I could not wait. I know it is at the least too enthusiastic, but I couldn’t wait. The book is not even published yet. You cannot buy it, open it, pore over it, read it, and appreciate it. But I could not wait to tell you about it. On September 1st Monique Fiso’s book Hiakai will be published and it is an important book, for Māori, for New Zealand, and for the culinary world. Yes, there have been other Māori cookbooks. But not like Haikai. Yes, New Zealand is full of great chefs. But not like Monique Fiso. Yes, excellent gastronomic experiences can be had. But not like those at Monique Fiso’s Hiakai restaurant in Wellington.

In 2016 I was doing some work on Māori food tourism and wondered why there were no Māori restaurants. I did a bit of research and found that Māori food was almost universally inaccessible apart from within the Marae.  Between 2010-2015, there were no specifically Māori restaurants where only Māori cuisine could be accessed, apart from a few catering or takeaway outlets.There were relatively few Māori cafes, and no food trucks offering only Māori foods. The occasional Māori dish could be found at, for instance, festivals such as the annual Auckland Polynesian festival or on the menu of a limited number of high end restaurants. Ingredients typically foraged for use in Māori dishes were even less likely to be found for general sale.  Māori food was predominantly located within the confines of the Marae and, if you weren’t Māori, could only be accessed as part of an immersive cultural experience, through participation in Māori food-trails, and in contact with suppliers of ‘traditional’ ingredients. Indeed, the average, non-Māori New Zealander, domestic tourist or citizen, found it difficult to access the cuisine of New Zealand’s First Nation peoples.

There are lots of reasons for this, including the negative legacy of colonialism; a re-defining of identity which saw Māori move away from the stereotypic view of their contribution as ‘native’ and marginal; an increasing self-determination which meant Māori presented, in certain circumstances, as a people creating a modern identity through for instance, cookery books, their own Māori language TV station, TV programmes, ranges of specifically Māori food and drink – just not high end cuisine outlets. When I asked ‘could Māori food be offered as a gastronomic experience to a niche tourist market?’, Ceillhe Sperath, co-owner with her husband Neill of TIME Unlimited, said,

 ‘Yes, absolutely. What I would like to see is more options in mainstream or speciality restaurants that cater for people – local and visitors – to experience Māori  cuisine or an infused version of it so that it is more readily available and becomes part of NZ’s unique cuisine on offer’.

Still, in 2014 the level of bottom-up, cross-industry commitment, with multiple sets of producer & consumer relationships which would be necessary to ensure continued product provision, was only in its infancy.

And then Monique Tumema Fiso decided to return to New Zealand. Trained in New Zealand, Monique, who has both Samoan and Māori ancestry, worked in New York with some of the best chefs, in some of the best Michelin starred restaurants.

In an interview in Dish in 2017, we read that New Yorkers had often asked Monique about Kiwi cuisine and a visiting American friend, with whom she’d done a South Island road trip, was similarly curious. “She kept saying, I want to try uniquely New Zealand food, why can’t I try a hāngi? I had to tell her there are no hāngi restaurants in New Zealand.”

This coincided with Monique’s own cultural reawakening: “I’d spent most of my life ashamed of being Māori but when I started to think about the food I wanted to specialize in, I realised I actually liked Māori food. No one was doing it in the way I wanted to, plus I wanted to show that I could elevate simple ingredients and traditional cooking methods to a fine-dining level.”

And so she returned in 2016 and after operating Hiakia as a pop-up, in 2018 opened her restaurant, Hiakai (Māori for hungry). She is now held to be largely responsible for the revival of Polynesian and Māori cuisine partly through the menus at her restaurant where her degustation menu is based around Maori myths and legends. At the moment it is a matter of sadness for Monique that she runs the only restaurant in New Zealand specializing in Māori cuisine and foodways. Her hope is that this will change in the future.

As Mindfood (July 2020) notes in their recent interview with Monique:

‘Fiso’s mission is to modernise and popularise Māori cuisine and, (she says) it has taken years of research, experimentation and no small amount of foraging in our native bush with advice from local luminaries such as chef Joe McLeod – and expert on traditional Maori cooking – and indigenous food supplier John Millwood.’

Fiso, explains NZ Media, talked to scholars, studied Māori history books, and scanned historical accounts of people travelling with Māori for any mention of the food they ate. Then she went foraging to find the ingredients and started to play around with them so she understood how the ingredients had been and could be used.

She is leading the establishment of a ‘truly New Zealand-centric supply chain’.  One major challenge in setting up her permanent restaurant which caters to 30 diners was developing supply chains for the rare ingredients. However, after two years of pop-ups that created not only unique dining experiences but also sparked other chefs’ interest in the ingredients, she’s managed to generate enough demand so that growers and producers can deliver. 

But also at the forefront of the dining experience at Hiakai is Manaakitanga – the concept of Māori hospitality. Fiso says ‘I want people to understand why things are done in a certain way.’ Hiakai’s menu delves into the past – of Māori myth and legend, technique and ingredients – brings them into the present and maps out a path for indigenous New Zealand cuisine into the future’.(Mindfood, July 2020)

“We use a lot of Māori ingredients that a lot of people have never heard of before which led us to creating a glossary at the back of our menu going into detail about the native ingredients that guests are eating,” Monique explains in the NZ Media interview.

As the dishes are taken out to the diners Monique and her staff explain their background and the importance of them to New Zealand. “At the Chef’s Counter when we plate each dish we’ll also pull out the native ingredient that relates to it in order to put it in context,” she says.

Often somebody will recognise a plant and be amazed that these are edible and taste delicious. 
 “I want people to leave thinking, ‘I didn’t realise there was this much to New Zealand food’ and that they’ll walk away from here thinking New Zealand is just as exciting as other countries when it comes to food,” says Monique.

Since opening in 2018, Monique and her restaurant, Hiakai, have become an international success story. Last year, Time magazine named Hiakai one of the greatest places in the world, while Forbes singled it out as one of the 10 hottest places to eat in 2020.

Hiakai Restaurant

40 Wallace St
Mount Cook

And now her book is imminent (Hiakai, published on 1 September, by Penguin, ISBN:9780143772606, RRP:$65, Hardback). Monique says she didn’t want it to be for the at-home-user, although there are some home type recipes. Rather there is a lot of technical elements more suitable to a chef. Her goal, says Monique, ‘was to create a book that provides enough information about how the ingredients in the glossary work for chefs to do their own testing and create something completely new’.