The Chefs Redefining Polynesian Cuisine

Indigenous Pacific produce including, from left: taro in various forms (root, poi, pa‘i‘ai, powder); ’ulu (breadfruit); nama (sea grapes); and sprouted coconuts with lolo niu (their spongy embryo).Credit...Photograph by Patricia Heal. Styled by Suzy Kim. Photographer’s assistants: Karl Leitz, Caleb Andriella. Stylist’s assistant: Taryn Fujita

NEW YORK TIMES – By Ligaya Mishan – Aug. 6, 2018

THE KAWAKAWA LEAVES are dark as jade and riddled with holes, the telltale bites of looper moth caterpillars. In another kitchen they might be thought compromised and tossed aside, but to Monique Fiso, a New Zealand chef of Maori-Samoan heritage, they are taonga, or treasure. According to Maori herbal medicine, the more holes, the better — because caterpillars choose only the finest leaves to feast on.

In Aotearoa — what the Maori, indigenous to New Zealand, call their home — the leaves were traditionally chewed or brewed for tea to ease toothaches and abdominal pain, wilted over flames to make a poultice for cuts and stings and burned to banish mosquitoes. The kawakawa tree’s branches cast blessings on the launch of canoes, the birth of children and the dawn of battle.

Such is the cultural freight of what appears, on Fiso’s plate, as a palate cleanser. At an eight-course pop-up dinner served last year in New Zealand wine country, she arranged a few perforated leaves, glossy and candied, around a sorbet of muted celadon suffused with more leaves, their natural bitterness tamped down to a cooling mint with a pinprick of pepper. It was at once refreshing and radical, part of a sophisticated menu featuring a custard of kaanga wai, corn scraped from cobs left to ferment for weeks in a running stream — a dish often feared by those unfamiliar with its frank funk — and titi, a seabird whose flesh tastes of the krill it eats, preserved in an ancient Maori preparation akin to French confit, the bird stuffed inside a tube of kelp, swaddled in its own rendered fat.

Fiso is one of a number of chefs in the Pacific making an eloquent argument for native ingredients and cooking methods, which only in recent years have started appearing at restaurants in New Zealand, Hawaii, Fiji and Samoa, having long been neglected and outright scorned by both locals of nonindigenous descent and the tourists around whom the islands’ economies revolve. The rise of these chefs comes as part of a larger global movement — whose members include Leonor Espinosa of Leo in Bogotá, Colombia; Ana Ros of Hisa Franko in Kobarid, Slovenia; and Prateek Sadhu of Masque in Mumbai, India — to revive forgotten foodways and champion terroir, the unique biodiversity of a region’s flora and fauna. Its most recognized representative is perhaps René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, who uplifted Nordic cuisine more than a decade ago.

The chef and food educator Mark Noguchi harvesting <em>hō’i’o</em>, a type of edible freshwater fern, on the Big Island, Hawaii.
The chef and food educator Mark Noguchi harvesting hō’i’o, a type of edible freshwater fern, on the Big Island, Hawaii.Credit…Courtesy of Pili Group

But Scandinavia was never colonized. For Fiso, 30, and her peers, the challenge is defining a cuisine that was never considered a cuisine at all by Western conquerors; their diets were deemed of limited interest beyond anthropology and what could be fobbed off on tourists as exotic remnants of some imagined paradise. So these chefs must speak not only for ingredients but for cultures that, in two and a half centuries of domination by the West, have been undermined, exploited, misrepresented and threatened with erasure. To do so, they are reaching back to a pre-contact past — before the advent of meat pies and Marmite, spaghetti and Spam — in search of both origins and identity. The history of their ancestors’ food is also the story of fishing, hunting and gathering; of their management of natural resources; and of the social mores that enabled them to survive as a people. What their elders ate is inextricable from who they were, and who these chefs are today.

