Maybe you’ve tried Ethiopian sour bread, Goan coconut stew, or Philippine adobo. But even the most adventuresome eaters have probably never eaten Maori pikopiko pesto.
That can change, if Charles Royal, a lean fortysomething New Zealander—combining the skills of Alice Waters and Emeril Legasse—has anything to do with it. He advocated sustainable local cuisine and indigenous produce long before the slow-food movement caught on, and has become the Maori star chef.
Royal began cooking in the New Zealand army, and this has led to food-related businesses, a television show, articles, and a cookbook. If you’ve flown Air New Zealand, you’ve probably tasted an adaptation of his innovative recipes.
And here’s the fun part: Royal is part guide as well, leading tours that introduce visitors to traditional Maori ingredients and techniques. It’s as if Legasse trudged you through the bayou, caught some shrimp, and cooked up gumbo.
Royal picked me up at the Huka Lodge, a luxe inn on a rushing river near Lake Taupo on the North Island. We took a tour of the grounds and he pointed out and picked a few ferns and greens, adding them to his bag of local fixins.
On the bow of a vintage riverboat, using a few utensils and hotplates, he cooked us a feast featuring freshwater eel with kawakawa (bush basil), horopito (Maori pepper), and pikopiko, an edible fern.
After, as we rested in a thermal spring, steam rising around us, local wine in hand, Royal expounded on his grandfather, a Maori chieftain, and the last person in his family to engage in cannibalism. A sign of respect in Maori culture until the beginning of the 20th century, it was practiced on a vanquished chief by a conquering one. Royal said his grandfather told him, “People taste like pork.”
Try fitting that, somehow, in your next food discussion.
Several tours are outlined on Royal’s website, including one that involves a bushwalk to seek out native flora and fauna, then using a hangi, the traditional method of smoking meats and vegetables in an earthen oven. Maoris roasted or steamed their food this way long before Europeans came along, bringing their pots, salted meats, and dried peas.
Another popular Royal-led tour leaves from Treetop Lodge in Rotorua, where the chef and his guests gather herbs while hiking past the cascading Bridal Falls, 800-year-old kauiri trees, and lush ferns. Then Royal prepares a feast that might include kawakawa tea, flaxseed soda bread, pikopiko pesto, horopito hummus, kumara (sweet potato), and smoked venison rubbed with local spices, and served with wild mushrooms.
Sampled in the forest setting, with a friendly Royal talking of his ancestors, this is a true foodie gotcha.
Venison & Piripiri
Here’s a version of Royal’s hangi-cooked venison that you can create at home, using his own piripiri spice, a modern blend: one part each of horopito native bush pepper, kawakawa native bush basil, and cayenne pepper.
Time 30 minutes Serves 6
Ingredients 1 teaspoon Kinaki NZ® Piripiri 3 Pepper Spice (email@example.com) 2 teaspoons olive oil 500 g venison tenderloin extra oil for quick frying
Method 1. Preheat the oven to 180ºC. 2. Mix oil with Kinaki 3 Pepper Spice to make a marinade. 3. Trim fat and sinew from tenderloin. 4. Lightly brush tenderloin with marinade. Heat fry pan with a dash of oil and quickly sear all sides of the tenderloin. 5. Remove venison from pan and place in heated roasting dish. Place in hot oven for 20 minutes. 6. Test tenderloin by pressing in the center. The tenderloin is rare when soft and spongy, and it becomes firmer as it reaches medium to well done. 7. Remove venison from the heat when it’s rare, resting it for 5 minutes before slicing and garnishing. The meat continues to cook while resting and ends up as medium: soft and pink. 8. Garnish with purple Maori potato, vegetables and lightly fried kawakawa leaves. www.maorifood.com
Lea Lane Stern is an award-winning travel writer, and the author of six books, including Solo Traveler (Fodors).