Meet the Chefs and Foragers Behind New Zealand’s Maori Food Renaissance

On an overcast spring morning outside Rotorua, on New Zealand’s North Island, Charles Royal is digging for huhu grubs in a rotten stump – and I’m feeling a little ambivalent about his finding them. Charles hopes to discover a little cluster that he can scoop out and fry up. And what do they taste like? Peanuts, he says, with a broad smile.

Charles and his wife Tania have taken me deep into the fern-filled forest on the shore of Lake Rotoiti. As we tromp through mud searching for native plants and ingredients, they point out mushrooms gathered on felled trees, as delighted as if they’re seeing them for the first time. Charles pulls down a vine he identifies as pikopiko (edible fern fronds, or bush asparagus) and snaps off a piece for me to try. It has the mild taste and texture of a freshly picked green bean. We take a few more steps and he hands me a kawakawa leaf plucked from a small tree. On my tongue I feel menthol freshness, then the peppery bite of strong olive oil as it hits the back of my throat. “Good in ice cream,” says Charles. And I can taste it – creamy and sweet with a deep earthy flavour that hearkens back to the side of the small mountain we’re on.

December 2, 2019
Pikopiko bread in a pan
Charles Royal’s pikopiko bread.
A side profile of Charles Royal in a baseball cap
Charles Royal’s pikopiko bread.
Charles Royal, chef and forager.

In 2004, Charles and Tania launched their company, Kinaki, which harvests and sells things like pikopiko, kawakawa and horopito (bush pepper), and leads food and foraging tours like the one I’m on. For two decades, they have cooked with these ingredients, patiently working toward a time when all Kiwis might embrace the plants and culinary techniques of the Maori people. And it’s finally happening. Across the country, Maori culinary leaders and chefs, from food-truck owners to Monique Fiso, the 32-year-old owner of Wellington restaurant Hiakai – on Time’s list of Greatest Places for 2019 – are celebrating, and elevating, Maori cuisine.

The Maori, an Indigenous people from Polynesia, arrived in Aotearoa (meaning “long white cloud”), or New Zealand, in the 13th century. But with the arrival of European settlers in the 1800s, many Maori were moved off their land and forbidden from speaking their language, te reo Maori. Thanks in part to a Maori renaissance that began in the 1970s, much of Kiwi society has adopted elements of their culture. Around 15 percent of New Zealand’s population is Maori, and the federal government has an initiative to get 1 million Kiwis – almost a quarter of the population – speaking te reo Maori by 2040. The haka, a ceremonial dance, is ubiquitous at both school assemblies and sporting events, and certain te reo Maori phrases, like the greeting kia ora, have become part of the everyday vernacular. Now, the people propelling the Maori food movement see it as a way to further entrench identity, while making the cuisine and techniques accessible for future generations.

A steamy view of Waimangu, a geothermal valley near Rotorua
Letting off some steam in Waimangu, a geothermal valley near Rotorua.

Auckland: the hangi master

One technique is hangi and to experience it, I head to Auckland. When I arrive at the group of shipping containers that makes up a collective of eateries known as the Maori Kitchen in the downtown harbour, chef Rewi Spraggon is standing over a concrete pit filled with dirt. “It’s almost ready,” he says excitedly, gesturing with a shovel.

Hangi is a method of cooking meat and vegetables by burying them deep in the ground. Spraggon has served over 38,000 people since he opened his food kiosk, Hāngi Master, nine months ago and is determined to do hangi “the right way.” That means that the bottom of the pit is lined with hardwood from the manuka tree, which is then topped with river stones and set ablaze. When the rocks reach 700°C, he layers pork, chicken legs and vegetables on them, covers it all with woven mats and then piles volcanic soil on top. The result is a smoky medley of crispy chicken skin, juicy pork, bread stuffing and sweet potatoes that has the flavour of a Thanksgiving dinner.

Steaming geothermal pools at Te Puia
Steaming geothermal pools at Te Puia, near Rotorua, have long been used by the Maori to prepare food.
Sweet potato, potatoes and pumpkin are pulled from Rewi Spraggon’s hangi 
pit
Steaming geothermal pools at Te Puia, near Rotorua, have long been used by the Maori to prepare food.
Sweet potato, potatoes and pumpkin are pulled from Rewi Spraggon’s hangi pit in Auckland.

Spraggon, who comes from a family of boat builders in the Auckland area, never met his grandfather but cooks with the hangi rocks he inherited from him. These cooking techniques, he says, were developed long before Maori people were encouraged to leave their traditional marae (meeting grounds) to find work in cities. “I don’t own this food,” he says. “I’m a guardian of it for a short time, and it’s up to all Maori chefs to pass it on.”

He’s hoping that hangi will catch on, and he dreams of starting a national chain of hangi fast-food restaurants. He trails off a little, transported by his vision for the future. But he snaps back to attention when I mention that I’m heading to Wellington. “Off to see the Queen, are you?”

A hand holding freshly picked pikopiko
McLeod shares some freshly picked pikopiko, an edible fern frond, also known as bush asparagus.
Lush green flora growing on a tree trunk
McLeod shares some freshly picked pikopiko, an edible fern frond, also known as bush asparagus.
New Zealand is known for its lush green flora, seen here in Te Marua.