MOANA IS THE word for ocean in Maori, Hawaiian and Samoan, but on maps, the waters in this part of the world bear a name from another tongue, bestowed by the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan in 1520: Mar Pacífico, or peaceful sea. Three centuries later, French explorers coined the term Oceania as a catchall for a heterogeneous area that, in its broadest definition, stretches from Asia to the Americas and encompasses more than 10,000 islands, some former colonies turned sovereign nations (New Zealand, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea) and others far-flung dependencies of Western empires (Bora Bora, American Samoa, the Marianas). The islands were eventually subdivided into Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia, which were seen as culturally and racially distinct, although the lines of delineation have never been entirely clear: Anthropologists disagree on boundaries, and Fiji is often considered uncategorizable, a nexus where Melanesia and Polynesia meet.

Of these, Polynesia — a triangle drawn from New Zealand to Hawaii to the remote Chilean territory of Rapa Nui — has most compelled the world’s attention, typically as a projection of repressed Western desire: an ahistorical haven peopled by flower-bedecked voluptuaries from a Paul Gauguin canvas. That fantasy turned to kitsch with the rise of tiki culture, beginning in Depression-era California at restaurants such as Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s, where diners were distracted from their troubles by gardenias afloat in giant bowls of rum and the then-novel Mai Tai, which was Polynesian only in name, an appropriation of maita‘i, Tahitian for good.

But the menu at Trader Vic’s, now a global chain, never had any kinship to what Pacific Islanders actually ate. Instead, it skewed vaguely Chinese (cream-cheese-stuffed crab Rangoon, sweet-and-sour pork) with interpolations of tropical fruit — what the food critic Craig Claiborne of The New York Times dismissed, in 1958, as “pineapple and coconut fare.” For much of the 20th century, not even travelers to the Pacific could easily find local cooking beyond their resort’s carefully choreographed luau.

Then, in 1991, a group of chefs in Hawaii banded together to promote ingredients from local farmers, ranchers and fishermen, rather than rely on imports. Their style of cooking, labeled Hawaii Regional Cuisine, focused less on native customs than on the mix of East and West that characterizes the state today, with dishes like Roy Yamaguchi’s butterfish steeped in sake, mirin and miso and Alan Wong’s Chinese-style onaga (ruby snapper) from island waters, crusted with ginger. These items renewed respect for the natural bounty of the Pacific, which has since found its way onto tables far from the islands: at London’s Mere, where Monica Galetti, a chef of Samoan descent, sprinkles kale (Samoan for curry) powder into savory dishes; and at E.P. & L.P. in Los Angeles, where Louis Tikaram, who is Fijian, Chinese and Indian, makes a ceviche of nama (sea grapes), briny beads that look like emerald roe, bathed in lime, chili and lolo (coconut milk).

Chef Louis Tikaram of E.P. & L.P. in Los Angeles (left) and his ceviche of nama sea pearls with fresh coconut, lime and chili (right).
Chef Louis Tikaram of E.P. & L.P. in Los Angeles (left) and his ceviche of nama sea pearls with fresh coconut, lime and chili (right).Credit…Courtesy of E.P. & L.P.; Daniel Collopy

As a child, Tikaram, now 33, shimmied up trees in the backyard of his house in Lami, Fiji, fetching coconuts that his grandmother would husk on a sharp rod permanently embedded in the ground. The flesh could be eaten green or ripe, the cream used to marinate fish for kokoda (a kind of ceviche) or sealed inside palusami (baked taro-leaf pouches), and the milk drunk straight from the shell. Robert Oliver, a chef in his 50s who was born in New Zealand and raised in Fiji, prizes what the Fijians call vara, the Samoans o‘o and the Hawaiians lolo niu: the spongy embryo that forms inside a sprouted coconut, absorbing the oils from the surrounding meat until it balloons, filling the cavity, unctuous as butter cake. Coconut finds its way into almost every Pacific dish — except in New Zealand, where the climate isn’t hot enough to support the trees.

New Zealand is a reminder that islands are isolated ecosystems, with a limited range of resources. Before contact with the West, ancient Polynesians had few seasonings beyond seaweed and salt, and depended on nutrient-dense starches like ‘ulu (breadfruit), sweet potatoes and taro. The 35-year-old chef Chris Kajioka — whose family, of Japanese descent, has lived in Hawaii for four generations — sees these ancient, whole, simple starches as the great culinary unifiers of the Pacific. At Senia in Honolulu, he and his co-chef, Anthony Rush, a 39-year-old Englishman, braise ‘ulu like artichoke, in seasoned white wine, or bake it to draw out notes of maple. Kealoha Domingo, a 47-year-old chef on Oahu, adds that taro was (and, he suggests, should still be) the primary source of sustenance for Hawaiians, steamed, mashed and often fermented — preservation techniques crucial in a humid habitat where food spoils quickly — into poi, a grayish-lilac paste whose subtly sour flavor has eluded many a tourist.

