Every month, the Ethnic Exploration sneaks up on us, and we have to think of a new dish or a new culture to explore. There are endless options to choose from, of course, but sometimes you have to think outside of the box. The creative thinking award for this month goes to Amir for his choice to whip up food from the indigenous Maori tribes of New Zealand! You see, Amir has a fascination with New Zealand, and it’s at the top of his list of places in this world to visit. It sounded fun and different, but neither one of us knew where to start. After a bit of poking around, we ended up with a rough framework of recipes to try, and it goes without saying that out of all the Ethnic Explorations we have done, this one definitely shocked us both.
The Maori people arrived in New Zealand from Polynesia centuries ago–some say around 800 AD. With them, they brought a colorful culture of language, arts, music, religion and food. Europeans first touched down on New Zealand soil around the 17th century, and as the story usually goes, all was OK between both groups until land disputes brought on warfare, death and other unfortunate happenings drastically reduced the Maori population. In the late 1890’s, it is reported that the population dipped down to about 42,000 people. It took many, many years for the group’s numbers to increase again, but now estimates place the numbers around 600,000 in New Zealand. The mesh of Maori and European New Zealand cultures is evident across the country through performance arts, religion, sports and language. Even though a very small percentage of the country speaks the Maori language, there are many Maori words used in every day speech.
In terms of kai (the Maori word for food), the Maori people have an intense and spiritual connection to the land and everything that it produces. The original tribes were hunter-gatherers who also grew root vegetables to create meals that were boiled over a fire or heated in underground ‘ovens’. One very basic dish is known as a boil-up. It is a very traditional root vegetable, greens and meat soup cooked in water until the meat and vegetables are very tender. It is usually served with a dumpling or doughboy that float along in the broth and provide a starchy consistency to liquid. We decided to make both of these along with paua fritters. Paua is the Maori word for abalone. If you happened to catch us talking about abalone on Twitter, well, that’s why.
We only had three key ingredients to grab to finish off our boil-up and fritters recipes, and only one of those was foreign to us. We wanted to find a couple of the purple potatoes (taewa tutaekuri) for the boil-up stew and grab the abalone. A drive down to Marukai Forum in Gardena was our only bet. Marukai is a huge Japanese and Pan-Asian market that has just about any and every thing you could ever need–produce, dry goods, frozen foods, seafood, clothes, etc. They also have a Hawaiian and Polynesian list of offerings, so we hoped the elusive purple potato would surface. Unfortunately, it did not. But we did grab the Japanese satsumaimo, which would just have to do. We sampled tons of goods from vendors along the aisles and poked around the different sections of the stores, oohing and ahhing over numerous products. On the way out, we both grabbed a snack from the hot food booth outside. Amir picked up takoyaki–Japanese octopus balls–and I grabbed a cute little fish shaped taiyaki, which was a waffle-like cake with a vanilla custard inside. They were the perfect snack to hold us over until dinner.
You can ask Amir just how many times I expressed my very clear skepticism that the boil-up would be as good as it had been promised to be. The recipe and all of its versions are very simple. You boil meat in water until it’s close to tender, add potatoes and cook longer until they are tender, then finish off the stew with greens and the cooked dumplings. Nothing about this sounded very flavorful to me, but we went to work anyways. The stew is as easy as it sounds, and it does not take very much time to get the ingredients ready. It is a stew that is meant to be cooked low and slow over a flame, so the meat has time to break down properly. The result should be a very tender bite with vegetables. This is also a very versatile stew that can make use of almost anything you have on hand. The recipe we referenced mentioned pig’s feet, lamb chops, sheep’s head and ox tails in the list of meat substitutes. You can even just use meatless bones. Traditional recipes may make use of puha or sow thistle, which we would regard as a weed. You can also use turnip greens, cabbage, spinach or bok choy. Pumpkin and varieties of potatoes tend to be the starchy vegetable in the stew. The dumplings, or doughboys, also add starch, along with another level of bite to each spoonful. Most doughboy recipes are very basic, but we switched our’s up by making it a sweet potato dumpling.
