“Roll up your pants, take off your shoes and socks,” John Panoho directed as he handed me a pair of beach shoes. A Maori, born and raised in New Zealand, silver haired, Panoho has established Navigator Tours which includes indigenous Auckland experiences. We were about to embark on my learning experiences of Maori cooking in the Matakana area on the east coast which is their Pacific coastline..
About 10% of the population of Auckland’s 1.4 million, are Maoris. (John laughs about dramatic drop from the once 100% when the Maoris arrived on this island from Polynesian Islands about 5000 thousand years ago)
“Maori food has been put in a box for many years. We’re known for our ‘hungi’ (food cooked underground for 24 hours). We’re more sophisticated now. Remember we’ve been here for over a 1000 years. My ancestors arrived when there were only birds, fish and trees. They had to find ways of adapting to this new environment by using what they had around them. As a consequence, they ate every plant, root and berry and integrated a very wide range into their diet.
Before arriving at this water front, we had stopped at the home of caterer Wendy Bennett in Auckland’s suburb, Orewa. She would join us for the day. Wendy specializes in Maori cooking and insists there are medicinal properties in the spices which we’ll be tasting and cites blue berries that have 3% anti oxidants, Phua with 9% and Miro berries are credited with 19%. Her food hamper was filled with her selection of edible surprises all made from plants and food from the sea. “People aren’t educated about the abundance of indigenous food but the good news is a renewed interest,” says the pretty Maori woman who comes from a very famous military family in Rotorua .
As she put on her oversized waders and John chucked his shoes into the car, I stood looking at a vast, wet, muddy area not knowing what I had gotten myself into. Hesitantly, I asked why we were there. “This is a bed of Pacific Ocean’s Whangateau region and we were going ‘hunting’”, John tells me. He also issues the dictum to have trust and this will be a life time memorable day. The tide is out and picking Pipis (in Maori spelt Pigis) are tide-dependent. The waters must be just the right temperature for the sweet and succulent shell fish..
Through small puddles, dark thick mud, stepping on masses of broken often sharp shells in the Whangatau area, we three walked about 100 metres until John stopped. With his yellow bucket in hand, he bent down as did Wendy and both started to dig deep into the mud with their hands, no shovels allowed.
Since I was in New Zealand to discover Maori cuisine and this was, I assumed, part the learning process, I too, soon had my hands, wrist deep in mud searching for Pipis, a round shell fish that tastes a bit like oysters and only exists in clean waters. Although a large sign at the shore, cautioned that we could only take 50 each, I was soon so addicted to finding them we quickly reached the limit and started our dig for cockles.
The search for pipis and other sea edibles
Plans had been made to meet up with John’s brother Merv, and his two children whom we spot about 400 metres away. Past another sand bar, they were digging for tuatua, another surf clam but with a different taste and texture of clams as we know them. Being the neophyte, I was tentative but again, and with beginner’s luck, I hit the mother lode. Between all of us our pails were almost topped with just enough space for the next picking.- green shelled clams, unique to New Zealand waters and high in healthful properties.. Merv kept tossing away what he considered small, only to look for the larger variety. Farming for many of these shell fish is impossible due to the need for atmosphere and the water content, tides and waves..
Not even close to our allotment, John decided there was enough to feed us all.
“These have to be washed in salt water only,” he said as he swished the bucket through the ocean water which filtered through the holes at the bottom of the pail. “This pail is a Maori invention,” laughed the Hollywood handsome man.
Ninety percent of New Zealand’s fish gets exported. And in the past most Kiwis (New Zealanders) didn’t have access to their fish. Now, there’s a most successful fish market in Auckland which leases out booths to Auckland fish retailers. Above is a fish-only cooking school .
“New Zealanders weren’t fish eaters,” said Peta Mathias, noted chef, TV personality, raconteur, cook book author, she with the flaming red hair and can’t-miss-colourful outfits who teaches once a week to fully booked classes. “They didn’t know what to do with fish or shell fish. I’ve been able to help demystify it”.
Nearby in Matheson Bay, is Merv’s home , where the group effort lunch, aptly named Slow Food, would be cooked. The phrase says it all.
“The slow food movement is all about spending time preparing meals, sitting down with family, good conversation, good wine. Food comes to the table when it’s ready,” Wendy tells as she places her prepared goodies on beautifully colour coordinated platters which were brought to the verandah’s large wooden table. With John’s fresh bread, we started with Taakawa, Beer made from wild bush herb, kawakawa, also known as bush basil. Purple potatoes (peruperu known as Maori Potato) with fulsome flavour are truly ugly , pitted and knobby and the size of small zucchini.
John, a man with many hats, (he also owns a bread factory) talked about ‘putting a new coat on tourism”. “New Zealand has been promoted for 150 years as green and clean. But we haven’t done a lot to introduce visitors to Maori culture,” he says as he chops some freshly picked tomatoes. He’s been working on several ideas and has a range of food tours with emphasizes on indigenous culture.
