Māori food: a beginner’s guide to kai


Don’t know your pāua from your horopito? Here’s all you need to know about New Zealand’s tastiest indigenous ingredients.

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

While these ingredients have been included in home cooking, they’re now appearing on casual and fine menus. This new interest 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 Wellington restaurant Hiakai.

For a traditional feast, there is no better place than Te Puia in Rotorua where the steaming hot volcanic landscape provides the heat and energy to cook delicious hāngi (underground oven) meat and vegetables.

For visiting foodies, we’ve put together this list of the traditional foods to look out for in restaurants, food trucks and at kai festivals. 

Shellfish 

Sweet, delicious shellfish such as pipi, tuatua, tuangi (cockle) and diamond shell clams. Eat 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.

Horopito 

The dried leaves and seeds of this native bush have a 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 meat dishes. Look for Dovedale’s Horopito bread in good food stores. 

Kawakawa 

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 hāngi 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. Try kumara fries at fish and chip shops everywhere.

New Zealand spinach/kōkihi 

This very versatile native green (kōkihi) 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.

Abalone/pāua

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.

Pikopiko 

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. 

Puha

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”. 

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. One of the best places to sample sustainable kai moana is at Auckland’s new kingi restaurant in the Britomart Hotel. 

Taewa 

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. Look for them on the seasonal menu at Peter Gordon’s Homeland on the Auckland waterfront.

Tītī  

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 are 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”).

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.

TRAVEL TIPS

  • Kai is one of the newest – and oldest – movements in New Zealand food.
  • Traditional Māori ingredients include pāua (abalone), kumara (sweet potato), horopito (a native bush) and seaweed.
  • The traditional method of cooking is the hāngi: trays or baskets of food are laid down in an earth pit to cook over heated stones for several hours until they emerge as a smoky and aromatic feast.
  • Indigenous ingredients always included in a hāngi are kumara and Māori potatoes. Kawakawa and horopito are used to flavour meat and other vegetables, which are cooked wrapped in native kelp or placed in flax baskets.  
  • Māori and Pākehā (European) chefs use both modern and traditional takes on kai in their restaurants, at festivals and in food trucks. 
  • Look for kai moana (seafood) fritters in restaurants near the coast, and the all-time favourite ‘fish and chips’, deep fried in batter with salty chips.