Hiakai – Modern Māori Cuisine

In my line of work, the things you do are often invisible (and meant to be that way). It used to be that the worst thing you could do as a journalist was insert yourself into the story. Editing is a bit the same, because the trick is to make the work sound more like the person who wrote it than it did before.

Still, it’s always good to have tangible proof of a project… and this one is exceptionally beautiful!

It was an honour and a privilege to to work with Monique Fiso and Penguin Random House on this groundbreaking book. Take a little tour around any bookstore or library (even the venerable National Library, where I spent quite a lot of January 2020), and you’ll soon discover that books on Māori food are few and far between. Books like this one, that combine the history of Māori food gathering, cultivation and preparation with modern cooking methods are even rarer.

I know this isn’t about me, but I learned so much while working on this book – about much more than food. I really recommend reading it! (In the meantime, here’s a story I wrote about Monique last month.

Nau te rourou, naku te rourou, ka ora te manuhiri – with your food basket and my food basket, the people will thrive.

Smashed peas on toast

Got smashed recently? Nah, me neither. It’s not so good for us in these already anxious times (and it is Dry July, after all). Personally, I got really tired of all the ‘wine mum’ memes on social media during lockdown. There’s nothing like being encouraged to join a tribe to make me want to run screaming in the other direction. I also interviewed a couple of experts who had some sobering things to say about using alcohol as a lockdown coping mechanism. It’s more common sense than rocket science, but both seem to be in short supply.

A much cheaper, healthier and family-friendly way to get smashed is to try these peas on toast. You can be fancy, and serve them on little crackers or crostini when you have a few people over for dinner, or you can turn them into dinner if you eat them with a poached or fried egg on top. As it is, this amount serves two generously – and makes a good working from home lunch. Cheers! 

Smashed peas on toast

I prefer baby peas (sweeter and cuter) to ordinary ones for this dish, because the big ones can be a bit mealy. But use whatever you have. 

  • 4 tsp butter or olive oil
  • 1 large clove garlic, peeled and sliced
  • Finely chopped red chilli, to taste (optional)
  • A handful of fresh parsley and mint, finely chopped
  • 2 cups frozen peas
  • 2 Tbsp water
  • A handful of fresh parsley and mint, finely chopped
  • 4 slices bread – preferably baguette, pita, or wholegrain toast

Melt half the butter or olive oil in a small pot set over medium heat. Add the garlic, followed by the peas and the water. Crush the peas with a potato masher or a fork as they cook, until you have a rough puree (this will take about three minutes). Stir in the chopped herbs. While the peas are cooking, toast the bread and spread with the remaining butter or olive oil. Arrange the toast on a plate and pile the crushed peas on top, allowing for a bit of artistic scattering. Season well with salt and pepper and serve.

Cosy + Malaysian braised pork belly

It’s a terrible thing to be hungry. Not hungry as in, ‘I’m bored and I need a snack’, but hungry because there is just nothing to eat. In this land of plenty, thousands of New Zealanders are hungry all the time. During the Covid-19 lockdown, food banks and charities were reporting four-fold increases in demand. Auckland’s Spark Arena, New Zealand’s largest indoor stadium, was even transformed into a giant food parcel distribution centre to help. This was heralded as a great example of Kiwi ingenuity and people pulling together in a crisis, but all I could think of was, ‘how have we let things get THIS bad?’

My colleagues at Food Writers New Zealand (the professional body for Aotearoa’s food media community) felt similarly shocked. So we did something small, but hopefully meaningful, to help. Our winter e-book, Cosy, is now available for download here for $10. All proceeds go to Meat the Need, a charity set up by farmers to support City Missions and food banks.

When I posted about the book on Facebook people were curious to know what they were getting for their investment – hopefully the photos above whet your appetite. Recipe contributors include household names like Nadia Lim, Annabel Langbein, Lauraine Jacobs, Ginny Grant and Kathy Paterson, along with some less-known but no less talented others (hopefully I fall into that category). Here’s my recipe from the book (mercifully photographed by the amazing Kathy Paterson, who dreamed up the whole concept and slaved away on every single detail). You can have this recipe for nothing, but it would be really kind of you to buy the book. It works out to 25c a recipe, plus you get some bonus essays too. What’s not to like?

Malaysian pork belly with soy, cinnamon and star anise

This recipe came to me via dedicated Wellington foodie Shirleen Oh. She described this dish to me once with such passion that I felt as hungry for it as she was. I shamelessly bribed her with lunch and she later texted me the recipe. A week later, when I was heating up the leftovers in the microwave at work, a colleague ran into the room, demanding to know who had the great-smelling lunch. When I said it was me, she rushed to the microwave to peer in. “But that smells exactly like what my mum used to make in Malaysia,” she cried. “How do you know how to make it?”

