Maori food at Te Papa, Wellington, New Zealand

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“Be careful not to drink too much of the tea,” says our guide, Rangimoana Taylor, as he pours us each a cup of the tisane of native kawakawa leaves, which are said to relieve digestive and respiratory issues when drunk in moderation, but in large quantities can have a laxative effect. One guest, Taylor says as we laugh, took the dare – and had to be rushed back to his hotel.

I’m at Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand, at the end of a tour themed around the Maori, the country’s Polynesian first peoples, who arrived on these islands some 750 years ago. Taylor has led us on a whirlwind tour through the museum, focusing on highlights of Maori history and culture: the traditional waharoa, an intricately carved wooden gateway, prominently displayed in the foyer; the diorama of a (long extinct) giant eagle about to attack a (long extinct) giant moa; and the display of five speces of kiwi, accompanied by one traditional story of how the flightless nocturnal bird earned its place on the land. At 14-metre satellite map spread on the floor – as you step on each square, its bright blues and greens light up and a description of that region appears on the wall – we hear how the not-so-creatively-named North and South Islands, as well as Stewart Island below, were rechristened bilingually in October to include the Maori Te Ika-a-Maui (Maui’s fish), Te Waipounamu (the water of greenstone) and Rakiura (often translated as glowing skies). And at the museum’s marae, or meeting place, we listen as Taylor gives a welcoming speech to our group, first in Maori then in English, honouring specific characteristics of the countries we have come from. And finally, we get to Te Papa Café downstairs and to the kai, or food.

On the menu is a whole host of true locavore foods. There’s manuka honey for the tea, made by bees who feed on the flowers of the tea tree, turning the pollen into the sweet spread that’s said to have antibacterial properties. Slices of rewena bread – it’s leavened with a potato-based starter – are topped with pikopiko (fern frond) pesto. We pass around a bowl of kutai (mussel) and karengo (seaweed) salad, and go for seconds of the fries made from kumara, a Maori sweet potato, dipped in mayonnaise flavoured with horipito, or native bush pepper.

The latter turns out to be a leaf, a few specimens of which Taylor produces for us to chew on. It’s peppery, yes, even numbing, and it’s easy to see how chewing the leaves was once a treatment for toothache. He picked it in Bush City, the outdoor growing exhibition incorporating more than 1,400 native plants that gives visitors a sample of the country’s natural environment, and encourages them to explore further. And the kai we try does the same thing – gives us a taste, but leaves us wanting more.

Visiting New Zealand? Start at Te Papa, then head to one of these six festivals featuring Maori food:

  • Kawhia Kai Festival, Waikato (February)
  • Te Ra o Waitangi, Wellington (February)
  • International Kai Festival, Nelson (February)
  • Maketu Kaimoana Festival, Bay of Plenty (March)
  • Hokitika Wildfoods Festival, West Coast (March)
  • Kai in the Bay Festival, Hawke’s Bay (November)

By Kat Tancock