A beginners' guide to traditional ingredients in New Zealand

Don’t know your pāua from your horopito? All you need to know about New Zealand’s wondrous indigenous ingredients.

One of the biggest movements in New Zealand food is the enthusiastic embrace of Māori indigenous ingredients, known as kai.

The movement is spearheaded by Netflix’s Final Table star Monique Fiso, a chef of Māori and Samoan heritage who has conducted extensive research into traditional kai ingredients and cookery methods. She incorporates many of these into the food she creates at her elegant new Wellington restaurant Hiakai.
If you’re keen to try kai, here’s a list of the traditional foods to look out for in restaurants, food trucks and at kai festivals.

Dig deep at low tide on sandy beaches for a range of delicious sweet shellfish such as pipi, tuatua, tuangi (cockle) and diamond shell clams. Eat them freshly shucked straight from the shell; steamed and tossed with butter, herbs and lemon; or in pasta and fish dishes. Best place to try them? Depot Eatery in Auckland.

Green-lipped mussels/kuku
A unique and prized export to the world, the green-lipped mussel is served simmered in wine and herbs or baked on the half shell with a tasty topping of bacon, onion and buttery crumbs. Taste their deliciousness at The Mussel Pot in Havelock in the Marlborough region.

The dried leaves and seeds of this native bush have a slight peppery sensation and are prized by Māori for a wide range of traditional medicinal uses. The spicy, earthy aromatic taste adds flavour to a wide variety of spice rubs, stuffings and chicken and other meat dishes. Look for Dovedale’s Horopito bread in good food stores.

Another native bush whose leaves and berries are used for medicinal purposes but also for spicing up food. Kawakawa tea is most refreshing, while the succulent leaves may be wrapped around foods or used as a base for soups and stocks. Find it flavouring the dressing for fish dishes at Hiakai.

Sweet potato/kumara
Sweet potato is one of the main kai ingredients; it’s an essential at hāngis and is served at all traditional feasts. The three main sweet-potato varieties – purple, golden and red – are all deliciously sweet whether roasted or steamed. Pūhā & Pākehā cafe in Auckland serves stunning kumara and coconut bites.

NZ spinach/kōkihi
This very versatile native green (kōkihi or Tetragonia tetragonioides) is found in coastal areas. The succulent leaves – when well washed and trimmed – can be used in salads and soups and are an excellent addition to stews and braised dishes.

Pāua is a highly prized seafood gathered from the deep waters around rocky outcrops on the seashore. The inky black meat found in the spectacularly colourful shell (which is often used in jewellery and as a decoration) is chewy and flavoursome. Find it in fritters, or in the famous pāua pie at Amisfield winery near Queenstown.

These delicate, curled-up, bright green fern fronds are generally used as an attractive edible garnish, but can also be served steamed, boiled or added to a stir-fry. The risotto at Pūhā & Pākehā features this delicacy.

It’s one of the most important ingredients in Māori kai: a wild small leafy plant with thistle-like leaves and milky juice that grows profusely and is easily foraged. Puha is boiled with pork and eaten as the green vegetable component of a common delicious dish known as “boil-up”. As Monique Fiso says, “You can find it absolutely everywhere you look – by the roadside, in the bush or at the bottom of your garden.”

Seafood/kai moana
Kai moana (food of the sea) is central to all Māori feasting. Apart from treasured shellfish, the most desired fish are two oily/meaty species, kahawai and mullet, and the larger kingfish and hāpuku. Try them smoked or fried whenever you see them on a menu.

These savoury potatoes were a staple crop for both eating and trading, and can be found in several varieties, usually with a purple or coloured skin and a creamy or blue interior. Moemoe and urenika are the most popular, but the brilliant blue tūtaekurī is also worth tracking down.

Also known as mutton bird, this salty, savoury seabird is coveted by those who have acquired the taste for it. It is gathered on islands in the extreme south of New Zealand in a traditional way by Māori iwi (tribes) who have lineal rights to the ancient ritual. The birds and generally salted and preserved then roasted or boiled. Try this delicacy at Fleurs Place in Moeraki (Fleur herself says it tastes like “anchovy-flavoured duck”) or Fishbone in Queenstown.

Karengo and other seaweeds
High in nutrients, there are many delicious varieties of edible seaweed including rimurapa (bull kelp), karengo and sea lettuce. Enjoy them in soups and salads or dried and used as flavourings.

Matariki – across New Zealand

What: Matariki is a key event in the Māori lunar calendar and occurs when the star cluster of the same name appears in the night sky during mid-winter, bringing the old lunar year to a close and marking the beginning of the New Year. Traditionally, festivities were held following the harvesting of crops when the pātaka (food storehouses) were full, freeing up time for celebrating life.

When: Mid-June to July.

Where: Most of the marae (meeting grounds) around Aotearoa New Zealand hold feasts, and there are special celebrations in the major cities. Wellington City presents a programme of events in conjunction with local Māori tribes and Te Papa Museum of NZ. Eat New Zealand provides a platform to co-ordinate Matariki Māori kai events throughout the country. Auckland Council co-ordinates the Matariki Festival in New Zealand’s largest city and in 2019 there will be a major new festival called Elemental AKL which will take place over a month during the Matariki period.