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

Mexico’s Own Hot and Spicy Chef

By Mary Luz Mejia

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This year marked the 15th anniversary of one of Toronto’s most beloved food-obsessed festivals known as “The Hot & Spicy Festival.” Held every summer on the shore of Lake Ontario at the city’s picturesque Harbourfront Centre, the festivities culminate with an international Iron Chef Competition. This summer, chef Ross Warhol competed from the United States (he works at the Athenaeum Hotel in Chataqua, NY), Mavis Brade represented Antigua and Barbuda (chef at Sugar Ridge) and from Mexico, Jonatan Gomez Luna Torres (Executive Chef at Le Chique in the Mayan Riviera) also cooked for the crowd.

Foie-TreeEDI haven’t had the opportunity to enjoy dishes prepared by the former two chefs, but the latter, Jonatan Torres, well, his food I know. A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to find myself at the Karisma Resorts in the Mayan Riviera. I know, hard gig, right? While my days were jam-packed, it’s hard not to enjoy working when you’re surrounded by talcum white beaches that stretch for kilometers and hug turquoise, Caribbean water. It’s not too shabby either when the resort’s beach butlers come round with all-fruit “paletas” (ice pops) or fruit kebobs and cold, moistened towels. But I digress.

At the Azul Sensatori resort, Chef Jonatan helms the kitchens of a very special restaurant called “Le Chique.” Special because there’s nothing else like it in the Mayan Riviera- some would argue, Mexico. Jonatan’s thoroughly modern take on Mexican classics, which combines a healthy dose of molecular gastronomy and whimsy, is nothing short of spectacular. I’ll always remember the “tree” of candy floss wrapped around branches that I was told to pluck off and eat. Inside each cotton-bud looking parcel, was a little orb of hot foie gras. Magic in a morsel. It was sublime. He learned from Ferran Adria after all, so it’s not surprising to find traces of El Bulli at Le Chique.

At the Hot & Spicy Iron Chef competition, the black box ingredient was garlic, and Chef Jonatan, along with sous Julio Mara Mackey prepared a hen in black mole sauce with a creamy camote puree infused with a vanilla and cinnamon emulsion. Way to represent Mexico Jonatan- this year’s proud winner of Toronto’s Hot & Spicy International Iron Chef Competition. Should you ever find yourself on the playa wondering where to go haute in the heat – Le Chique’s got the culinary cadre you crave.

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