Review: An ode to the New Zealand-style soul food at Hiakai

Harlequin Public House's Jonny Schwass.

Harlequin Public House's Jonny Schwass.

Often a meal can be more than dinner with friends and family. It can be more than a plate of food, some polite conversation about the achievements of the day and your daily dose of sustenance. Once in a while a plate of food, or in the case of my recent experience at Hiakai at The Food Farm, a number of carefully considered and collected plates of food, can be an uplifting and humanising experience.

The table was set and the serenity of early autumn was postcard perfect, as the winds that make Waipara infamous were taking a well-earned day off. The smell of slightly damp old man pine and warm earth hung heavy in the air. Our host, Angela Clifford, welcomed us with tomato water. She explained her tūrangawaewae, her right to stand in this place, and her purpose. I asked myself the first of many questions that day – why do we spend such little time welcoming people to the table?

We were led to the dinner tent, where Monique Fiso, deeply focused yet so very unassuming, was grilling bread over her open fire. The nervous energy and intensity she had was electric. 

Burnt sugar hāngi pudding, kaanga wai (fermented corn) ice cream and preserved Otago cherries.
Monique Fiso

Burnt sugar hāngi pudding, kaanga wai (fermented corn) ice cream and preserved Otago cherries.

Rēwena with tītī fat butter; wood-fired clams; Te Matuku oysters, karamu mignonette and karamu berries; The Food Farm's vegetables, raspberry vinaigrette and edible soil; kūmara gnocchi with the most intense huhu grub sauce; a beautiful hāngi that we all lathered with more tītī butter; burnt sugar hāngi pudding; kaanga wai ice cream; and petit fours, or as they were called at the table, kete fours.

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Monique Fiso, the woman behind Hiakai, is inspiring Kiwis to think about their own food - the food that was here before ...

Monique Fiso, the woman behind Hiakai, is inspiring Kiwis to think about their own food - the food that was here before we were.

It wasn't on the finest china or hand-crafted pottery. The carpet wasn't as thick and luxurious as a lion's mane. We were not escorted to the marble bathroom, where we bathed in goat milk from gold taps. Not once was damask linen draped over our loins as if a matador were challenging a bull to battle. Wine was poured generously and often and not in a measured 75ml tasting. We were in a tent on a farm but the food was terrifyingly delicious. 

In a world of precision, sous-vide, temperature-controlled cooking, it was fascinating to be part of a lunch where a shovel and fire were the only components of the hot kitchen. The food was not in a bag, in warm water, in a clear container; it was buried in warm earth. It was high-risk cooking of the highest level. 

Now, I like to think about food often – often it is all I think about – but it is not often that food makes me think. On one side the food was deeply satisfying and struck a chord with me like no other has; it was my soul food. Yet on the other, so intelligent and thought-provoking that it took a few days to mentally digest.

There are constant conversations that lament the absence of a New Zealand food culture, and we often bemoan the scarcity of women in professional kitchens. Enter Monique Fiso, a dynamic, hāngi-digging, flax-basket-weaving, petite-provisions pugilist. 

To say we have no food culture is to an extent somewhat true, but to say we have no food history and no story to tell is grossly uninformed. I have often mourned the fact we haven't had the history of European peasant culture that allowed for the development of their food culture. 

After experiencing this meal, I now realise we have so much more to be proud of. While eating like this is not an everyday experience, eating like this reminds you of how beautiful, fulfilling and spiritually nourishing a real food experience can be.

The casualisation of dining is at the forefront of our restaurant industry, and one that sits well with an excited dining public who don't wish to be challenged at the table.

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This was something else and the people at the table knew this. With open minds, open hearts and open palates, we were wanting to be challenged and made to question what New Zealand flavour is. On that day, we all agreed we had tasted it.

This was a new perspective on traditional New Zealand food and one we can be so proud of sharing.

 - Cuisine


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