A glamorous sea snail is the new darling of Auckland restaurant menus. Kim Knight on the pandemic-assisted popularity of pāua.
Chef Peter Gordon remembers his dad prising them off the rocks with a screwdriver.
"You'd take them out of their shells, smash them with a beer bottle or a brick or whatever you had and cook them on the barbie."
Pāua meat is as tough as the black rubber gumboot it resembles. Catch it with brute force. Pop out its teeth and give it a solid bash or it'll never be tender enough to eat. Pāua is not for the squeamish.
English settlers called it mutton-fish. Explorer Charles Heaphy spelled it badly. "Pawa," he wrote, "is very excellent and substantial food." At modern fish and chip shops, it's minced and served as a fritter - flat and green, more chew than bite. Technically, it's a sea snail. More reverentially, it's a taonga. Pāua is one of Aotearoa's most prized kaimoana and it is, officially, having a moment.
In Auckland's finest and newest restaurants, pāua is the new star turn - the silvery-blue shelled lining of a Covid-impacted year.
Suppliers say domestic demand has gone through the roof. One theory? During the level 4 lockdown, trapped in our kitchens and bored with supermarket meat-and-three-suburban vege, home cooks rediscovered New Zealand seafood. Boutique providers believe there was an increased desire to support local and, perhaps, a yearning for foods that reminded us of safer, happier times. When we were finally allowed back into restaurants, we found pāua on the menu there too - perhaps those who can afford to eat out are spending more but, more pragmatically, pāua is freezer friendly. Unlike fresh fish fillets, it's ready for lockdown at a moment's notice.
Pick a menu, any new, high-end Auckland menu from the past year, and you will probably encounter pāua.
Michael Meredith opened Mr Morris and served thin-sliced pāua with okra, baby corn and Korean rice sticks. At Ben Bayly's Ahi, there was a hint of hāngī smoke and the addition of smoked kahawai. Onemata, inside the new five-star Park Hyatt, put pāua in a miso butter-soaked risotto. At Homeland, Peter Gordon served it creamed, on sourdough toast. Restaurant-cooked pāua is nothing new - the most famous dish at Wellington's Logan Brown is the pāua ravioli that went on the menu in 1996; Tony Astle's Antoine's took a radical turn in 2015 with a pig's trotter, paua and snail congee with tempura oysters- but it is definitely becoming more mainstream.
"You do see it more and more," agrees Gordon. "Is it because people are not going overseas? They're stuck in New Zealand and looking for the kaimoana from here? Are we inwardly looking at what we have to offer the world, not just in terms of tourism but also our food?"
Pāua costs a fortune. Live shellfish retails around $100 a kilogram; frozen mince starts at $25 a 200g pottle. The dishes proliferating Auckland restaurants reflect its premium nature. Even a pāua pie (with lemony beurre blanc and flaky pastry and back on the menu soon at Al Brown's Depot) will set you back $23.
Gordon says with overseas travel still off the table, customers might be more comfortable spending more money on dinner (and also lunch and breakfast - Homeland's $26 toast sells across all three menus) but he also credits nostalgia and curiosity for the rise and rise of pāua.
"As more people put it on their menus, and promote it through social media, people are a bit more curious. We've had tables full of people in here who have never tried pāua and we really encourage them to give it a go. But we've also had a lot of older women, 70-plus . . . one was almost in tears saying it reminded her of being a young woman up north."
Creamed pāua is a marae staple. Gordon (Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāi Tahu) says "it's how do you feed a whole heap of something and spread it a long way? Dad would describe it 'as though the pāua had run through the sauce and didn't stay for long!'" (For the record, he estimates the Homeland version is 75 per cent paua).
"I've had paua fritters where it's like 15 per cent. When you go to a fish and chip shop and it's on the menu for $8 or something, there's clearly no paua in it - it's just impossible."
Wild pāua can be caught only by hand. It's illegal to use an underwater breathing apparatus, or even have one on your boat. In 2020, commercial divers reported a 685 tonne harvest, from a total allowable catch of 919 tonnes. Tora Collective is a drop in that bucket, leasing just one tonne of quota annually, but the South Wairarapa-based company is on a very particular mission - sustainably harvested New Zealand seafood for New Zealanders. Lockdown, it turns out, was the best thing that could have happened to the new company.
Co-owner Claire Edwards is taking a birthday cake out of the oven when the Weekend Herald calls. The cellphone coverage cuts out halfway and she apologises cheerfully. She's 29 and partner Troy Bramley is 31 and their business is crayfish and pāua. They describe themselves as an anomaly in the seafood supply world, because their focus is on domestic not international; fresh not processed.
"These are our prime jewels," says Edwards. "These are the things that both Troy and I have been brought up getting, dad jumping in the water, and cooking it up on a fire on the beach . . . it's so embedded in our culture, but not in our cuisine culture. Why should Kiwis not be eating these things?"
The couple initially intended to supply restaurants "then lockdown happened and we were like 's**t, we're going to go under in our first year'!"
They pivoted to online orders and home delivery thinking if they got five customers they'd be happy. The first week, they received 40 orders.
"We didn't have our packaging sorted and we are determined to be compostable . . . so we were driving around with cardboard boxes across the greater Wellington region. Once a week, we'd get in our truck and drive for about 10 hours," says Edwards.
"People were sending it to their grandmothers and to people for celebrations. There was a last supper. Somebody's husband had died, and he had loved crayfish and pāua. It was just so special - an incredible experience to be able to talk to your customer and see how rapt they were."
Edwards says pāua and crayfish have a "soul connection" to Kiwis.