Although he laughs when I ask why there are no Maori-food-only restaurants, he does add that there are a few chefs who are working on just that industry. “We have great products like the shell fish, fish, lamb, cheese, beef and vegetables and I really believe that the indigenous cuisine will ultimately be an important part of Kiwi offering. We’re now re- learning how the herbs were used and now turning our food into more contemporary dishes,” he states citing spices from the berries and herbs and getting a distinctive flavour like Indian or Chinese cooking, can be easily achieved.
The presentation started of our Slow Food meal ; Tamorillos, oval shaped sweet yellow and red tree tomatoes were set out. Wendy’s Pandora’s box yielded finger food of mashed kumara cakes with puha and kawakawa leaves, topped with some wild boar which had been marinated in toasted kawakawa leaves, titoki liqueur (made from the berry of the titoki tree), red wine, avocado oil and garnished with a fresh puha leaf served served with tamarillo and piko piko chutney. Mashed pipis (pigis) with a batter of eggs and a bit of flour, mixed with seaweed (karengo), sea urchins ( kina)and tuna then lightly seared in local olive oil was an amazing palette grabber. John’s smoked mullet had been marinated in sea salt, karengo seasoning, lightly dusted with kawakawa rub to give it a pepper taste, then smoked with manuka sawdust and bark, “absolutely essential to get flavour”, I was assured by the chef. Mullet is an oily fish so it doesn’t need much seasoning to draw out flavours, ditto with salmon except John used manuka honey to infuse some flavour. The mussels were seared in olive oil. Pipis and cockles were quickly tossed in oil with garlic and chilis. Then there were lamb cutlets which had been marinated in horopito a native pepper tree), piripiri, garlic, rock salt and olive oil, seared quickly in a hot pan. It was served with horopito piripiri aioli. We downed all this with Tohu, an award winning Marlborough Reisling wine.
A feast from the sea
Maori is a living culture. “We’re part of the New Zealand scene and we live in a Western society. We do keep our traditions going and there’s been a real renaissance rediscovering our language.” Neither Wendy or John speak fluently. ”We now have systems that start teaching in pre school and the kids become bilingual by the time they are 5 or 6 years old.” The Maoris are totally integrated. There’s not a New Zealand Maori who can say they have pure blood lines,” John states as Wendy nods in agreement.
To continue my Maori cuisine experience, I left next day for Rotorua, about a 45 minute flight from Auckland and where I had made arrangements to meet the root and herb Maori maven, Charles Royal. The 42 year old native is renowned throughout the country as a chef who also designs menus and also for his vast knowledge about edible and poisonous greens. On contract at the very posh award winning hotel-to-the-stars, and even richer and more famous personalities, Tree Tops Lodge, Charles doesn’t have to travel very far to give me my introductory Herbs 101 course. Right outside the stunning isolated hilltop accommodations in a rain forest, are acres of various species. “We don’t have to go into the bush and climb over vines,” he says observing that I’m not exactly the hiking type.
Whatever I had learned about shellfish the day before was equaled by the program that Charles had developed. A lithe, slim man with huge loop earrings which expanded his lobes, (a Maori tradition), he has a very pronounced Kiwi accent. Until I adjusted to it, I had to ask him to repeat names of plants like ferns which sounded like ‘fears’. “New Zealand is one of the few countries with such a high a density of ferns. There are 312 variety but only 7 are edible,” he said pulling off a leaf. “Some won’t kill you right away.” From another plant, Ponga, he pulls off a leaf for me to taste. This one contains carcinogenic but can be safely used for stir fries and stews. “It’s a hard fern,” he explains.
Next is the edible Mouki. Again I’m offered a bite which I gingerly accept but with great reservation. Charles is was very definite about tasting or using any of these leafy vegetation without being with an authority since many plants look alike but one can kill and the other can cure. The Crown Fern is for pharmaceuticals. He then points to the Koromiko plant which was used “in the old days” for stomach pains after it had been boiled like a cup of tea. The plant was just beginning to flower, this being New Zealand autumn.
Matete, or Five Fingers, was used for food when “the old people were in the bush and had to experience various plants since there was no meat except for small bush mouse and dogs.” he says kneeling over another green leafy plant. “All other food was from the sea.
Two plants looked similar but he was able to tell the difference by seeing how the branch came out from the main stem and jagged leaves. “In general, smooth edged leaves are usually okay,” he explains.
With his vast knowledge, the lodge employs Charles to work with their chef using indigenous herbs and roots to spice up what would be just another European meal.
The rituals of the past are very meaningful for Charles and he is trying to preserve the drying, storing, ‘hungi’, steaming, cooking on the fire as well as searching out secret recipes that the ‘old women’ had and were being lost since no one had any interest in Maori food. With the resurgence of pride of identity, Charles has created a new venture. He went to land owners with native bushes and asked if they wanted to harvest edible food. They were happy to go along with this and he started to harvest the herbs. The dried herbs and spices, now packaged in well designed packets are sold throughout New Zealand and he expects to start exporting in the near future. He’s particularly interested in flax seed which is high in Omega 3 and fibre. He’s right on top of the current health trends even though he lives in the land. “down, down under.”
Barbara Kingstone recommends staying in Auckland at
The Langham Hotel,
83 Symonds Steeet, 09 379 5132
or the award winning small luxury boutique hotel, Mollies,