After seven years toiling away in New York City, Monique Fiso decided to pack up and return to her home country, New Zealand, to start a pop-up that harkened back to her Māori roots. All she really knew about Māori cooking then, she says, was the “boil up” (quite literally, cooking meat and vegetables in boiling water) and the hāngī, a hole in the ground in which root vegetables and meat would be roasted. At the time, she says, she was merely trying to make these techniques “modern” and create dishes that were representative of typical high-end U.S. restaurants (her last job in New York was at the Michelin-starred Musket Room) — only with native ingredients.
Reflecting on herself those two years ago, Fiso says, “Oh man, you didn’t know what you were doing.” In New Zealand, she expected suppliers would work in the same way she’d become accustomed to in the States, where ordering supplies was a reliable process, and if there were any issues, a phone call would resolve them by service time. Only at Hiakai, as the pop-up would be named (it means “hungry” in Māori), she had chosen to work with native ingredients, which she describes as “a blank canvas.” Many of those ingredients, she’d discover, weren’t available through the usual channels, and definitely not in large quantities.
Her requests were basically laughed at: Suppliers simply told her what she wanted wasn’t available. Some ingredients would need several weeks’ lead time to find and gather, and others were dependent on seasons. For example, the kiekie’s fruit ripens in late fall, and only on the female plants (when turned into a jelly, it tastes like preserved strawberries); the male plant yields strawberry-tasting flower bracts that can be infused in gin. It’s also a vine that climbs up gigantic trees, making harvesting perilous. When Fiso is able to source it, gelled kiekie, paired with compressed strawberries, forms part of the pre-dessert in Hiakai’s 10-course menu. To supply ingredients for multiple tasting menus, Hiakai, now a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the suburb of Mount Cook in Wellington, relies on a “loose” system, Fiso says.
Fiso is part of an emerging generation, including Nobu Lee of Clooney (Auckland), Giulio Sturla of Roots (Lyttelton, near Christchurch), and Vaughan Mabee of Amisfield Bistro (Queenstown), that’s exploring the history and possibilities of native New Zealand food. When Fiso was still in New York, a fellow chef asked her what New Zealand cuisine was, and she lacked an answer; most New Zealanders would also falter to give a response beyond the usual tropes of Pavlova, Pineapple Lumps (a candy made of a soft pineapple-flavored middle coated with chocolate, invented in New Zealand and eaten frozen by many locals), and hāngi. Through Hiakai’s pop-up phase, Fiso continued to talk with other Māori people about their food histories and traditions — even if the ingredients required to make them proved hard to come by.
Over those years of doing the pop-up, Fiso built supply chains: Now, she can simply “put the feelers out” to her local suppliers if she needs anything. Sometimes they can find the ingredients, like cultivated kamokamo (New Zealand squash) and taewa (Māori potatoes) themselves; otherwise, they’ll refer her to someone who can. “It’s funny now how much more coordinated everything is,” Fiso says. Kamokamo is the hero of one of the dishes on Hiakai’s 10-course tasting menu, roasted, brushed with soy, and served alongside pumpkin seed tahini and puffed rice; fermented taewa is mixed with sourdough to make rēwena (Māori bread).
Fiso’s dedication to Māori ingredients is best seen in her approach to sourcing tītī, the sooty shearwater or muttonbird. The bird comes and goes on the Hiakai menu in various forms, from roasted to confit, but a dollop of its fat always sits atop the butter that comes with the rēwena. It’s not familiar to most Kiwis, but, like Fiso, those who are acquainted with it would have only encountered its salted form (and just at home, never out in restaurants). The ingredient doesn’t invoke fond memories for a lot of people, so it was a revelation when Jade Temepara, from the Kākano Café and cookery school in Christchurch, told Fiso that fresh tītī could be procured.
Tītī is harvested on the appropriately named Tītī Islands by the Rakiura Māori, who belong to the Ngāi Tahu iwi (“iwi” meaning tribe), the same iwi as Temepara. Some of those islands are partitioned as “beneficial islands,” which means that only individuals who can trace their whakapapa (lineage) back to a certain island are permitted to set foot on it. These exclusive rights to muttonbirding were guaranteed in the sale of Stewart Island and its surrounding islands to the British Crown in 1864, and have been legislated in the Titi (Muttonbird) Islands Regulations 1978. Temepara has access to fresh tītī by virtue of her iwi, whereas Fiso is from iwi in the Taranaki, a region in the North Island. To get the birds, then, Fiso harassed everyone she knew from Ngāi Tahu, and was passed along the phone tree to people who might be going birding.
When Fiso eventually managed to find someone willing to set aside some of their catch for her, she, as “the little city girl that I was,” didn’t realize there was no cellphone coverage or electricity on the islands. By law, for conservation and sustainability purposes, birders may only enter the islands on March 15, and begin birding on April 1. They have to leave by May 31, before bad weather traps them — as happened last year to some birders — which means it’s not unusual for there to be “a solid six weeks before you hear anything.”
