Getting a taste of Maori cuisine in New Zealand has so far been a rather rare and down-to-earth affair.
While some tourists might get to experience hangi cooking — succulent meat and vegetables prepared in an underground pit-oven — there are hardly any dedicated Maori restaurants offering a glimpse into what was eaten before Europeans arrived in the country 250 years ago.
But up-and-coming chef Monique Fiso is changing that with her restaurant Hiakai, pioneering a new cuisine blending fine dining with traditional Maori cooking techniques and indigenous ingredients.
“We’re using ingredients nobody else in the country is using, that probably haven’t been seen on a menu, ever,” the 31-year-old chef tells the Goethe-Institut in Wellington at a recent event.
An evening at the intimate restaurant that seats only 30 diners in New Zealand’s capital includes not only a set tasting menu of either six, eight or 10 courses, but also an education.
“We use a lot of Maori ingredients that a lot of people have never heard of before, which led us to creating a glossary at the back of our menu going into detail about the native ingredients that guests are eating,” Fiso explains.
As each dish is taken out, Fiso and her staff explain its background and the importance of its ingredients to New Zealand.
Often somebody will recognise a plant and be amazed that it’s edible — and tastes delicious.
The menu could contain panna cotta made of kina (sea urchin), tatara (lemonwood) marshmallows or kumara (sweet potato) gnocchi in a sauce using huhu grub (the larva of the huhu beetle).
If you’re lucky, maybe you could even get a chance to try the dish Fiso describes as tasting like “chicken wings on crack”: fried fish collars with dried tuatua (a type of endemic clam), a fennel seed crust and nasturtium vinegar
The daughter of a Samoan father and a Maori mother, Fiso learned her craft while working in a series of Michelin star kitchens in New York City. After seven years of cooking with Brad Farmerie, Missy Robbins and fellow New Zealander Matt Lambert, she returned to New Zealand in 2016 to reinvent her own country’s indigenous cuisine.
Hiakai, meaning hungry in Maori, started off as a series of pop-up events in 2016. The concept instantly hit a nerve, and soon her sold-out events began receiving awards.
When Fiso first set out to cook with traditional Maori ingredients, there were no recipes, and no shop would sell the ingredients.
“The research I’ve done has been through engaging with people, reading a lot of books, going online, looking through archives,” she explains.
“I’ve spent a lot of time looking at those reference books and reading historical accounts of people travelling with Maori, and what they ate and what they saw, and trying to take those accounts and re-create them in order to understand how ingredients were used,” she adds.
A lot of foraging and diving in the sea were required to find the ingredients, but bit by bit she developed Hiakai’s menu and found supply chains for the rare items.
But despite her success, her goal remains the same: “I want people to leave thinking: ‘I didn’t realise there was this much to New Zealand food’ and that they’ll walk away from here thinking New Zealand is just as exciting as other countries when it comes to food,” she says. – By Jule Scherer, dpa