Reflections of a Maori Chef

By Charles Pipi Tukukino Royal

My mother’s tribe is from Te Whãnau-ã-Apanui on the East Coast of the North Island. My father’s tribe is from Ngãti Raukawa ki te Tõnga, North of Wellington and Ngãti Maru-Coromandel. I have loved cooking since I was a child, and I used to spend a lot of time in the kitchen with my mum, preparing meals for the family. I won my first cooking prize when I was six years old, for cooking some pikelets.

My parents lived in Kãpiti (Ngãti Raukawa) North of Wellington. Since I was a child I have moved around quite a bit. I was in the New Zealand Army for 10 years at Waiouru. I volunteered as a two year Regular Force Cadet in 1980 at the age of 15. I didn’t travel much overseas then because I was in the Army during peacetime. While I was there I learned just about everything that I know now about cooking. I learned a lot from Ex-Vietnam Veterans who had survived in the jungle of South East Asia by foraging for edible plants. That was part of our survival training and it got me interested in wild herbs. I started reading about their uses. I also went through the NZ Army Chefs training school and came out with London City and Guild’s qualifications which allows me to get a job anywhere in the World. After leaving the Army I worked for Air New Zealand for three years in the Flight Kitchen cooking for First Class and Business Class passengers and also on production-line service, preparing thousands of plates at a time. I’ve cooked professionally at the Four Seasons Hotel in Milano, 4 Leone in Fienza and Rome, at the Hyatt Hotel Adelaide Australia, San Antonio and Austin Texas, and at the New Zealand Consulate General’s Residence in Los Angeles. When I left Air New Zealand I opened my first restaurant at Paraparaumu near Wellington called Brier Patch.

The link between my earlier experience and what I do now really came about because while I was working for Air New Zealand, my wife and I travelled to the States and we fell in love with that Southern style of cooking with its different herbs and spices. I liked the idea of Cajun food being traditional and Creole being its transformation into more contemporary city-style cooking. 10 years ago I came to Rotorua and opened my second restaurant, specialising in Cajun food. It was really popular. I was part of the Slow Food Movement and I began to recognise that if a culture loses its food identity, it is near impossible to get back.

Mãori Food Research
As the years went by and things developed I started thinking about the herbs that we had as Mãori people and the different types of food that had traditionally sustained us. But I couldn’t find anything! I noticed that there was no Mãori food available except for the hangi/concert catered by the hotels. Since everyone loves food I realised that there must have been something else, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. So I started wondering about why there wasn’t any other Mãori food available. I began asking my elders - aunties, uncles and relatives about what they knew about traditional kai. Then one day an uncle came to me with some pikopiko, an edible fiddle-head fern, and asked if I had ever tried putting these on the menu.

I used to make a bread and I got a rosette of garlic butter and wrapped it in a pea flour tortilla and stuck the pikopiko on the top and sent it out to a table for some tourists. They wanted to know more about it. Where did it come from? What is it a symbol of? Their interest encouraged my own curiosity, so I started doing research, talking to the old people. I approached different Mãori organisations to do research on how pikopiko grew and what they are like in the wild or the rain forest. I tried to get funding for my research but found that because nothing like this had been done before, people were quite sceptical. Mãori that I had worked with previously were critical and sarcastic. They would ask me with a smirk, “Has the pikopiko dried up yet”. I suspect they thought that it didn’t have any value because they themselves had lost contact with the value of their cultural heritage. This alone prompted me to persist because I didn’t like that attitude.

I had been in the restaurant business for a while and was looking for something new. So I sold my business and did some part-time cooking to support my interest. I ended up in a partnership on a three year project with Crop & Food Research (www.crop.cri.nz) to look at the sustainable wild harvesting of pikopiko. I had been working with (and still do) a number of family businesses in the North Island who allowed me to harvest off their land and also look at the possibilities of cultivating pikopiko as a crop. Unfortunately at the time, the scientists that I was working with were more confined to the laboratory. To really understand pikopiko you had to be more of a practitioner - to see how it grows and develops over time in the field. That meant going out every day, in rain, hail or snow and harvesting the plant to see if it would still regenerate, and to understand the conditions that were most beneficial for its development. My scientist colleagues didn’t know that. They would be on site perhaps once a month. But I was there every day, in the garden, harvesting in all conditions. This was over an area of about six hectares.

Previously, pikopiko has been seen as a seasonal vegetable, but it’s like anything else, if you go out there every day you’ll soon notice the changes in the plant. So I learned a lot from that, and got the information that I needed to add credibility to what I was doing. I still work with the same families now, conducting Mãorifood Trails. If I need horopito or something straight away, I just ring them up and they send the children out to harvest it for me.

My Current Work
I also do event catering with Mãorifood. I have a friend who harvests for me and lives in the Mamaku Hills above Rotorua. She harvests pikopiko, miro pigeon berries and hãrore bush mushrooms for me for event dinners. I also sometimes smoke baby salmon and local eel. Depending on where I am working I often involve cooking students from the local Polytechnic in cooking Mãori bush ingredients for an event dinner.

