Chef Monique Fiso appeared on the Nexflix series The Final Table at the end of last year, participating as one of 24 acclaimed chefs taking part in a knockout cooking competition.
This star turn has brought to global attention her status as flag bearer for indigenous New Zealand cuisine. Born to a Maori mother and a Samoan father, she is part of a generation that is reimagining regional food for the modern world.
American food critic Jonathan Gold highlighted Fiso’s contribution to a feast cooked by 20 of the best women chefs as a standout at the Los Angeles Food Festival in June, including her kumara (sweet potato) wrapped in mud and cooked over a hot wood fire. She’s also used kumara to make gnocchi, served with a sauce of huhu beetle grubs.
Fiso, who previously worked in Michelin kitchens in New York, began hosting a pop-up series in New Zealand devoted to keeping Maori food culture alive back in 2016.
In November, she opened her first restaurant in Wellington, calling it Hiakai (meaning ‘hungry’ or, more long-windedly, ‘a desire, need or craving for food’).
Red matipo (a salad-style leaf) and mamaku (a fern) are some of the items that are regular stars at Hiakai, but rarely seen on other restaurant menus. The titi bird’s bones, for example, are used for stock, while its meat – said to taste like the krill it eats – appears in various dishes.
The restaurant places a special focus on researching and showcasing Maori and Polynesian ingredients in modern and innovative ways, as well as incorporating traditional techniques like hangi cooking (using heated rocks buried in a pit oven).
“A lot of people say, ‘I don’t like hangi, it all tastes the same.’ My job as a chef is to use what I know to better execute this cooking technique. So, instead of plonking meat into a hangi, I have to season it properly and brine things so they don’t dry out,” Fiso told the publication thisNZlife.
“It’s a challenge as I’m trying to convince people that Maori food can be just as luxurious as French food, and doing that without ingredients like butter and truffle oil. Nothing compares to that smoky earth flavour – it’s a taste you can’t recreate another way.”
Things get interesting when it comes to the puddings at Hiakai as well. On offer are a green-lipped mussel ice cream and a dessert involving a ‘potato’ crafted from chocolate powder Milo. Potato skin ice cream, meanwhile, proves that umami flavours combine well with sweets.
Could Fiso’s cooking be part of movement towards opening up Pacific culinary culture to the rest of the world? Whole Foods predicted that 2019 would see Pacific Rim flavours influencing people’s palates this year.
In London, Fitzrovia restaurant Mere opened in 2017 and is influenced by the South Pacific and New Zealand. Its celeb chef, Monica Galetti, was born in Samoa and her heritage combines on the menu with her husband David’s classical French cooking.
Dishes at Mere include Cornish cod, black curry, pickled celery, hazelnut dukka and lovage sauce, as well as a Hokey Pokey dessert with manjari cremeux, salted toffee, honeycomb ice-cream and L&P Gel – a sparkling lemonade from New Zealand.
But could Sparkie see more Maori food on the menu?
From the dishes listed at Hiakai, the locality might be an issue for sure, but that doesn’t mean that an enterprising restaurateur couldn’t make some of the traditional Maori food their own way.
This would likely stand out even somewhere as cosmopolitan as London due to it being an absolute novelty. If it is done well and as authentically as possible, the restaurant should do reasonably in the current climate due to consumers favouring novel and authentic regional cuisines.
I think that some of the mixing of sweet and savoury, like the mussel ice cream, might be a little out there for the average consumer, but some of the country’s best restaurants pull this kind of thing off on a regular basis.
Ultimately, I think this is going to work for one place. Beyond that, it would be hard, because it’ll be the first which garners the media attention required to succeed.