Wellington: The star chef

The “queen” Spraggon is referring to is Monique Fiso, and my next stop is Wellington, to eat at the Maori-Samoan chef’s year-old restaurant, Hiakai. Fiso has rapidly become the face of the Maori food movement, both at home and abroad. She competed in the first season of Netflix’s The Final Table last year, and before she returned to New Zealand three years ago, she spent seven in New York working in Michelin-starred kitchens like Kiwi chef Matt Lambert’s the Musket Room. Hiakai (meaning “hungry”) started as a series of pop-ups in 2016, but the concept now has a permanent home in Wellington’s Mount Cook neighbourhood.

At the chef’s table on a fully booked Thursday evening, I have a 10-course tasting menu and front-row seat to the action unfolding in the kitchen. Fiso is a stage manager, issuing hushed directives to sous-chefs and wait staff, constantly scanning the room as she sorts through a small basket of stones to be used for plating.

As the dishes arrive, I try to keep up with the elaborate presentation and myriad ingredients. Venison, served in a whirl of condensed mushroom stock, chlorophyll and Jerusalem artichoke, is exquisitely tender with strong forest notes. Kawakawa sorbet with lime syrup is smooth and sweet with just a hint of grassiness. But the bite that sparks the most joy turns out to be butter whipped with the fat of the titi bird, which has the richness of duck fat but smacks strongly of the sea.

Forager Joe McLeod takes in Te Marua reserve
Forager Joe McLeod takes in Te Marua reserve, near Wellington.

Te Marua: the forager

Shortly after she returned from New York, Fiso started exploring indigenous plants, both on her own and with community members like Joe McLeod, a Maori chef and master forager. He introduced her to ingredients like the orange inner bark of the manono tree, which she describes as similar to turmeric but with a slightly earthier tone (she uses it in a curry sauce that tops wood-fired cauliflower). Maori expertise has typically been passed down orally between generations. “The older generation isn’t going to be around forever,” says Fiso. “When that knowledge is gone, it’s gone for everyone. And that’s scary.”

This is why McLeod, who has cooked in kitchens around the world, including the Ritz in Paris, is currently writing a manual on traditional Maori cuisine, to help guide future generations of chefs and foragers. He picks me up the next day in his tiny car, the back full to the brim with cooking supplies and foraged finds, and we drive close to an hour northeast of Wellington.

There is lots of steam in the Te Puia area
Geothermal steam is everywhere in Te Puia.
Karena and Kasey Bird on the beach in Tauranga
Geothermal steam is everywhere in Te Puia.
Karena and Kasey Bird on the beach in Tauranga.

In a grassy clearing ringed by evergreens and tall ferns, McLeod sets up a picnic highlighting some of the foods that will be in his manual: smoked kingfish and pickled puha (a leafy green) and cabbage tree. The flesh of the cabbage tree is white and tastes strongly fermented. But the dark-green puha in a preserve of mussels and onions is sour and acidic, and the perfect complement for the pleasantly oily kingfish. Everything has that bitter, herbal edge, perhaps demonstrating how much sugar has crept into the modern diet since we started eating not for necessity but pleasure. “Everyone wants to eat pizza and curries, but this is something completely different, and you can only get it here,” McLeod says. “My goal is to revive this knowledge and claim our own food culture – by Maori for Maori.”

Brown ferns from Waimangu
Ferns in Waimangu.
Maori-Japanese dishes at Izakai Bar & Eatery
Ferns in Waimangu.
Creamed paua and prawn gyoza, Kaitaia Fire karaage chicken, and Pacific-style sashimi are just a few of the Maori-Japanese dishes at Izakai Bar & Eatery in Tauranga.

Bay of Plenty: the masterchef winners

Last year, sisters Karena and Kasey Bird, the winners of MasterChef New Zealand in 2014, launched a series of “Creation Dinners” in Auckland, Wellington, Rotorua and their hometown of Maketu that captures the Maori legend of the earth being separated from the sky. Despite the duo’s elevated profile since claiming the MasterChef title – including two self-published cookbooks – they’ve resisted the urge to move elsewhere and open a restaurant, instead focusing on becoming fluent in te reo Maori in Maketu, on the North Island’s east coast near where the first waka (canoes) carrying Maori people landed.

“We’ve figured out that what makes us really unique is our culture,” says Karena, over dinner at chef Andy Kang’s Japanese-Maori Izakai Bar & Eatery in Tauranga, northwest of Maketu. “In New Zealand, if you’re not Maori, then you’re not in touch with these flavours.” She notes that many Kiwis eat sushi long before they ever sample a boil-up, a traditional soup made from simmering bones and vegetables. “But we’ve gone from a time where it was illegal to speak te reo to Maori dinners selling out in a few hours,” Karena says.

A red and white traditional Maori meeting house
A traditional Maori meeting house at Waiwhetu Marae, near Wellington.

At Hiakai, where dinners have been selling out for a year, my view into the kitchen includes a lineup of jars filled with dried red matipo, peppery horopito, pickled plum, karamu berries and sweet kiekie flowers. Fiso says she wanted to avoid turning the cornerstones of Maori cuisine into token ingredients. “I knew I couldn’t use these things in a shy way,” she says. “I had to make them the hero of every single dish.” Flipping through the menu, I stop on a page with illustrations. Next to a sketch of kiekie is a description, including tasting notes (“a mild taste of strawberry”) and a Maori legend surrounding it; this glossary section, titled “Our Ingredients,” was written by Fiso.

“My generation was so curious about why we were disconnected from our culture,” says Fiso. “Asking those questions is why we now have a renaissance. We’ve finally accepted that Maori is New Zealand.”

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