Modern twist on Maori food

Chef Haylee (aka Hayz) Simeon. PHOTO: LUISA GIRAO
Chef Haylee (aka Hayz) Simeon. PHOTO: LUISA GIRAO
Two Southland chefs are on a mission to showcase the region’s produce and educate diners about Matariki at a special dinner at Te Rau Aroha Marae in Bluff on Friday. Rebecca Fox talks to Haylee Simeon and Ethan Flack.

As the smoke rises from the hangi, it heads towards the stars of Matariki — a gift from those below.

Inside the hangi is the titi (muttonbird) being cooked the traditional way by chef Haylee (aka Hayz) Simeon (Ngai Tahu), but with a modern twist.

"The titi is quite a big thing to us locals. For generations my whanau have gone down to harvest them. My parents, kids, cousins have harvested them every year, so it is dear to me. They harvest it, I cook it."

So it is important to her that the bird is on the menu for a special five-course dinner being hosted by Eat New Zealand and Te Runaka o Awarua to celebrate the new public holiday and highlight the important link between food and the korero of Matariki.

"It is super exciting to showcase this. It is our way of giving thanks to the stars — Tipuanuku, earth, Tipuarangi, sky, Waiti, fresh water, Waita ocean".

It also recognises the three principals of Matariki — remembering those who have been lost, gathering friends and family together and looking to the future.

Hakari, or feasting, for this dinner will make use of the bountiful ingredients available on the doorstep of Bluff, she says. There will be locally harvested salmon, paua, oysters and crayfish.

"Here in Bluff we like to use local produce, it’s delicious. We like to forage at lot and make use of local resources."

Simeon, who grew up in Bluff showcases Maori kai with a modern twist at her restaurant in Bluff, using ingredients from her doorstep.

"We’re pretty spoiled with all the resources we have."

So, for this dinner, she is sharing her knowledge of Maori kai with fellow Southland chef Ethan Flack to create a five-course menu. Flack is also passionate about Southland produce and what the growers are doing in the region.

"We’ve got a whole lot of local kai for people to try," Simeon says.

Together they have designed a menu to represent the four stars with a special fifth course to finish it off. The first course will represent the earth with a Rewena bread, a traditional bread using a potato starter combined with foraged ingredients such as horipito and pikopiko made into pesto and oils served alongside Flack’s flaxseed crackers. The dinner will finish with a dessert featuring the nine stars of Matariki.

"There will be Bluff oysters served three ways, ’cause one is never enough."

The two chefs are also super excited to be able to cook with the new cocktail paua being farmed in Bluff. These are not yet available to anyone except Amisfield chef Vaughan Mabee.

"We had a tour around the factory. It’s super amazing to be able to showcase these little beauties."

A big part of Simeon’s philosophy is putting a modern twist on traditional Maori food so everyone can experience it dishes such as creamed paua wontons and muttonbird bruchetta are on the menu at her restaurant.

Southland chef Ethan Flack. PHOTO: LUISA GIRAO
Southland chef Ethan Flack. PHOTO: LUISA GIRAO

"These ingredients are what I use every single day and it’s so exciting to bring the manaakitanga behind it, sharing it with other people so they enjoy it in the same way."

For the dinner, titi is a prime example, as they will be using fresh titi, rather than the more well-known salt-preserved variety.

"When we eat titi it means a lot to us, you should enjoy it. We hate to see it wasted, so we do it in different ways."

When the birds are preserved in a salt brine, it creates a taste profile similar to duck and anchovy combined, but fresh titi tastes more like duck without the fishy flavour, Simeon, who has been cooking for 20 years, says.

To prepare fresh titi, which are frozen after being harvested and plucked, they are defrosted, gutted and then stuffed and roasted, rendering the fat down. While a brined titi will be boiled and served with complimentary flavours to balance its fishy flavours.

"We use the hearts to make muttonbird pate, but we do not use the liver, culturally for us the liver is toxic."

Learning about manaakitanga around Matariki has been an honour for Flack, who is also a born and bred Southlander.

"It’s very exciting and I feel quite a privileged to part of it. It’s about paying homage to the culture, the time of year and the kai around us."

Flack returned to Southland with wife Josie recently from 10 years in the United Kingdom, where he worked in Michelin-starred restaurants, to settle down and start the next chapter in their lives among friends and family.

Part of that is his quest to show Southland has the best produce in the country, produced by some of the best growers and farmers and to showcase that and share their stories.

So being part of the Matariki dinner fits perfectly with his philosophy, he says.

While most New Zealanders are well aware of Southland’s jewels, such as Milford Sound, Stewart Island and the lakes, few are aware of the lands between that and the sea.

"Southlanders are not big talkers, they don’t like to skite about what they do."

So Flack has made it his mission to tell their stories for them. He likes nothing better than a trip to the farm, orchard or factory to see what those who are "getting their hands dirty" are doing.

"It’s about building a relationship with them and I’m very lucky to get to do that."

While he hopes one day to have his own restaurant, at the moment he is hosting dinners in people’s homes where he is able to showcase seasonal local produce in his dishes and talk directly to people about those producers and tell their stories.

"It’s all about connecting the dots really."

The Matariki dinner will allow him to tell those stories to a wider audience as well as pay homage to traditional Maori food practices.

Also part of the dinner team is Dan Tarrant, a Ruapuke Island beekeeper and farmer whose day job is working at Sanfords in Bluff. As an Eat NZ kaitiaki (guardian or conservator) along with Flack, Tarrant likes to promote and educate people about local kai.

"This meal aligns with what southern Maori have eaten down here for generations with more of a culinary nod to this day and age."

He is a strong believer in utilising and maximising the flavour out of all of the food available and not just picking the best parts and throwing the rest out.

"We make sure we are as sustainable as possible. It is not about devastating a resource, but utilising what we do catch so my daughters and grandchildren will be able to pass on that knowledge and traditions."

He believes education about local kai is key, especially as the country struggles with increasing food costs and supply chain issues.

TO SEE

Feast Matariki, Te Rau Aroha Marae, Bluff, Jun 24, 6pm.

Hayz Simeon’s Creamed Paua Wontons

Makes 50

1 Tbsp butter

3 whole paua, minced

1 brown onion, diced

500 ml cream

2 Tbsp cornflour mixed with 2 Tbsp water

50 wonton wrappers

Method

Add butter to hot pan, then add diced onion and minced Paua to pan, fry for a few minutes until the onions become translucent and the paua is half cooked.

Add in 500ml cream, simmer for 5 mins and let the paua cook through. Add the cornflour and water mix into the cream paua mixture. Let the mixture thicken and turn off the heat.

Let the mixture cool completely.

Place a teaspoon of cooled cream paua mixture onto the middle of the wonton wrappers, wet the sides of the wrappers, fold wrapper over like a triangle and press any excess air out, then fold the 2 side corners together.

Deep fry the wontons in hot oil (170degC) until they puff up, are golden on both sides and float. Drain. Enjoy.