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There is more to traditional Māori cooking than hangi, and one young Māori chef wants to use the new Matariki holiday to showcase them.
Although Matariki celebrates the Māori New Year, it also signifies the beginning of when to harvest and cultivate food, plus signifying the time to start preparing the garden for the next season, says Josh Hunter.
“I think food’s a great focal point for all people,” he says.
“It brings people together, and that’s why we got involved with Feast Matariki.”
Thirty-year-old Hunter (Ngāti Tūwharetoa) came to the attention of not-for-profit organisation Eat New Zealand through his pop-up event Know the Whakapapa of Your Kai, held in his hometown, Christchurch.
He currently works at Milford Sound Lodge, spending 10 days on the sound and six in Christchurch.
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In 2020, Hunter was named an Eat New Zealand Kaitaki, or food guide, and this year is among eight chefs who have helped plan the organisation’s Feast Matariki celebrations, a series of open-to-the-public events that aim to create a new food tradition.
“Most celebrations lead to food, which is pretty special,” Hunter says.
When considering what to cook for the four-course Matariki dinner, Hunter began with his ancestors.
“In the past, when Māori could see the stars, it was a time to get the soil ready and start the cultivation process for it, and a time to get ready for the year,” he says.
He and his fellow chefs have chosen to express that through a kūmara dish.
“We’re using kūmara, but using heaps of different varieties and using the leaves to make a salad.”
That included a lacto ferment, adding salt and letting the vegetable sit for five days before using.
“In a salad it would be quite tangy, quite nice,” says Hunter. He planned to create different textures out of kūmara and finish with a kūmara leaf garnish.
Hunter also thought about the Matariki star cluster and how that could be interpreted through food.
This brought him to the ocean, because traditionally Māori would navigate by the stars.
“That’s going to be the big seafood course, the kai moana soup,” he says. “The seafood [will be] cooked in a seaweed pouch called a pōhā.”
Another course was built around tītī, or muttonbird. Most diners won’t have eaten that before, says Hunter, but that is part of the point.
“It’s breaking down the barriers and giving people an insight into my culture; my whakapapa and experiences around Matariki, and why we consider it so important,” he says.
“It’s not just a feed. It’s more storytelling and a conversation… I’ll explain the dish and what significance it has to Māori.”
But the chefs had also worked hard to make sure the events were fun and approachable, Hunter added.
“There’s cheeky stuff,” he says. “You have your sponge cake on the marae, but we’re going to serve it out of big cans, so people can rip [the lid] off.”
Hunter says New Zealand is becoming far more tolerant. He would not have expected to see events like this 10 years ago, and he is “hyped” to see a public holiday specifically to celebrate Māori New Year.
More than anything he hoped it would be an opportunity for people to learn.
“It’s part of our history. It’s a really important part. I have conversations with people, they want to learn about [Matariki and Māori culture], but they don’t know how,” he says.
Hopefully some great kai will be one way of answering their questions.
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