New Zealand’s wild countryside held a rich bounty for Māori in days of old. Now chef Charles Royal is reviving ancient traditions with his delicious foraged meals.
New Zealand’s native bush isn’t known for being an easy larder; many of its plants evolved spikiness, bitterness, and toughness to fight off browsing birds and insects. But early Māori still found nutritious foods and a cornucopia of rongoā (healing and traditional medicine) from the wealth of plant life around them. Those are traditions that Rotoma’s Charles and Tania Royal are exploring with their boutique food and tour business Kinaki Wild Herbs.
Leaving Rotorua in the morning, it’s a smooth and scenic drive in our Mazda BT-50 to meet the Royals on the shore of Lake Rotoiti. Their food tours always begin with a karakia, or prayer, and as we start off along a bush track on the shores of Lake Rotoiti, not far from their home, I notice that they are constantly scanning the bush around them, searching for available foods or medicines. When they find one, they bend to show us a plant and explain its preparation and properties.
First, we meet mānuka. High in antioxidants, it’s one of the stars of traditional Māori cuisine and healing. Its seeds and infusions from the leaves and bark were used to reduce fevers, treat stomach and urinary problems, and as a sedative, mouthwash and diarrhoea treatment. Nearby is growing a staple for early Māori, tī kōuka (cabbage tree). “It’s like a big leek,” Charles says, miming how you cut the thin trunks, strip off the outer leaves and use the centres as a vegetable that has a taste reminiscent of raw cabbage. It was helpful in breaking down the fattiness of meals such as kererū (wood pigeon) or kiore (rat), Tania adds.
The Mazda BT-50 proved an excellent companion on our foraging adventure. Charles has an intimate knowledge of New Zealand’s natural food store, and how to make the best use of it. Visitors can sample the individual raw ingredients during the walk, and then taste them again in a cooked meal.
We walk further along the path, and she shows us the tender tips of kareao (supplejack), which are surprisingly delicious considering the tough woody construction of the rest of the plant. With a taste reminiscent of cucumber and green beans, they can be simply snapped off like asparagus from the growing end. Nearby, pikopiko, or fern shoot, are growing; their tightly curled koru-shaped ends represent growth, unity and renewal for Māori, but when fully unfurled, are popular with chefs for their spear shape. They’re also faintly reminiscent of beans and asparagus.
“My grandmother taught me to rub off the brown hairs here to reduce its bitterness,” Charles says, and hands me a curled stalk. I bite into the end. It has a texture similar to aloe vera, but that gel-like consistency will disappear with steaming.
Tania shows us kawakawa. A relative of Fijian kava, its bitterness makes a healing and calming tea or tonic, and it’s also used for toothache and as a poultice for wounds. It’s often covered in small holes from insects, and those are the ones to pluck, Charles says. As his grandmother said, if the insects liked it, it must be a good one. It also helps that when a leaf has been attacked, the plant sends in protective compounds.
“Chefs are clamouring to use Kinaki’s dried mānuka leaves in place of British rosemary for dishes such as lamb, because of the similar aroma and flavour”
This natural pharmacopeia of early human settlement in New Zealand was complex and effective, and indeed is still used today in traditional rongoā. But its use in culinary arts has been largely overlooked. So, as well as their medicinal knowledge, the Royals have also developed a line of dried native culinary herbs that are popular with chefs looking for an authentic New Zealand flavour. Chefs are clamouring to use Kinaki’s dried mānuka leaves in place of British rosemary for dishes such as lamb, because of the similar aroma and flavour.
Charles’ cooking career began as a 15-year-old when he trained as an apprentice cook in the New Zealand Army; Tania did likewise in the Navy. By the time he left the army in 1990, he had learned more about the New Zealand bush, could cook for 1,000 people, prepare an intimate formal dinner, cater for special diets and cook in the field. He also had London City & Guilds qualifications. He moved on to Air New Zealand’s in-flight catering service, for business- and first-class customers.
After travelling the world and sampling different cuisines, he tutored cooking and the pair opened Brier Patch restaurant in Paraparaumu, which specialised in Cajun Creole cuisine. They then operated Copper Criollo in Rotorua from 1996 to 2000, which focused on macrobiotic cuisine. Charles was awarded New Zealand Innovative Chef of the Year in 2003; by then the pair had begun experimenting with incorporating the New Zealand native aromas and flavours into cooking. “The interest was off the scale,” Charles says. “Young chefs love it; they can become more creative than their tutors.”
We return from our walk to a lakeside picnic table. It’s a peaceful spot, with modest baches (beach houses) lining the road across from the lake, and the bush plunges straight down a set of tall cliffs into the lake, which is clear and still. Tania and Charles move into chef mode as they prepare our pikopiko and almond salad, horopito hummus, piripiri sambal, trout, pikopiko beef, kawakawa chicken, and yeast bread with pikopiko pressed into its surface. Supplejack tips and ear fungus make up our vegetables. The flavours are earthy, peppery and vegetal, reminiscent of the damp, verdant New Zealand bush.
We finish off with kawakawa shortbread and kawakawa-infused crème brûlée. As we sip on tea made from mānuka honey, lemon juice and kawakawa, Charles talks about how happy he is to keep the business small and niche. Expanding too much would ruin the intimate experience he creates for visitors, and he wants to keep it special. Because you certainly won’t find any of this unique New Zealand cuisine in the supermarket.
OUR FORAGED MĀORI MENU
Charles cooked a beautiful feast. Below are the foods that were enjoyed on the day, none of which is available in the supermarket (yet).
• Kawakawa Shortbread Cookies
• Kawakawa Leaf and crème brûlée
• Pan fried Pikopiko Trout and Karamu Berry garnish
• Kawakawa Chicken
• Steamed Hakeka (ear fungus)
• Kumara, Pikopiko and Pirita Vine (supplejack)
• Sautéed Piripiri Beef
• Piripiri Sambal, Horopito Hummus with Horopito Leaf tips as garnish
• Kawakawa Tea
Our BT-50 took us into scenery that is both wild and tasty. The ute is at home in all conditions, and is as comfortable on the road as it is off it. The BT-50 also proved fun to drive, and the car’s interior impressed with its level of refinement.