The rise & rise of Pasifika food

Two recent arrivals want to boost Māori and Pasifika cuisine in Auckland.


From Afghan to Zimbabwean cuisine, Aucklanders can eat their way around the world at 6750 cafés and restaurants – but two cultures are rarely seen on our menus: Māori and Pasifika.

In what’s been called the largest Polynesian city in world, tastes of indigenous produce are largely confined to fruit and vegetable stalls or takeaway hangi from many vibrant weekend and night markets, particularly in southern and western suburbs.

Two recent arrivals are determined to change that – Kai Pasifika, a restaurant serving contemporary Pacific cuisine in Mt Eden Rd, and Pūhā & Pākehā, an eatery in Grey Lynn.

Manager Richard Hall emphasises that Kai Pasifika, nurtured by celebrity chef Robert Oliver, is more than a restaurant.

“In the first 12 months we’ve concentrated on our food offering, focusing on the flavours of the Pacific, and we’re able to deliver that on a really high level on the plate and in the experience.

“We have been focusing on what our business culture looks like and living an ethos of creating a family and village environment within our business, which is then reflected in our customer experience.”

That includes being one of the first restaurants to adopt the living wage. Now, Hall says, it’s time for next steps: “It’s always been about the promotion of Pacific youth within the food and beverage space. Our head chefs are from the Cook Islands and they are 25 and 26.

“We’ve been inviting other young guest chefs to come and do pop-ups and we’ve been playing around with having Pacific cultural nights with a special menu and a dance group. It’s a cultural experience not only for Aucklanders but also for tourists.”

Pūhā & Pākehā owners Belinda and Jarrad McKay. Photo / Supplied

Pūhā & Pākehā owners Belinda and Jarrad McKay. Photo / Supplied

Pūhā & Pākehā owners Belinda and Jarrad McKay. Photo / Supplied

There are other opportunities: “The beauty of having a restaurant is that we’ve been developing these fantastic sauces with beautiful Pacific flavours, so I’ve seen an opportunity to turn that into a retail arm of the business.

Long-term, Kai Pasifika may open in the CBD: “That would put us in the centre of everything - the convention centre, tourists, the America’s Cup, as well as taking our message to more Aucklanders.”

He is also researching a homeware line: “So that’s the next step – developing a contemporary Pacific lifestyle brand that’s been incubated in Auckland that we can take overseas with different revenue arms.

“It’s an excellent educational tool for the Pacific community to recognise how great their food is,” Hall says,” and how healthy it is, and how it belongs in an urban environment. Much pride is generated from that. It’s an excellent tool for non-Pacific people to learn how awesome Pacific food and culture is.”

It’s also culturally sensitive: “We’re dealing with a lot of subjects that a lot of other restaurants in Auckland don’t – understanding the perceptions and the needs of all the islands in the Pacific, trying to make it accessible and inclusive to everyone, and at the same time attracting foodies who have never encountered Pacific food.

“We have had to start introducing the Auckland dining scene to the fact that, hey, Pacific food is serious.”

Pūhā & Pākehā injecting new cooking styles. Photo / Supplied.

Pūhā & Pākehā injecting new cooking styles. Photo / Supplied.

Pūhā & Pākehā injecting new cooking styles. Photo / Supplied.

Pūhā & Pākehā started in summer 2014. Belinda and Jarrad McKay would go to the city’s markets and events and see Korean, Italian and Mexican street food but little, if anything, from New Zealand. The couple felt the public largely overlooked traditional Māori kai but by injecting new cooking styles and modern flavours, they would give people a reason to try it.

They started with a market stall, then built a food truck for their ‘Modern Māori Fusion street food’ - pūhā for the indigenous base, pākehā for the contemporary or overseas influence – and this year opened their small eatery in Grey Lynn.

Their pulled pork connects hāngi-cooked pork and cabbage with spice rub and mayo; their take on the classic American Reuben sandwich is made with rēwena bread; chicken salad is sprinkled with peppery horopito leaf.

While the tongue-in-cheek name is derived from a cheesy ‘60s hit that wouldn’t pass modern sensibilities, the message is “Pūhā & Pākehā with the emphasis on the ‘and.’ The brand is about inclusiveness, bringing two cultures together, adding one thing to another to create something new.”

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