Matariki: Finding bush tucker

By Sophie Bond

Maori New Year is marked by the rise of the star cluster Matariki, visible now in the night sky, and the sighting of the new moon. We meet a man involved in preparing a feast for the occasion.

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Charles Royal is at Muriwai's Houghtons Bush Camp, where he's looking for things to eat for an upcoming Matariki event.

For more than seven years the Rotorua chef has been involved in New Zealand-wide Matariki celebrations and is pleased to see it becoming more mainstream.

"Matariki to me is when everything comes to life in the bush. You've got the cooler temperatures, plenty of water and everything will be lush. Native vegetation loves winter."

Charles is an enthusiastic promoter of cooking traditional Maori kai and is confident a quick forage in the bush around the camp will provide ingredients for the start of a meal.

Before we even enter the bush canopy, Charles stops and points out a koromiko bush, a species of hebe.

"This was used in the old days, and now, for upset stomachs," he says pinching off a bunch of leaves. "You put the central bud into boiling water and drink it as a tea. It reacts straight away, within 15 minutes. Even if you've got stomach pains from food poisoning, this will stop it."

Once in the dark cool of the bush, Charles stoops to pull a couple of fronds from a silver fern. "There are 312 varieties of fern in New Zealand and seven of them are edible."

He lays the fronds on the path, with their white underside showing.

"See how they stand out? You can use these as path markers on a dark night."

Kawakawa is next on the menu and Charles advises picking a hole-riddled leaf because "it must be good if the insects are eating it" and to harvest from the northern side of the plant so leaves will grow back faster.

"This is a natural blood thinner. When we have our kawakawa tea, just take one leaf, drop it into boiling water."

He says kawakawa has antiseptic properties and is the most widely used Maori medicine.

Just then, a fantail appears overhead and Charles sighs happily. "It's good luck to see a fantail when you're in the bush."

Coastal bush is full of nikau. Charles says its bulb (where the trunk ends and the leaves begin) is edible but removing it will kill the tree so he avoids harvesting it.

Dark, snaking supplejack vines appear and Charles scans them for the soft tapering ends.

"It looks like an asparagus tip," he says, grabbing and snapping off about 20cm. A clear liquid drips out.

"If you get thirsty you'll always get a little drink from a supplejack vine."

Charles doles out the crunchy snack, which tastes similar to a runner bean.

"You can eat it with the skin on or peel it. I like to blanch it. People don't realise that there is an abundance of it out there. You could gather quite a bit in an hour."

"I'm trying to show people who live in cities that you can still walk bush tracks and find food you can eat, though you need to know what is edible."

Next, Charles spots a huruhuruwhenua fern, or shining spleenwort, and pokes among the leaves for the edible frond.

"This is piko piko. It can be eaten raw or cooked. I use it in a pesto and on top of damper bread when I do my demonstrations."

We crest a hill and the bush clears briefly to give us a glimpse of the wild West Coast beach before we arrive at several large, oblong-ish indentations.

"These would have been the original kumara pits when there was a pa here," explains Charles.

Growing in the spongy leaf-litter of a tree, Charles finds a five-finger fern, whose edible frond tastes remarkably like parsnip.

As we leave the bush we come across a cabbage tree or ti kouka. Charles pulls out a clump of leaves and strips them back to reveal a pale, pointy heart.

"Strip off the leaves and you can eat the core. It's like cabbage if eaten raw and takes on an onion flavour when cooked."

After just 20 minutes Charles has a large handful of ingredients to add to those he's been gathering for the past couple of months in preparation for Matariki.

"And the best thing is, I don't have to pay for it. Eating food from the bush is something we've lost over the years because of the convenience factor but there is so much good out there if you take the time to go looking."


Charles learnt to cook in the army in the 80s then joined Air New Zealand as a chef. During a trip to the southern US states he was influenced by Cajun and Creole cooking. 'I wanted to start mixing traditional ingredients into contemporary cuisine."

He now runs his own business in Rotorua, Kinaki NZ, which specialises in processing and distributing plant food like kawakawa and pikopiko for cooking. He says bush ingredients have become mainstream in many hotels and restaurants around the country.


WHAT Muriwai Matariki Magic: A five-course menu featuring bush ingredients prepared by chef Charles Royal. Navigator and waka builder Hekenukumai Busby will share the story about his voyage aboard the waka Te Aurere. Also, live music and film.

WHEN June 23, 7pm

WHERE Muriwai's Houghtons Bush Camp, 75 Motutara Rd

HOW MUCH $85. Contact Barbara Quigley 021 255 7951 or at Sand Dunz Cafe, Muriwai Beach

WHAT The Matariki Wananga-a-Kai Food Forum - taste and learn how to prepare traditional Maori kai from chefs.

WHEN July 10-11, 7.30pm-9pm

WHERE Mangere Arts Centre Nga Tohu o Uenuku, 63 Orly Ave, Mangere

COST Free, limited seating

See also: Matariki Super12s kapa haka competition

  Do you ever forage in the bush for free food? Leave us a comment below or on our Facebook page.


- The Aucklander

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