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Go NZ: What does New Zealand taste like?

NZ Herald
By: Lucy Corry

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Staying local should be no hardship for gourmet travellers, writes Lucy Corry

When people claim that "New Zealand doesn't have a cuisine", Angela Clifford sees red. The North Canterbury farmer, food educator and chief executive of Eat New Zealand says it's time for Kiwis to explore what makes our kai unique.

"New Zealand food is incredibly diverse. I think it's incredibly disrespectful when people say we have no cuisine. It's like saying Italy doesn't have a cuisine outside of pasta and pizza because you can't distill a nation into two dishes.

"Our food tastes fresh because we're so closely connected to the land and the ocean it comes from. New Zealand food tastes like its geography; we have really unique attributes in our UV light, our maritime climate and our young soils. There are so many truly local and regional flavours in our food.

"We need to sit with ourselves for a while and see what's out there in our different regions. I think that will be a moment of astonishing discovery."

The complete petit fours spread at Hiakai restaurant, Wellington. Photo / Supplied
The complete petit fours spread at Hiakai restaurant, Wellington. Photo / Supplied

What does Aotearoa taste like? Award-winning chef Monique Fiso thinks for a moment and then her words tumble out like Jaffas on a cinema floor.

"It's briny and salty, but it's also earthy and fresh," she says. "It's about seafood but it's also about the forest."

Fiso's Wellington restaurant, Hiakai, was named one of Forbes' magazine's 10 Coolest Places to Eat in 2020 and she's renowned internationally for her innovative approach to traditional Māori ingredients. Her menus are inspired by Māori myths and legends; her larder is full of infusions from locally foraged manono bark and red matipo.

"I don't think of sweet, sugary things when I think about the taste of New Zealand, everything is a lot more earthy," she says.

Fiso spent the start of lockdown cooking madly like everyone else. Then she turned her attention to devising the concept for Hiakai's new Matariki-influenced menu when the restaurant opened in Level 2.

"One of the dishes is called Waipunarangi, after one of Matariki's daughters. She represents water, the ocean and clouds, so the dish is very monochrome with white elements. There's coastal fish, rimurapa (bull kelp), kohlrabi and tuatua clams — it contains all the flavours that I think of when I think of New Zealand."

Tuatua are a classic taste of New Zealand. Photo / File
Tuatua are a classic taste of New Zealand. Photo / File

It'll be a long time before Fiso gets a holiday, but if there was one on the cards she'd head to Northland ("there's so much history there and I'd eat a bunch of seafood") or drive along the South Island's West Coast. "Every Kiwi should drive along the West Coast and stop for a bush walk. Most of the ingredients grown in this country are found down there. It's damp, coastal, there's a bit of sun and it's so quiet. Plus you can find lots of quirky things to eat."

While place — what overseas would be called terroir — plays a big part, Clifford says the key ingredient is cultural.

"New Zealand food tastes like love. You can't show hospitality without it. When we have a kai, it's us together as people, a genuine connection that sits at a level that other experiences don't have."

Clifford hopes that having more Kiwis taking the time to explore their own country might encourage emerging indigenous food-based experiences to flourish.

"We know about 0.1 per cent of our indigenous food story. Now is the time for us to seek out and listen to those stories."

Angela Clifford, north Canterbury farmer, food educator and chief executive of Eat New Zealand. Photo / Supplied
Angela Clifford, north Canterbury farmer, food educator and chief executive of Eat New Zealand. Photo / Supplied

Authenticity is the secret sauce for any food business, says Rewi "The Hāngī Master" Spraggon. When he opened a hāngī cafe in downtown Auckland last year, diners were amazed because they'd never tasted the real deal before.

"Wherever I go around the world, I want to eat the authentic version," Spraggon says. "That's what people want here too."

Spraggon considers himself lucky to have grown up in a community where people cooked and ate together. His mum was the head cook on his home marae at Pipiwai in Northland and Spraggon says she taught him the importance of feeding people well: "If you do a bad meal on a marae, people remember it."

Spraggon has cooked all over the world and his dedication to hāngī is legendary. He doesn't take shortcuts: under his watch a proper hāngī is a hardcore seven-hour slog that involves no small amount of red tape.

Chef and carver, Rewi Spraggon. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Chef and carver, Rewi Spraggon. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"The art of hāngī is dying and there are marae where they don't have the knowledge to teach their youth how to do it properly," he says. "It's my goal to educate people about the old ways. The new fishing net needs to ask the old fishing net where the fish are in the sea."

Spraggon says Māori have always known about Aotearoa's regional delicacies and tribes traded these special foods between them.

"It's no different to the wines of Bordeaux, but our New Zealand story has been lost. We talk about being Kiwi this and Kiwi that, but how many of us are true to it? We need to appreciate what we have."

For New Zealand travel ideas, go to newzealand.com/dosomethingnew