Royal, above, and the Princes Gate Ho­tel’s kawakawa baked egg cus­tard.

Jar­rad and Belinda McKay with their Puha & Pakeha food truck. Be­low, one of their dishes, panko-crumbed hangi ku­mara balls.

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