Kākano, the Christchurch cafe reintroducing Maori people to their own cuisine

In New Zealand, a community cafe serving traditional Maori food – including smoked eel spines and foraged herbs – is building a strong following across all communities

Muttonbird, sea plants and eel spines: these native New Zealand ingredients may no longer be components of many diets, but one woman and her cafe are trying to change that.

Jade Temepara, who is of Maori descent, set up Kākano just over a year ago in Christchurch. “Maori people are the unhealthiest, most unfit and most likely to have heart disease – and it’s because of our lifestyle,” says Jade. “Our cause is to bring our traditional food back, and to involve Maori people in the preparation.”

Part cafe, part social enterprise, Kākano was built with the help of the local homeless community on the site of the city’s old convention centre, which was destroyed by the 2011 earthquake. If you walked past it, you’d be forgiven for not noticing the low-rise Portakabin-style building, hidden behind rows of raised garden beds, which are planted with local herbs and vegetables. But it’s more spacious than it appears from the outside, seating 25 (there are an additional 40 seats out on the deck), and though decoration is minimal, the monochrome colour scheme, black and white photos and select few New Zealand handicrafts on display elevate the space.

Local plants and smoked manuka eggs at Kakano, Christchurch.
Local plants and smoked manuka eggs at Kakano. Photograph: Nicola Trup

The whole setup has a distinctly temporary feel, and that’s not by accident: it’s all designed to be “lift and shift”, and in June will be transported from this provisional site to a permanent location just around the corner.

The menu changes daily according to what’s been grown, foraged or sourced from local suppliers, with tasting platters costing around NZ$20-$35 (£11-£19) for three people. Today, the hummus has been made with horopito (a native herb) and garlic grown by inmates at Christchurch Men’s Prison. Also on the menu are scrambled eggs flavoured with smoked manuka wood, plus foraged sea lettuce and karengo (“the most prized seaweed,” says Jade). The eel spines, smoked by a local iwi (Maori tribe), are pungent and oily, and it can be a challenge to locate the rich and salty meat between the sharp bones.

Over the past year, Kākano has built up a strong following among locals, both Maori and non-, and also attracts tourists who, Jade says, “love our story”. Community classes held here – which teach adults and children how to grow and prepare their own food, from fermenting cabbage to gutting fish – always sell out.

Kākano means seed in Maori and, as Jade puts it: “We try to tell our story from seed to plate.”

Nicola Trup

The GuardianTramp

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