Kasey and Kārena Bird have cooked for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and in some of the best kitchens in the world, but at home on the marae they’re still learning from the aunties.
Nau mai Hine Raumati and the abundance that she brings. It’s a time for feasts and sharing meals with whānau, to reflect on the year gone, and recharge for what lies ahead.
For Māori, hākari is a cultural custom and a fundamental part of who we are. The experience of preparing kai with cousins, aunties and uncles is a communal and nourishing tikanga that sits at the heart of our whānau, hapū and iwi identities.
Karena and Kasey Bird are well accustomed to this. The renowned Te Arawa sister chef-duo have been serving up culinary delicacies with contemporary twists and growing a reputation locally and abroad.
The pair talked to the Nē? podcast panel about their experiences in their own wharekai at home in Maketū, revealing that no matter how famous or successful they might be, the wharekai has its own hierarchy. They laughingly describe themselves as being at “mid-tier”.
“The aunties are always going to be at the top, and then we get our instructions and follow,” says Kasey.
“It’s got nothing to do with clout. It has to do with time in the kitchen, so you can’t get to the top of the ladder if you’re off flitting around the country,” adds Karena.
Humble in their success, the pair say their whānau and aunties keep them grounded. Growing up in Te Ihu o Tamatekapua, more commonly known as Maketū on the east coast of Waiariki, the sisters also have ties to Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Manawa.
When it comes to working in the kāuta, they say everyone knows what their roles are.
“Sometimes I’ll get there and they’ll have a list of jobs to do, and then next time I go down they only want me to butter the toast,” says Karena.
“It definitely keeps your feet on the ground, too. You come home, and everything is put into perspective. You’re still from where you’re from, and you’re still a part of everybody else which I think is really cool,” her sister adds.
Many hapū and iwi will go to great lengths to satisfy manuhiri through the spreads they put on. For coastal iwi, it’s often about sharing local kaimoana delicacies. For inland iwi, traditionally it’s been about foods foraged or hunted for.
One thing you don’t mess with, the sisters say, is kaimoana, particularly tio or pipi.
“You just want it as they are because they’re so perfect as it is,” says Kasey.
That said, sometimes you have to push the boundaries.
“I tried to make this coconut Asian broth and cook the pipi in it and serve it over oven-baked salmon, and it did not go down well,” says Karena.
They draw a striking contrast between the wharekai and high-end commercial kitchens.
“You’ll go into commercial kitchens with top-tier equipment. Up north at my mum’s marae, they’re still cooking on open fires. You don’t know what ingredients you’re using because a lot of it is koha so on a day-to-day basis you don’t know what you’re actually going to be cooking, and you don’t know how many manuhiri are going to show up,” says Karena.
Speaking with a homegrown affection for their whānau and upbringing, the sisters acknowledge these lessons and skills as invaluable utensils in the kete when they travel around the country or abroad, cooking in their pop-up restaurants or their live demonstrations.
“The fluidity and the ability to adapt in marae kitchen is unparalleled,” says Karena.
Being flexible is imperative in the kāuta, when catering to manuhiri depends not only on the size of the ope but also who you are feeding. Hundreds of manuhiri may show up at once. Thousands may be welcomed on to a marae over a number of days, all of them needing to be fed. There are no reservations.
“You might get an ope of ten people, and then you’ve got a bus showing up of say 50, and you have to have kai on the table every time those manuhiri walk through the door. I think we’re talented like that,” says Kasey.
When it comes to tikanga, manaakitanga is arguably the common ingredient that sees Māori from different whānau, hapū and iwi engage to break bread. Manaakitanga covers many aspects of welcoming manuhiri, but possibly none as paramount as the meal.
“You have to uphold your reputation as a chef in your restaurant, but when you go to the marae it’s about the mana of your hapū, and your iwi, and your whānau, so there’s this whole other layer of pressure.”
For those who have spent time in the kāuta, they’ll know it’s a different kind of pressure. The Birds have cooked with top chefs from Korea to the south of France, and believe the aunties on the marae could keep their cool in any kitchen – but they’re not 100% sure it could go the other way.
“Sometimes when we’re at the marae doing things I think, I wish I saw this chef in this situation and see what they would do. You get a whole thing of fish heads and you have to cook it because it’s good kai, you don’t want it to go to waste, and I wonder how they’d do. Like, you’ve 20 minutes and 200 fish heads,” says Kasey.
“And people that won’t listen to you,” adds Karena with a laugh.
The duo have found the transition from the wharekai method, where you gauge portions by eyeing things up and there are “no hard and fast rules”, to measuring exact ingredients for recipe writing a new and challenging learning curve.
When they were in charge of catering during a visit by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to Rotorua, they weren’t nervous about whether or not the former royal family representatives were impressed with their “fancy steam box hāngi”. Their main concern was with the 180-odd kuia and kaumātua.
“Half of them said it was lovely, the other half said, ‘where’s the rest of it?'” recalls Karena.
It’s that type of raw honesty and accountability to the community that keeps manaakitanga evolving and relevant in our communities. It keeps generations striving towards high standards of hospitality.
Putting their own unique flavours forward, the sisters are working on a new cook book, entirely in te reo Māori, which is due to be published next year. The NZ Expo in Dubai is also on the cards, where they will again look to make their mark on the international market.
Back at home, with Kasey now a māmā, they’re both looking into broths and traditional kai such as dried fish and pipi for babies, “and old-school jerky things that we [Māori] would have had”, particularly for when they’re teething.
“I honestly think Māori in general as a people are naturally good with kai.. I think one of our innate skills is being able to feed people,” says Kasey.
“That manaakitanga is ingrained.”