A new café in Christchurch, New Zealand, celebrates Maori culture and flavors, giving age-old recipes a delicious—and healthy—modern twist.
Purple potatoes may seem an unlikely source of inspiration, but that’s where Jade Temepara’s passion for nurturing both the land and those around her began. Twelve years ago, her grandfather Colin Reihana convinced Temepara to dig up her backyard in the Canterbury region of New Zealand’s South Island to grow peruperu, an eggplant-hued native tuber that had sustained their family for five generations. Not one of Reihana’s seven sons had planted gardens of their own; he told Temepara that the responsibility for maintaining the whakapapa (legacy) of their Maori forebears now rested on her shoulders. She argued that she had other plans for her lawn but eventually gave in. “I took the damn potatoes and planted them!” she recalls with a laugh.
That first harvest was a huge success, inspiring Temepara and her husband Wiki to convert almost half of their 900-square-meter property into food gardens. “After that I was changed. I just started putting in as many crops as I could.”
The mother of five then established Hand Over a Hundy, a nonprofit program that teaches households how to grow their own vegetables; participating families are provided with a gardening mentor for one year, along with NZ$100 to buy seeds and other basics. She also began to research nutrient-dense food sources, organic growing, and biological husbandry, then looked at ways to intertwine these skills with Maori traditions, ideals, and culture. The need for a venue in which to share what she was learning soon became clear. “If you just send someone home with a recipe it actually doesn’t do anything,” she says. “It’s hard to affect change if you’re not doing it consistently.”
With the help of government funding, the Temeparas opened their own social-enterprise café and cooking school in central Christchurch earlier this year, naming it Kākano, the Maori word for “seed.” Housed in a simple prefab cabin, the café is almost overshadowed by the lot’s 240 square meters of raised-bed gardens that burst with herbs and vegetables, many of them native to New Zealand.
Since Kākano opened, its chef, Diana Eketone, has been hard at work in the galley-shaped confines of the small food truck parked next door, which serves as the café’s kitchen. “She’s magnificent at being able to translate how I think into our menus,” Temepara says of her friend. The two have been close since they were schoolkids together. Eketone’s succulent muttonbird, served in stews, pies, and sandwiches, is a star attraction of the seasonal menu. The birds come from a remote southern island where Temepara’s family has held customary title to the harvest for more than 300 years, a right given only to those who have a blood connection to the land and descend from a line of chiefs. Temepara describes this connection with pride and feels privileged to be able to share this gift with patrons of the café.
Although Kākano attracts diners from all corners of the city, its menu is largely shaped by Temepara’s goal of appealing to the Maori community. She believes that her own people are in greatest need of relearning the importance of healthy food in their diets, and strives to blend indigenous ingredients with nutritious food, creating dishes that are both contemporary and hard to resist.
The recipe for Kākano’s manuka-smoked eggs, for example, is a close-kept secret, but the plates of eggs, served on rich, dark rye bread, cast a mysterious and mouthwatering trail of smoky aromas in their wake. Another standout is a prettily presented dish of foraged seaweed “sushi rolls” with smoked eel, salmon roe, and (fittingly) mashed purple potatoes.
The café’s community activities range from cooking classes and hangi (a traditional pit-cooked feast) nights to lessons on seed saving. “Kākano is our day-to-day face of who we are and what we do—it’s our extended lounge almost,” Temepara says. “Maori people are known for their hospitality. We want people to feel that, because it breaks down so many walls.”
Kākano Café and Cookery School, 100 Peterborough St., Christchurch, New Zealand; 64/27-476-0204
This article originally appeared in the August/September print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“A Taste of Tradition”).