The traditional hāngī has long been seen as the mainstay of kai Māori. Monique Fiso, owner of Wellington’s Hiakai, is challenging this by bringing native ingredients back on the menu, and helping to shape and define Māori cuisine.
When you think of kai Māori, your first thought is probably of the smoky goodness of hāngī? This was certainly what Monique Fiso experienced when she first opened Hiakai in 2016, where customers would repeatedly ask “so you do hāngī, right?”
Thankfully, since then, she says people have stopped asking that, as Hiakai’s reputation for innovative Māori cuisine has grown.
For Monique, there are two main flavours that define kai Māori: earthiness and brininess. The former refers to the many native ingredients found in the ngāhere (forest) – kawakawa, horopito, manono, tarata, to name a few – and the latter, kaimoana, which plays a big role in kai Māori.
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Understanding the flavours and ingredients unique to Māori was a learning journey for Monique, who did not grow up in te ao Māori. While working in Michelin star restaurants in New York, she felt there was something lacking, so she returned home to Aotearoa, and began to explore what she wanted her signature culinary style to be.
She read old cookbooks with Māori recipes, and texts on native plants, from the likes of Elsdon Best. She asked her friends and fellow Māori chefs, Kārena and Kasey Bird, who suggested she speak to Joe McLeod in Wellington. The former international chef, and knowledge holder of native plants and cooking methods, gave Monique foundational knowledge in foraging for and harvesting native plants.
She learned about the work of Charles Royal, a pioneer in revitalising kai Māori. His search to find Māori flavours and cooking styles other than hāngī led him to begin experimenting with pikopiko, after his uncle came to him with the edible herb and asked if he’d considered using it.
Monique has done plenty of experimenting of her own. Some of her current flavour innovations include manono (a native shrub) rum, and harakeke (flax) ice-cream. She’s also brought te ao Māori concepts of sharing food into her restaurant: the current menu theme is “Hākari” (feast), incorporating sharing dishes to emulate the big feasts of marae gatherings.
“We wanted to bring in that element of sharing and that feast-like vibe of hanging out and actually spending quality time into the restaurant for summer,” Monique says.
All harvesting of native plants must be done in accordance with tikanga Māori, so for instance, if it has been raining, Monique says no matter how empty the stores are, she won’t harvest kawakawa.
“You can’t have one foot in and one foot out, you’re either doing this the right way [or not at all] and that’s the way we see it.”
Smoking may be the traditional Māori cooking style, but Monique says there are a lot of technical preserving techniques Māori used that aren’t talked about. One such example is the preservation of tītī (muttonbirds), a prized kai of Kāi Tahu who traditionally preserved the seabird in its own fat in pōhā, woven baskets lined with kelp. This is not too dissimilar to the French confit, Monique says.
She’s inspired by old images of tuna (eel) hung out on lines to dry in the sun, a traditional Māori dehydration technique. Although she laughs, the local council might not be too happy with her doing this, so don’t expect line-dried tuna on the menu anytime soon.
With Covid-19 putting pressure on the supply chain, making it harder to get international ingredients, Monique says there is an opportunity for more local chefs to innovate with native ingredients.
“I’d definitely like to see more young chefs viewing Aotearoa and our ingredients as a cuisine that’s worth investing their time into.
“I still see a lot of young chefs go… ‘this cuisine is better and I’m going overseas to do that’. It’d be really great to see a lot more of them stay here and invest their energy into kai Māori.”
The bringing together of people through food, whether that be in celebration or mourning, is something shared across all cultures. But it is the cooking methods and ingredients that define those cultures. And it is through the simple act of sharing a meal that Monique seeks to connect more New Zealanders with te ao Māori, and this land we call home, Aotearoa.
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