"They're part of our heritage . . . and since the pandemic hit, we are looking to support local and source produce from our shores, pastures and orchards. The pandemic reminded us we are a key player in global food production, but most importantly that we're incredibly lucky to have such abundant resources and growing capabilities."
Most of this country's wild-caught pāua is exported. Huge players like Moana New Zealand (which handles around 400 tonnes annually) send up to 95 per cent of their catch overseas.
Mark Ngata, Moana's general manager of inshore, says pāua is a status product in countries like China, where the preference is for the paler meat found in abalone from Australia, South America and South Africa. New Zealand's commonest species - the blackfoot paua - is processed at a factory in Palmerston North, washed until it's egg-shell cream, before being canned and exported to Asia.
International demand has dropped, Ngata confirmed. China's Covid lockdowns halted sales from February-May last year and riots in Hong Kong further reduced volumes. He says individual quick frozen and live pāua sales got a lift from mid-May, but second waves of Covid in Singapore and Hong Kong hit canned pāua purchases during the traditional busy mid-autumn festival.
Ngata says, despite this, he's not seeing a significant increase in local sales of wild pāua ("pāua tūwā"), but there had been a domestic push for pāua kahurangi. The smaller "cocktail" sized shellfish is farmed by Moana farms at Ruakākā, 30km south of Whangārei and gets its startling colour from the food it eats.
"We can't confirm whether there has been a marked increase in restaurant customer interest . . . but we'd naturally applaud this, should that be the case."
Martin Bosley, from fish supplier Yellow Brick Road, confirmed he was selling pāua kahurangi into several top Auckland restaurants, including Mr Morris and Pasture. Meanwhile, "we are putting a sh**load of minced pāua into restaurants all around the country".
He estimates sales have doubled in the past year, crediting an "influencer" effect driven by the country's best-known chefs.
"It's been dramatic. The farmed pāua from Ruakākā, we would have been lucky if we'd sold a couple of kilos a month. Now we're selling several kilos a week. Just today, we've put 50 of the 200g pots of mince out to restaurants. It's long overdue . . . but it is quite polarising. You put it on your menu and 50 per cent of your diners are going to go 'no way'. I think that's based on previous bad experiences. The perception was that it was tough and rubbery and not many people had seen it beyond a pāua fritter . . . "
Enter chef Michael Meredith. At Mr Morris, his $28 entree combines pāua with dense Korean rice sticks and slippery okra that cleverly mimic the shellfish's textural dimensions. The other reason we're eating more pāua?
"Because the chef's skill is being added to it," says Meredith. "And the input of different cultures into our cuisine. Before, we just added things like cream and butter and overcooked it. Now we eat out more, and we travel. The Japanese and the Chinese love it, and they cook it so differently - we're appreciating it more."
Pāua tastes like the ocean but Meredith says it also has an unusual muddiness - think words like earthy, mushroomy and meaty.
"It's one of those flavours that, once you eat it, the memory of it, you'll have that in your tastebuds."
More than one-third of the country's commercial wild pāua catch comes from the Chatham Islands, where Delwyn Tuanui family goes back eight generations on his mum's side and six on his dad's. When he arranges to speak to the Weekend Herald, he specifies "NZ time" - on the Chathams, even the time zone is unique.
"When my father was young, prior to quota management, pāua was a food source first and foremost," says Tuanui. "And then it was used as a bit of a bank for a lot of locals. Whenever they needed to fly to New Zealand for medical treatment or the rugby and sporting teams wanted to raise money, they would just go and dive for some pāua and make a bit of cash, selling it off the island."
Nationally, the pāua fishery is split into 11 management areas, overseen by the Ministry for Primary Industries. The ocean around the Chathams ("PAU4") has a total allowable commercial catch of 326.5 tonnes. Locals have gone further, breaking their fishery down reef by reef, setting size and harvesting limits according to what they know each area can support. It's an approach that allows the likes of Tuanui's Chatham Island Food Co to really sell a sustainable seafood story - ably assisted by geography.
"We're essentially a rock 800km from anywhere, in the middle of the Southern Ocean. We have a warm current and a cold current that meet here, and create a really unique mixture of water. And because of our extreme isolation, we have a really clean ocean environment."
Tuanui grew up on a farm, but the day he helped his father drive stock they couldn't afford to feed into the bush to be shot, was a turning point. He went to Melbourne to study and, long story short, ended up selling Chathams-caught blue cod to top Australian restaurateurs. Eventually, he came home. Bought a fish factory. Trademarked the name "Chatham Blue" and now he sells cod - and pottles of minced pāua - direct to Kiwi kitchens and home cooks.
"We were a bit unsure about it, and then lockdown came and took care of all our uncertainty. That's when it really came into its own . . . For the first time ever in the history of the island, we're able to put our incredibly beautiful products in front of Kiwis across New Zealand. Not in a restaurant, but in front of them, in their homes . . . You have all these ambitions about export and all that, but what I realised early on was our biggest fans were Kiwis."
Remember the first time you had pāua? That family holiday and that bach in the Sounds, or on the Coast or down in Fiordland?
"Because it's so unique, I think it stays with them forever," says Tuanui. "And then when they have it later in life, it draws them back to a pretty special place."
Baulk at the price, says Tuanui, but don't forget where pāua, comes from and what it supports.
"For people living in cities, remember that by eating it, they're actually supporting rural fishing communities. Whether it comes from the Chathams, or the Wairarapa Coast or the bottom of the South Island, they're all isolated rural communities . . . and we all want to visit them, and be able to go and see our cousins and spend a weekend with them. We just can't forget that."