Serves 4-6

  • 900g-1kg piece pork belly
  • 10 cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon whole cloves
  •  1 large or 2 small whole star anise
  • ¼ teaspoon whole black or white peppercorns
  • 3 Tablespoons kecap manis
  • 3 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
  • 4 Tablespoons light soy sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon sesame oil
  • 6 eggs
  • 200g deep-fried tofu pieces, optional

Heat oven to 180C. Carefully trim the skin from the pork belly, making sure to leave the fat on the meat. Cut into 4cm pieces.

Half-fill a large ovenproof pot with a lid with water. Bring to a boil and add the pork. Cook for about three minutes – you’ll see some scum float to the surface. Skim off the scum, then drain off the water. Leave the pork in the pot and add the garlic, whole spices and sauces. Cover with cold water – it should be about 2cm above the meat – and cover tightly. Bake in the oven for two hours, stirring after one hour.

While the pork is cooking, boil the eggs. Bring a small pot of water to the boil, add a pinch of salt and then slip in the eggs. Let it come back to a simmer and cook the eggs for eight minutes exactly. Drain immediately, then shake the pot to break the shells while holding it under the cold tap. Carefully peel the eggs and set aside to cool.

After two hours, remove the pork from the oven and add the boiled eggs. Stir gently so the eggs are covered by the sauce. Cover and return to the oven for 20 minutes. Remove the lid and add the tofu, if using. Return to the oven for another 10-15 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened slightly and the tofu is hot. Serve immediately with jasmine rice and a blob of hot sambal, plus a lightly cooked green vegetable like bok choy or broccolini.. Any leftovers can be cooled completely and stored in the fridge for up to three days. Reheat to piping hot before serving.

Be my guest: Ola Pacifica

Wish you could run away to Samoa right now? Me too. Heck, I’d settle for the sun-drenched climes of Hawke’s Bay. Even that seems like an impossible dream at the moment. Sigh. However, I’m making up for it by eating some divine chocolate made from Samoan-grown cacao beans, thanks to Hawke’s Bay entrepreneurs Nia and Phil Belcher. Intrigued? Here’s the full story.

The Belchers have been in the chocolate business since 2010, when Nia started looking for a way to help out cacao farmers in her mum’s village in Samoa. They’ve grown from very humble beginnings to now working with more than 200 farmers in different communities. Their chocolate – Ola Pacifica – is now made in Switzerland and shipped worldwide.

Recently – slap bang in the middle of lockdown – the Belchers launched three new flavours: coffee, orange and almond. Launching a new range in the middle of a global pandemic isn’t one of the topics covered in Small Business 101, but the Belchers reckon chocolate is an important small joy in these difficult times.

“I love producing chocolate that makes people happy,” Nia says. “The taste of Samoan-grown beans is very different from beans grown in other countries.”

The Ola Pacifica story starts near Apia, where Nia grew up making cocoa mass from cacao beans. “We’d make our favourite cacao drink from the cocoa mass, so I also knew we could make chocolate if we ground it further,” she says.

An interest in food and cooking, combined with a desire to revitalise a dormant but sustainable industry in Samoa, inspired her to experiment further. 

“Samoa’s cocoa industry used to thrive under the administration of Germany back in the late 1800s, but the industry basically ended when the Germans left,” Nia says.

“Samoans were still growing it – they love their koko drink  – but we wanted to provide an alternative market for the growers. We started with cacao beans and nibs and gradually grew into different products including chocolate.”

The Belchers knew they were onto a good thing when their first products, sugar-free cacao beans and nibs, flew off the shelves. By mid-2013, they’d grown the range to four products. Inspiration for their next move – making dairy-free chocolate – came after Nia discovered that she was allergic to dairy products in 2014. She threw in the towel on her corporate job as a town planner and committed to the business full-time in 2015.

Growth was good, but it brought hard decisions to make. If they wanted the business to succeed, the Belchers realised it made sense to have Ola Pacifica chocolate made in Switzerland.

“The question of ‘why Switzerland?’ is often asked, and there are many reasons,” Nia says.

For one thing, it’s cheaper to send a container of beans from Samoa to Europe than from Samoa to New Zealand. (I know. This is one to file away under ‘great mysteries of the universe’, like where odd socks go.) Then there’s the issue of scale.

“Our growers needed a bigger market than just New Zealand,” Nia says. 

“We’re a New Zealand-owned global business, supporting Samoan growers, and we can do a better job of that making the chocolate where our target market is. Many of our dairy-free//vegan consumers are in Europe and the USA.

“The ‘made in NZ’ branding may be attractive; but not everything can be grown in New Zealand and still be profitable for artisan makers,” she says. 

