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Global Ideas

Foraging from Mother Earth

Perplexed that no one was promoting Māori food, a New Zealand chef ventured to acquaint his people with their native flavors. Today, Charles Royal offers food tours and supplies sustainably foraged plants from the bush.

On the edge of New Zealand's Lake Rotoiti, a food tour group is about to enter the bush to forage for native foods. The group’s guide, Charles Royal, says a karakia - or prayer:

"E kore, e kore, e po, e po
Takiri mai te ata
Rahiri nga manu, tino awatea, ka awatea
Tihei Mauriora."

The karakia, which translates to "it’s day, it’s day, it is not night, the birds are out and daylight is a breath of life," is to clear the way for the participants on the tour and to make sure they have a good day.

The track we are taking for the food tour is called Hongi’s Track, named after the fearsome Māori chief Hongi Hika who beat his way through this area – hauling canoes over land for twelve days – before launching a deadly attack on Mokoia Island near Rotorua.

Hailing from New Zealand’s east coast near Waihau Bay, Royal grew up on the water and hunting. "We were sea people," he says, explaining the difference between foraging and hunting. "You’re not out there to kill anything, but instead you’re out there to gather food that is provided by mother earth, Papatūānuku."

Army, air, home

From a family of three boys, Royal – the middle child – often found himself in the kitchen with his mother. Cooking started in those early years and he has strong memories of the house being full of his mother’s baking. His career in food took a professional turn when he was recruited from high school to join the army as a chef. 

Ferns in hands (CC BY-NC-ND/Lottie Hedley )

Ferns anyone?

"I loved getting out there in the bush and the field, cooking for the guys that had been out all day and were really tired, and being able to give them something hearty so they could still get up and move and carry on," Royal says.

After ten years, he left the army for a totally different type of cooking with New Zealand’s national airline, Air New Zealand. It was during his time with the company that Royal and his wife used the benefit of staff travel to see the world. They discovered Cajun and Creole food.

After running his own restaurants back in New Zealand – including a Cajun/Creole one – Royal started asking why no-one was promoting Māori food, known as kai in the native tongue. Eventually he realized it was because chefs couldn't get the ingredients, so he decided to use the skills and knowledge he’d picked up from his childhood and the traditions of Maori to start looking for them.

Sharing knowledge with visitors and locals

Royal often does food tours for international tourists. However, the day I join him he is doing one with local Māori men as part of a health and wellness program.

"One of the reasons I like doing the tours is passing on knowledge," he says. Although the chef admits he is always learning from the tours and the knowledge participants bring through their own memories from the bush. "I know what my mum’s taught me, speaking to old people, reading books, but my ears are always open," Royal says.

Giving back to his community is important to him and he hopes that in sharing his knowledge and experiences, he will encourage locals back to the bush with their children or grandchildren. He would like them to be able to point out the pikopiko fern tips or ear fungus mushrooms and be able say to the children "let's pick a bag and go home and cook that food."

Poultices and energy foods

As we walk through the bush, which is thick with vines and ferns and has a dense canopy, Royal stops to point out edible plants and berries such as pikopiko, kawakawa (a peppery tree leaf), ear fungus, pirita (supplejack vine) and even moss.

Men ankle deep in a lake (CC BY-NC-ND/Lottie Hedley )

There are plants to be found in the water too

Traditional Māori medicine or rongoā is experiencing a resurgence and Royal shares various antidotes with us as we walk past the kawakawa tree. Not only can the leaves be used for tea and essential oils, but they have a long history of medicinal usage.

He explains how, by boiling the leaves for three or four minutes, placing them on the wound sunny side up and wrapping them in a thin plastic film, theyy can be used as a poultice. Many of the tour participants have stories of using the kawakawa leaves as medicine, and Royal also has one. He tells the others how, when chopping wood with an axe, his wife accidentally swung it into her ankle. Within four days of receiving the nasty wound, it was starting to heal.

To the untrained eye, the edible part of the pirita vine is hard to spot, but the plant - sometimes known as bush asparagus - can come in handy when stuck for food. Royal calls the tasty ends of the vine an energy food and says as a Type 1 diabetic that when he’s in the bush, hasn’t had anything to eat and is feeling a little low, it's the pirita vine he looks for.

Despite a summer of dry New Zealand weather, we also come across the beautiful and highly prized pikopiko young fern tips. The country has 200 varieties of fern, but only seven of them are edible. The sculptural green koru or curled fern tip says New Zealand like almost no other food and chefs use it uncooked as a signature garnish calling attention to the origins of the food.

Giving back and taking care

In addition to his tours, Royal runs a successful native foods business called Kinaki supplying sustainably foraged plants from the New Zealand bush to national and international chefs and other food businesses.

Currently the biggest crop he harvests is the kawakawa leaf which is primarily sought after by tea companies. Royal enlists the help of local families and friends in order to fulfil his kawakawa orders. "It feels like you’re giving back something to the community."

During the tour he takes care to share knowledge of where to pick the plant from so it will grow back clean and strong, creating more food for others. The tour ends with everyone emptying their bags of foraged produce. The food is rinsed in the pristine waters of Lake Rotoiti and Royal expertly fires up a gas ring steaming the pikopiko and pirita vine and frying the mushrooms to serve the tour with smoked trout, venison and home made potato bread. It is a feast that we’ve all played some part in creating and gathered from the generous resources of Papatūānuku.

Reproduced and condensed with kind permission of the Goethe Institute as part of theFUTUREPERFECT project.

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