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.

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.

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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.

One of the Puha & Pakeha dishes, panko-crumbed hangi kumara balls.
One of the Puha & Pakeha dishes, panko-crumbed hangi kumara balls.

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.

Charles Royal.
Charles Royal.

"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 - 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?'"

The Princes Gate Hotel's kawakawa baked egg custard.
The Princes Gate Hotel's kawakawa baked egg custard.

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 From Kai to Kiwi Kitchen, Dunedin-based 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 hangi-cooked 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."

Monique Fiso.
Monique Fiso.

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-add-fern-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."

Ngai Tahu Bluff oysters with karamu berry mignonette foam and pickled karamu berries.
Ngai Tahu Bluff oysters with karamu berry mignonette foam and pickled karamu berries.

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."