It was “a little bit like the Wild West,” Fiso says. “It’s a system, and it’s loose as hell.” Even so, it’s better now than before, when “it was a matter of handing [a birder] $1,000 and some birds might show up, and some birds might not… I think the first time I ordered birds, they thought, ‘This silly girl clearly does not know what she’s doing.’”
Because birders are on the islands for weeks at a time without electricity, the birds are usually waxed, to remove their down, and then salted for preservation. After Fiso approached some birders to try to get larger numbers of fresh birds, they figured out a method of leaving the wax on and shipping them to her right away. As demand for fresh tītī has grown at restaurants, some birders now freeze the birds on the island and send the completely stripped birds in vacuum packs — depending on the quality of the bird, they decide whether to reserve them as “freshies” or salt them.
Fiso showed me the Facebook page for “Pride of Poutama” (Poutama being one of the 18 family-selective “beneficial islands”), run by a whanau (family) that sells fresh tītī. The releases of new stock are as lively as the release of tickets to major music festivals: 14 buckets of salted birds were unexpectedly available in January, and after a post announcing their availability appeared on Facebook, they sold out in nine minutes. Fiso is “not usually a fan of Facebook alerts,” but this is one of a few pages she watches religiously. Hiakai needs a lot of birds to keep them stocked through the year; Fiso says she’s considering buying a new freezer just to store tītī.
Although some ingredients, like the tītī, are growing in popularity, there is still a lot to be discovered. Information about many plants used at Hiakai, like the mamaku (black tree fern), kōkihi (New Zealand spinach), and kiekie, is scant, besides warnings about the plants’ toxicity. That’s partially due to there not being many people chronicling their use, and partially because of various legislations and controls, like the Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907, which prevented tohunga — Māori experts — from practicing. As a result, many tohunga refused to pass their knowledge down, through either oral tradition or written word.
And one reason for native ingredients’ rarity was lack of demand. Chefs in New Zealand are already spoiled for choice, with the country’s geography allowing for a cornucopia of produce: As a long country (the Māori name for New Zealand is Aotearoa, which means land of the long white cloud) with a temperate climate, its span multiple environments that can grow — besides the usual carrots and potatoes — everything from truffles to wasabi to saffron. With such an abundance available locally, it’s no wonder chefs haven’t felt the desire or need to make use of what’s growing around them. And if chefs want a certain ingredient, there is a strong possibility that a grower can work it out: Auckland restaurant Clooney has a farm growing ladyfinger bananas for it.
It wasn’t long ago that ingredients used predominantly by Māori were looked down upon, mainly because of racism. As in any colonized country, it behooves everyone to try to be like those in power, in this case, the Pākehā, or people of European origin. And as ingredients aren’t used, knowledge of them is lost. Unfortunately, some — like salted tītī, which stings the mouth — were often maligned as “weird” or “gross.” It takes a chef like Fiso to read historical botanical texts and discover new ways to prepare them, like cooking down mamaku pulp and using its natural gooeyness to create gummy lollies to be employed in Hiakai’s petit fours. As more of these ingredients are re-found, and as other chefs adopt them, they become, as she says, “something that we should be proud of.”
As an ingredient catches on, its crop becomes economically viable for growers. Kawakawa, a shrub whose leaves taste like pepper, is now found on menus throughout the country, but even going back five years, it was really only used by people at home to brew team as the Māori did. Even plants like pikopiko (the curved tips of ferns that are plucked, like asparagus) and horopito (another plant with pepper-tasting leaves; in her kitchen, Fiso completely replaced pepper with different varieties of the plant) can now be found in high-end supermarkets, as well as from longtime indigenous ingredient suppliers like Great Taste NZ (also known as Little Karoo). Now, Great Taste NZ is a regular go-to for Kiwi chefs who want to bring the ingredients into their kitchens. A lot of these ingredients are still not stocked by major suppliers, though.
When Fiso’s sous chef, Maxime Gnojczak, started, he brought along a notebook. Ready to take notes, he asked about a plant sitting on the bench, and Fiso replied that she had no idea how to prepare it: That’s what they were going to find out. Their current process is to try new ingredients raw, then pickle and brine them and attempt various cooking methods and dehydration before deciding which methods work best.
On one occasion, Fiso and Gnojczak were eating kōkihi berries when Fiso realized she should probably check that they were edible. The first source they read, citing the missionary William Colenso (who is often misquoted), said they weren’t, to which Gnojczak exclaimed, “But they taste so good!” Famous last words, indeed. Luckily, other sources confirmed the pomegranate-tasting berries were, in fact, edible.
“I’ve just got to get a large quantity now,” Fiso says about the berries, as not every bush yields fruit. She will need to look at what causes the bushes to bear berries, and then what kind of soil they require, before finding someone who’ll be able to grow them commercially. There are no universities working with her currently, and most of the research around these native plants is undertaken by the Hiakai staff. There’s been talk of Fiso and Hiakai publishing a book about their findings.
“It’s forgotten history just hanging out,” Fiso says. She’s chuffed at what her team and she do. “We’re going into a lot of unknowns,” she says, “and as we tackle a new ingredient, we become the experts on it, and that’s so much cooler.”
Brian Ng is a writer originally from New Zealand. He now resides in London.
Editors: Erin DeJesus and Monica Burton