“Many of those who make chocolates in New Zealand do so with cacao mass that’s actually from Belgium or other places in Europe; with other ingredients (nuts etc) produced elsewhere and imported. But it can be put together here and called ‘made in New Zealand’ even if the ingredients have been processed in three different countries and sourced from many more.”

Despite all the to-ing and fro-ing, Ola Pacifica chocolate is certified as being carbon neutral – the packaging is recyclable and the Swiss manufacturers offset their carbon emissions with planting projects.

“The Swiss we are working with are not just any Swiss chocolate maker but one with similar values on sustainability,” Nia says. ‘They’re the leading world producer of carbon neutral chocolates; they actively support suppliers and growers and are very advanced in future thinking.”

Of course, no amount of future thinking can protect a small business from the shockwaves of a global pandemic but Nia is bravely optimistic.

“We are very fortunate,” she says. “We have not lost anyone or had anyone we love suffer. We were also so fortunate that the last container of beans arrived in Europe where it was warehoused and stored before the lockdown. Likewise, the first container of finished chocolates had just arrived in NZ, been warehoused and were ready for launch when the lockdown hit here as well. So luckily,  we had chocolates on the ground ready for distribution into our online store and physical shops where possible.”

It’s not every day that you can treat yourself to a taste of Samoa and support a small, sustainability-focused New Zealand business in one delicious bite. This is really very good chocolate. You deserve some, don’t you?

For stockists of Ola Pacifica chocolate, visit www.olapacifica.com, or check them out on Facebook or Instagram.

Are you a New Zealand food or drink producer with a story to tell? Let me know…

Feijoa skin syrup (and 9 other ways with feijoas)

I’m just about asleep when I hear it the first time. It’s a dull, definite thud, just outside the back door. There’s no wind and no traffic noise, just the moreporks saying good night to each other. Then it happens again. Thud. Thud. Thud. I freeze in alarm. “Did you hear that?” I hiss. “Mmmm, he says sleepily. “It’ll be a cat or something. Don’t worry about it.” I’m not convinced, but I’m not getting up to look either. I put my head under the duvet and go to sleep.

The next morning I’m standing in the kitchen drinking a cup of tea and it happens again. Thud. Thud. I look out the window. There’s no cat. Then I see them, half a dozen green fruit that have landed heavily on the deck. The feijoas have arrived.

About six years ago we planted five feijoa trees along a north-facing fenceline in our garden. One of them snapped in two during a gale, but the others have soldiered on. In December, they’re covered in beautiful red flowers, like early Christmas decorations. I’ve neglected ours terribly in the last year (it’s hard to care for your garden from the other side of the world) but this autumn we’ve had the biggest crop ever. The first fruits started dropping in at the beginning of April and we’re still collecting dozens every day. A fruit bowl isn’t big enough – we’re currently using a 5kg apple box that never seems to empty, no matter how many I eat. I’ve long since lost the piece of paper on which I wrote down what varieties of trees we planted (possibly a Mammoth, a Eureka, a Bambino and an Apollo?) but some fruit are giant, others are doll-sized.

Since this year’s harvest has coincided with quarantine, I’ve become obsessed with trying to find ways to use them up. Discovering Kristina Jensen’s incredible Chunky Monkey Feijoa Chutney was a revelation. This is an extremely low-stress, low-energy pickle. There’s no peeling, making it a genius way to use up all the little feijoas that are a pain to peel.

This Feijoa, Ginger and Coconut Crumble Shortcake recipe I created for Be Well magazine in the NZ Herald – and ironically had to buy feijoas to make it (when they were $16.99 a kilo back in mid-March!) – has been hugely popular, with lots of people sending me photos of their version.

My latest experiment has been making Feijoa Skin Syrup. Syrups are a big thing in France, with shelves and shelves of all manner of fruity versions in supermarkets. Some are organic, artisanal ones with hand-drawn labels and pretty glass bottles, others come in 2-litre tins and taste suspiciously of factory-generated ‘fruit flavours’. I don’t like fruit juices or fizzy drinks, but last year I became quite partial to a slosh of sirop au citron in a glass of soda water. This one is even better, not least because it’s zero-waste.

Feijoa Skin Syrup

This is as simple as it gets. If you’ve got access to oranges or lemons, add a squeeze of juice and some finely pared rind instead of the lemon verbena. Feijoa skins can be frozen for this recipe. Makes about 500ml.

  • 3 cups feijoa skins
  • 2-3 cups water
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • A handful of lemon verbena leaves

Put everything in a small pot set over medium heat. Stir to dissolve the sugar, then leave to simmer very gently for about 25 minutes (or until the whole house is perfumed). Remove from the heat and leave to cool, then pour through a sieve into sterilised glass bottles. To serve, pour a splash of syrup into a glass and top up with ice and soda (or a splash of vodka or gin). Store syrup in the fridge.

Want more ways to use up your feijoas? Try these: