or a coun­try so proud of its cul­tural her­itage, there’s a bit of an irony at the heart of New Zealand cui­sine: we haven’t cap­i­talised on our roots when it comes to Kiwi fare. In the New Zealand food busi­ness, you have to do some­thing dif­fer­ent,” says Jar­rad McKay, one half of the team be­hind Pūhā & Pākehā, the Kiwi fu­sion eatery cur­rently chang­ing the way New Zealan­ders think about tra­di­tional Kiwi kai. “To re­ally do some­thing dif­fer­ent in New Zealand, you have to do New Zealand food!”

Along with Pūhā & Pākehā co-founder Belinda McKay, the pair have been do­ing just that, win­ning con­verts and pro­vid­ing cu­ri­ous Kiwi palates with tra­di­tional Māori food with a highly mod­ern twist.

Formed in 2014 with the in­ten­tion of re­con­nect­ing Ki­wis to their rich food her­itage, the en­tre­pre­neur­ial duo started small, “with one tres­tle ta­ble, a gazebo and a pop up-tent”, as well as a burn­ing de­sire to bring mod­ern flavours and cook­ing meth­ods to Māori and na­tive New Zealand in­gre­di­ents.

“We were just go­ing to all these mar­kets and events around Auck­land and there just seemed to be such a lack of rep­re­sen­ta­tion of any­thing na­tive New Zealand or Māori,” says Belinda.

“So we thought, 'Wow, there's a bit for a gap here – wouldn't it be cool if we could re­ally en­gage peo­ple and get them ex­cited about na­tive New Zealand kai again?’”

Cool is ex­actly what it is, as it's about time Ki­wis reen­gaged with their cul­ture.

“New Zealan­ders all love do­ing OEs and ev­ery­one's bring­ing ideas back about cuisines they've ex­pe­ri­enced over­seas, but I think our na­tive New Zealand kai has got lost in that process a lit­tle bit,” says Belinda. “But now there seems to be a lit­tle more talk about what New Zealand cui­sine is and how Māori kai fits into that. Peo­ple are start­ing to look in­ward again.”

Jar­rad con­curs: “In the last 29 or 30 years, only top-end chefs did New Zealand stuff, but when they did use Kiwi in­gre­di­ents, they would use just one. They would have twenty things on the menu and they would say ‘look, we are now us­ing horo­pito on the menu’, or ‘hey, we've now got a kawakawa sor­bet’. With us, ev­ery sin­gle menu item has an el­e­ment, homage or he­roes a na­tives New Zealand in­gre­di­ent. That just hasn't been done be­fore.”

So far, that pi­o­neer­ing ap­proach is work­ing. From tres­tle ta­ble to food truck, and now, brick and mor­tar digs in Grey Lynn, the pair seem to have struck a nerve with Ki­wis hun­gry for some­thing dif­fer­ent, yet fa­mil­iar.

“All of the feed­back we’ve been get­ting so far is that peo­ple are re­ally con­nect­ing with what we’re do­ing,” says Belinda. “They find it re­ally re­fresh­ing that there is some­where that they can call their own.”

“Peo­ple seem to feel a real sense of own­er­ship about what we do, as if they can con­sider it ‘ours’ [in the broad­est sense]. We feel the same. This is us. That's why we're do­ing it.”

For all the talk of tra­di­tion, how­ever, the food is plenty hip: Horo­pito-spiced piri piri chicken sal­ads? Check. Hangi-cooked pulled pork and slaw sand­wiches? Dou­ble check. Panko-crumbed kū­mara balls served with a sweet horo­pito sauce? Oh my.

“Tak­ing an orig­i­nal prod­uct like hangi-cooked ku­mara, mash­ing it with co­conut cream, rolling it in panko crumbs and co­conut makes quite a dif­fer­ent beast to a tra­di­tional hangi meal,” says Jar­rad, “so we've had to take peo­ple along on that jour­ney.”

“We're do­ing mod­ern Māori fu­sion, tak­ing these el­e­ments and el­e­vat­ing them, and peo­ple are con­nect­ing to that con­cept re­ally, re­ally quickly.”

But for all its early suc­cess, Pūhā & Pākehā is still a pas­sion project for the duo that they’re plan­ning on build­ing slowly.

“I'm pas­sion­ate about be­ing a Kiwi, I love ev­ery­thing about New Zealand and I think, as we've gone on, it has be­come more than just the food,” says Belinda.

“We didn't start out on this jour­ney with the idea that we were go­ing to build this food em­pire. Now, we have the big think­ing and the big goals, but at the same time, it’s lit­tle steps un­til we get the re­sources to be able to do it.”

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