As the stew simmered, we prepped the abalone fritters. Our abalone came in sealed packs of two, and they had to be carefully removed from the shells the cleaned before going into the batter. Once in the hot oil, the fritters spread and grow golden brown. Amir cooked up more than could possibly be shared by only two people and set them aside to cool while I doubtfully dished out ladles of boil-up into bowls for us to taste. I wish you all could’ve seen our faces as we brought spoons to our mouths full of boiled pork, satsumaimo, watercress, dumplings and what had turned into a cloudy broth. We were both shocked at how what began as just water turned into a very flavorful broth. The essence of pork, the sweetness of the satsumaimo, the spicy bite of watercress, and the starchy quality of the dumplings had leached into the water to create a very substantial and admittedly delicious broth. We were pleased. So pleased that I ladled seconds into our bowls. If I remember correctly, Amir may have even had a third.
The abalone fritters were interesting in their own right. The recipe below is a very basic flour and milk batter, nothing fancy about it. The result was crispy and reeked of fried goodness on the outside with a soft texture on the inside. The texture of the abalone themselves was a little chewier than expected. One person described their texture similar to that of scallops, but this was closer to the pull of calamari. It was our first time tasting abalone, let alone cooking it, so we were not sure what to expect. Abalone are treasured little guys that people dangerously attempt to scavenge for themselves on rocky shores of water. Much of the harvesting and then the sale of abalone is tricky, and in some cases, there are rules and regulations to follow if you don’t want to get in trouble with the law. Our little guys were farmed, which is an easy way to go if you want to attempt your own abalone cooking experiments.
When it was all over, the day of Maori food was full of pleasant surprises. From Marukai Forum to the silky, satisfying boil-up to the crispy, fried abalone, we were hit one-by-one with different discoveries. That is what makes our Ethnic Explorations the most fun. We hope you’ll be inspired to travel through life by testing new dishes. You never know what you’ll find.
Maori Boil-Up with Doughboys (Maori Meat and Vegetable Stew) – Serves 8 (Adapted from Maori-in-oz.com)
4 pounds pork ribs
2 large satsumaimo (Japanese sweet potatoes), peeled and cut into 1″ pieces
1 large bunch watercress, trimmed
Doughboys, optional (recipe below)
Doughboys (Adapted from About.com)
1/2 large butternut squash, cut into 1″ pieces
3 egg yolks
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for the squash
Black pepper, to taste
1. Start with the dumplings. Toss the squash in a bowl with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Spread over a baking sheet and roast in an oven preheated to 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes or until soft. Remove from the oven, cool completely, then place into the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until smooth.
2. Add the salt and black pepper, if desired, to the mashed squash, followed by the egg yolks. Beat well. Carefully incorporate the flour until a thick dough develops and begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl. Form the doughboys using large, rounded tablespoon measurements and set the balls onto a plate. Cover and chill until ready to cook.
3. Place the ribs in a pot in a single layer and submerge in water (at least 4-5″ above the meat) in a large, deep pot over high heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and cook the meat for approximately 75-90 minutes or until it begins to soften.*
4. Uncover the pot and add the potatoes. Leave the pot uncovered and simmer another 20-25 minutes or until the potatoes have also begun to soften.
5. Finally, plop the chilled doughboys into the liquid, then spread the watercress on top of the meat and vegetables. Cover the pot now and cook for another 15-20 minutes or until the doughboys easily float on top. Once that happens, the stew is done.
*Some recipes for boil-ups suggest the addition of extra water. If you find that the level of water has reduced due to evaporation, add more to make sure everything is sufficiently covered. We did not have an issue with our water level. There was plenty of broth in the pot.
Paua Fritters (Abalone Fritters) – Serves 6 to 8
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg, slightly whisked
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2/3 – 1 cup milk
1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley
4 medium abalone, shelled, cleaned and finely minced
1. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt, then stir in the egg and onion.
2. Loosen up the batter by adding first 3/4 cup of milk, followed by the parsley and abalone. Depending on how thick the batter is, add more milk 1 tablespoon at a time until a pourable consistency is reached. Set aside.
3. Pour vegetable oil into a deep frying pan about 2″ up the side of the pan over medium high heat. Once the oil is hot, scoop the batter into the oil using a 1/4 cup measure leaving room between them as they will spread slightly. Do not put more than three or four fritters in the pan at once. Cook each fritter for about 1 – 1 1/2 minutes per side, or until they have completely browned on both sides.
4. Remove the fritters as they are done and place them on a paper-towel lined plate. Keep fritters warm in a very low oven until they are all done.
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