“Poi is only bland to contemporary palates because we live in an age of excess,” says the chef and food educator Mark Noguchi, 43, whose Oahu-based Pili Group focuses on indigenous ingredients. He might take a slab of taro-based pa‘i‘ai, a thicker, stickier antecedent to poi, char it on the grill and slip it into a hamburger bun. But he never forgets the plant’s symbolic heft: In Hawaiian myth, the Sky Father’s first son was believed stillborn and buried, only to rise from the grave as taro to become a brother to the god’s second, human son, the progenitor of mankind. Thus the fates of the two are forever entwined. “I don’t think of it as farm-to-table,” Noguchi says. “I think of it as knowing your roots.”

Venison Wellington with glazed ‘ulu, or breadfruit, by the Hawaiian chef Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush of Senia in Honolulu.
Venison Wellington with glazed ‘ulu, or breadfruit, by the Hawaiian chef Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush of Senia in Honolulu.Credit…Ryan Yamamoto and Anthony Rush

WHILE EACH ISLAND is singular — “If I was blindfolded and given a plate of food, I could tell which it came from,” Oliver says — almost all share a love of smoke rising from an underground oven (hangi in Maori, imu in Hawaiian, lovo in Fijian). Hot stones line the bottom of a pit, which is layered with banana stumps and leaves; meat, fish and vegetables; more leaves and flaxen sacks to seal the heat in; and dirt heaped over it all. Hours pass, and finally the food is dug out and steam rushes up, like the earth’s last breath. To Fiso, smoke is a signature, at once fragrance and flavor, that sets this food apart from ingredients “boiled to death” in a pot.

But how do you keep this cuisine alive when its inheritors no longer live in the old ways — when no one has time to dig a pit or to search for the leaves with the most holes? When Fiso started her dinner series two years ago, she struggled: “How are you supposed to open a Maori restaurant when you can’t even get the ingredients?” Foods that were once part of daily life are now greatly diminished, from more than 150 varieties of taro in Hawaii a century ago to less than half that today. In parts of the Pacific, fish stocks are in serious decline: Off Fiji, the average catch rate for albacore tuna fell from 200 a day in 2009 to 20 in 2014.

Culinary knowledge, passed down for generations as oral history, is likewise at risk. Hawaiian pa‘i‘ai almost vanished after 1911, when the territorial government passed a law requiring regulation of poi shops, ostensibly to prevent the spread of cholera, but effectively eliminating small family businesses that made the staple by hand. In 2011, grass-roots lobbying by native Hawaiians finally helped persuade the state legislature to give pa‘i‘ai makers an exemption from the century-old law.

So much else has been lost in the Pacific since the first encounter with explorers from the outside world. Populations were decimated by Western-borne diseases, to which they had no resistance; entire bloodlines and genealogies were destroyed. Languages were silenced: Only in 1978 was Hawaiian recognized — alongside English — as an official language in its place of origin, followed by Maori in 1987 and Fijian in 1997. Land was taken away, and with it the traditions of sustenance that defined a people.

For these chefs, then, recovering ancient culinary customs isn’t simply a matter of finding “new” flavors to charm world-weary diners. It’s a political act: an effort to restore a way of life brought to the verge of extinction; to wean the islands off dependence on Western goods; to chart a way forward by looking back. When Fiso serves a plate of kumara (sweet potato) gnocchi in a sauce of huhu grubs, which feed on rotten wood and have a taste at once buttery and musty, it’s neither novelty nor dare. This was the food of her people, now brought to the light of the modern day. She is honoring her ancestors, and fighting for them, when she dives for kina (sea urchin) and digs her hangi — first hacking at the ground with a hatchet and then biting into it with a shovel, over and over, each stab and heave a small pact with the earth: This won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.


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