Smoked kahawai, hāngi-cooked pork and watercress dressing are just a selection of what fusion food truck Pūhā & Pākehā has to offer. Jihee Junn talks to one-half of the couple behind the rising business on filling a gap in the market, the challenges of cooking fusion food, and why a permanent restaurant might well be on the horizon.
Its heart-shaped leaves and aromatic scent makes it one of the most recognisable plants in our native bush, but kawakawa is more than just a sweet berry or medicinal herb. Today, its properties are used for balms, sunblocks and teas too, and food truck Pūhā & Pākehā is only the latest business making use of this uniquely Kiwi specimen. The company’s white meringue is infused with the plant’s distinctive aromatic flavour, while its hearty crayfish roll is accompanied by lemony kawakawa mayo.
Kawakawa isn’t the only New Zealand ingredient Pūhā & Pākehā has championed with its fusion cuisine. Its Reuben sandwich, an American classic, is made with two slices of crispy rēwena bread, while the chicken salad is sprinkled with horopito, a peppery plant native to Aotearoa. Local cooking techniques can be seen as well: its loaded fries are laden with spice-rubbed pulled pork – straight from a hāngi for that extra smokey flavour.
“With every dish, we really want to hero something that’s native New Zealand or Māori,” says Belinda McKay, who runs Pūhā & Pākehā with her partner Jarrad. “So when we come up with lots of ideas, we’ll think: ‘But is there enough of a Māori element to that?’ or ‘Is the Māori element coming through strong enough?’ If it’s not, we won’t do it. It’s about getting that balance right.”
Balance is key for Pūhā & Pākehā which prides itself on its fusion fare. It’s traditional Māori kai with a contemporary twist, encapsulating both the couple themselves – Belinda is Pākehā and Jarrad is Māori (Tainui me kahungunu) – and how two cultures can be brought together through food (the reference to Rod Derrett’s popular 1960s song is auxiliary, but McKay does say that it adds to the “fun” nature of the brand).
The food truck business is also a competitive one, and serving fusion food with local flavours allows Pūhā & Pākehā to set itself apart from the rest of the pack. “We used to go to lots of markets and events and see all this Korean, Italian and Mexican street food, and we just thought there was a real lack of anything native to New Zealand,” says McKay. “We thought if we do what’s always been done, then it might not really take off because all the street food out there is like restaurant quality. But if we give it another twist… we could really bring our A-game to the market.”
When the pair started out in the summer of 2014, Pūhā & Pākehā wasn’t even a food truck: it was a small pop up tent with a couple of trestle tables serving just one dish – its pulled pork and slaw – that remains on the menu to this day. When they realised people were really engaging with what they were trying to do, they eventually purchased a caravan, renovated it, and officially launched the Pūhā & Pākehā brand.
“What we’ve really enjoyed about being mobile is being able to take it out to the people. Our brand is we really want to engage Kiwis with Māori kai, so if we’re going out there into all different communities all over Auckland (and in some cases, out of Auckland), then we’re taking the food to the people and not expecting them to come to us.”
Messing with tradition, however, is always risky, and fusion food of any kind can come with a sense of trepidation for the casual diner. “The fusion thing can be a bit of a surprise and delight for some people. We’re not like some street food brands where you know exactly what you’re getting. If you’re getting a hotdog in a bun, you’re getting a hotdog in a bun. It’s like a comfort food,” says McKay. “But I guess for us, it’s sort of like that next level of decision making for the customer where they have to think ‘okay, who are these people and what are they trying to do?’”
“We’ve had different reactions, but overall, lots of people think it’s cool. A lot of New Zealanders engage with what we’re doing because they almost feel a sense of ownership. They’re like, ‘Wow, someone made something for us. Something that’s uniquely Kiwi.’ Because they go to those markets and see all these different international cuisines represented, but there’s nothing representing New Zealand.”
Getting customers palates on its side, however, is probably the least of Pūhā & Pākehā’s worries. Being a small food truck business cooking with niche ingredients poses its own set of challenges, with the pair dealing with everything from supply issues to space constraints.
“Some products are hard to find commercially available, like rēwena bread. And when we do find it, it’s often quite expensive because there isn’t a huge demand for it. Like the watercress for our salads is three times the price of lettuce,” says McKay, who uses both ingredients throughout several of her dishes. “There are so many things that we’d like to do, but to actually get supplied the products at a fair price that we can then create into a street food dish at a reasonable price point can be difficult.”
“We also have challenges coming up with dishes that work with our environment. We don’t have a full restaurant kitchen to work in and we’re confined by a small space with limited equipment. So once again, you can come up with a great idea and then think: ‘How are we actually going to make that logistically happen in the caravan, at speed?’”
For this reason, McKay says the idea of establishing a permanent location for Pūhā & Pākehā has become something to seriously consider, citing the need not only for a bigger kitchen to help support the catering side of the business, but also the desire to have somewhere that allows people to come to them as well.
“Whatever we end up doing, we’ll always come back to that one thing: to engage Kiwis with Māori food. Whether that’s getting another caravan or getting a [permanent] restaurant, it’s got to be about getting to more people.”
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