I have found over the years that food has been an amazing way of developing cultural understanding. People say “If you want to get to know another culture, it’s through their food.” I agree, because everything else comes with it. I’ve been doing this kind of work for ten years now. Deciding that I didn’t want to be in the restaurant business any longer ten years ago, I realise in retrospect that it seems to have had a lot of benefits – not just the foraging and wild harvesting and understandings about sustainability but also about health and wellbeing, the creation of employment and much more. My current work allows me to live my life in a way that is very satisfying.

I love doing this work because I involve my family as well. My wife bakes for me. My son and daughter love to tag along and see what I do. My mother is living with me and is involved too. This shift has been of great material and spiritual benefit to our whole family.

Sharing the Knowledge
Although it is possible to develop pikopiko as a cultivated crop, there is a big issue of intellectual property to contend with. It’s possible to buy frozen Asian pikopiko for $3 a kilo, but I have developed my own business so that there is a good balance between what people are willing to pay for a relatively rare quality product while at the same time preserving the special relationship that we as Mãori have with our tãonga (treasures). I do export a little, but believe that I am just scratching the surface. There are a lot of other Chefs who are becoming increasingly interested in these products, but they don’t know where to begin. I’m supplying them with the pikopiko. Their difficulties are compounded by the difficulty of finding well-trained reliable staff who understand the kaupapa of sustainable wild harvesting practices.

I don’t teach formally because I don’t have enough time, but where I can I involve local students in my work. For instance I went to the Eco-tourism Conference in Greymouth this year and I made Mãori canapés for the cocktail party, involving the students from the local Polytechnic. It is not only the Mãori students that are interested in learning to use these ingredients to give the food a New Zealand identity, but also Kiwi’s in general. It is beginning to become much more widely accepted in the hospitality and tourism industry. I suspect this is because there have not been many new ingredients introduced to the industry for a long time. I see this as something new, and everyone is keen to use it.

Mãorifood Trails
Four years ago, my business really took off when I was invited to do a television commercial for Pams supermarket products about the whole wild bush food thing. I had entered the tourism industry first and developed my website with a number of Mãorifood trails. Foodstuffs NZ contacted Saatchi and Saatchi Advertising, and they got in touch with me through my website. It lifted the profile of my work and has really had a positive impact. That exposure has led to a significant increase in the food-tourism part of my business.

Food Tourism

In my work at Tree Tops Lodge for instance, I have quite a few overseas clients. I take them out into the bush and talk about all of the different plants and ferns that are out there: the edible and non-edible varieties, what they were used for, what their health benefits are, and then I talk about the food concept. And along the way we stop and I serve a cup of kawakawa tea and a kawakawa shortbread cookie for morning or afternoon tea. Then we go on through the bush up to a 50 foot waterfall where I pull my little camp cooker out, throw the frying pan on and start cooking a five course meal underneath the waterfall. If they want wine or beer they can have that as well, and I pretty well walk out with all the supplies packed up in my backpack. Usually there are four to five guests, which allows for personal service and lots of fresh organic food.

Many of my clients are completely out of touch with the food that they eat – where it comes from, its nutritional value, its health issues etc. For them, this is quite an educational experience, taking them back to the things that they have lost, through mono-cultural farming, herbicide and pesticides use and depleted soils, etc. The first thing they want to know is “Can we get it back home?” “How can we get hold of this stuff?” Then it’s like re-education. They want to know the growth patterns, the soil and climatic conditions and so on. And learning about all of this first-hand in the wild itself is very special. I think they like the ambience of the bush, knowing that are no snakes, no scorpions - nothing that can hurt them. Then there’s the food. People always enjoy good food, but making the connection between the food and its source, and the knowledge base and labour to harvest it is what really catches the imagination.

People have been living in harmony with the environment for tens of thousands of years until very recently and some of them are still here. Many people would not know what to do if the power went down tomorrow, but there are a surprising number who still have the necessary knowledge to survive and prosper. I see this kind of sharing knowledge as very important to our future relationship to the natural world.

Editors Note: Before the discovery of the New World in 1492, European and Near Eastern populations survived on grains mostly derived from local grasses like wheat, rye, barley and oats. Rice was the staple of Asia and sorghum and millet sustained Africa. The discovery of America and the European adoption of indigenous American food over time gave the world three fifths of the food that we currently consume – potatoes (many varieties) with beans (lima beans, kidney beans, string beans, butter beans etc.), and of course corn (also in many varieties). Not only staples, but also fruits and spices – tomatoes, capsicum, chillies, peanuts, sunflowers, zucchini - were brought back by Europeans and now flavour the dishes of the world. Also many modern medicines originated among the indigenous peoples, and billions of dollars are invested by pharmaceutical companies every year in the drive to discover and patent the ingredients of their traditional remedies. As mono-cultural growing practices have spread, the biological diversity that our grandparents knew has been eroded. We have begun to realise that biodiversity is important not only economically, but also to our own future survival as a species. Significant crop failures in a mono-cultural environment similar to that which happened in the Irish potato famine of the 1840s could prove disastrous. The knowledge possessed by indigenous peoples might be our salvation.