Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2021
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A new zeal Down Under

A Maori chef is injecting Kiwi cuisine with a rich sense of culture

Charles Royal was standing the heart of an 800-year-old forest just outside Rotorua on New Zealand's North Island. The wiry and intense Royal scanned his surroundings alertly. All around him were various shades of green, dappled by tiny, shifting spots of sunlight. His eyes darted left, right, up, down, picking out shapes and species. Finally, he made his choice, leaned over and delicately cut off a pale green, furled fern tip.

“Piko piko,” he explained gently to the group knotted around him, watching closely. “It is being researched now; it's thought to be very high in iron. You cut the leaves from underneath, but always leave the top third of the plant.” Piko piko is not only fun to say, it's tasty, bursting with vitamin E and, most poignantly, the native fern is a powerful Maori symbol of rebirth and new beginnings.

He cut a few more and passed around the crisp shoots. With its curved green stalk, the piko piko looks and even tastes a bit like fiddleheads. The group nibbled tentatively; it was delicious.

Bite by bite, Charles Royal is changing New Zealand. Royal is Maori, a descendent of the first Polynesian settlers in New Zealand. He is also a trained chef who has done everything from cooking in the Kiwi army to owning his own Cajun restaurant. It was while combining the traditional solid Cajun meals with the contemporary elements of Creole cuisine that he suddenly realized “we [the Maori] could do something like that.”

Until then, the only Maori food most non-Maori were familiar with was hangi, meat roasted in an oven dug in the earth — tasty and hearty, but hardly a sophisticated dish.

Meanwhile, within the community, every Maori tribe had its own delicacies and refinement. But with microwaves and frozen dinners, that knowledge was waning. Royal realized “if a culture loses its cooking techniques, it’s hard to bring them back.” He set out to learn as much as he could about traditional edible plants. “It was my uncle, Hoppy Callaghan, who first took me out into the forest. He used to harvest for the family. He showed me a lot: where to find the plants, what they are good for. I also took clippings to old people around town and they’d tell me what they know about healing properties. For us food is also medicine. They’d talk to me because they know I’m socially responsible.”

That trust is because Royal isn’t only redefining Maori food, he is trying to create pride and work in rural Maori communities. He set up a non-profit organization to help poor communities learn how to make the most out of their botanical heritage. “My goal is sustainable wild harvesting that creates work in undeveloped areas.” He runs training sessions, and buys what they harvest.

This enthusiastic promoter is acting as a bridge between the traditional knowledge of the Maori and the bright lights of Auckland. He is learning from the elders and confirming what they are telling him by working with biomedical researchers. He is taking centuries-old family recipes and recreating them for top New Zealand restaurants.

According to fan Chris Bell, executive chef from renowned Restaurant Nikau in Rotorua, Royal’s herbs and spices are adding the dash of “emotion and history” that was missing from Kiwi cuisine.

That broad understanding and support took Royal by surprise. “It’s been a lot bigger than I thought here in New Zealand, and there is huge demand worldwide for our products. We are only just keeping up.” In 2003, he became the first Maori to win the Restaurant Association of New Zealand’s Innovator of the Year award.

Royal is taking all the success in stride. “Sometimes, when I am out collecting, I’ll take a rest and think, here I am just lying in the middle of the bush. Meanwhile, outside in the big bad world, people are in offices answering phones.” The thought makes him smile.

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