$1m project to tap native plant potential

Last updated 00:00 01/01/2009
FINDING FLAVOUR: Meto Leach aims to advance the movement that has resulted in native foods such a spicy tasting kawakawa, pictured, appearing on the menus of upmarket restaurants.

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Flavours used in traditional Maori cooking – and possibly some brand-new flavours – could soon enter trendy cuisine and earn export dollars.

That is the aim of a million-dollar research programme initiated by Crop & Food Research, with help from top chefs in Hawke's Bay.

The head of Maori research at Crop & Food in Palmerston North, Meto Leach, is leading the programme to explore the flavours of native New Zealand plants.

He aims to advance the movement that has resulted in native foods such as horopito and kawakawa appearing on the menus of upmarket restaurants.

"They are both spicy flavours; horopito is called the pepper tree," he said. "They both grow as shrubs. We are looking at flavours known in traditional Maori cooking, and we might also come up with some new flavours."

Tasting was a subjective business, especially in the case of novel flavours, but he expected panels from target markets would be brought in as testers.

When the researchers had identified flavours with commercial potential they would look at the next step, growing the plants in market gardens instead of collecting them from the wild.

Ethnic cuisine was a growing international trend and there was a demand for prepackaged convenience foods and homemade meals that were healthy with exotic flavours, Dr Leach said.

An example already in production was a combination of kawakawa, horopito, chilli and lime used to flavour mussels.

The Eastern Institute of Technology in Hawke's Bay is also playing a part in the programme. The programme coordinator for the institute's diploma of professional culinary arts, Mark Caves, is liaising with some of Hawke's Bay's top chefs, who are trying to incorporate the new flavours into dishes with an authentic New Zealand appeal.

"We have chefs from the Mission, Craggy Range and the new Cape Kidnappers Lodge, for example," he said. "Students here at the EIT will also experiment with the flavours, and could develop dishes for our Scholars restaurant. Meto has promised to send us some flavours to play with before Christmas."

The four-year flavours programme has been funded from the Foundation for Research Science and Technology's inaugural Te Tipu o te Wananga portfolio, which promotes research exploring New Zealand's indigenous knowledge base.

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The Federation of Maori Authorities is a partner in the programme.

- The Dominion Post

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