A pair of innovative Kiwi startups have partnered with a Kiwi burger behemoth to bring two delicious, nutritious and under-appreciated local ingredients to the people.
Long gone are the days when a burger strictly equalled a meat patty, a bit of limp lettuce and a sad slice of tomato or two between a couple of buns, but while the meaty options have become increasingly wild and wonderful, it seems like vege burgers have remained a little, well, safe.
But with more and more alternative proteins coming to the fore, a whole new world is opening up to burger makers. Meat substitutes made from pea protein have hogged the limelight in recent years, but the team at BurgerFuel had their eye on something different – hemp.
Hemp is a strain of cannabis that contains low levels of THC (that’s the psychoactive stuff), which basically means that no, it won’t get you high. But hemp seeds have a whole host of nutritional benefits, including being a dense source of protein – which makes them particularly appealing for use in a meat-free burger.
The reason you may not be particularly familiar with hemp as a food source is because until November last year, it was illegal to grow, manufacture or sell it as a food for humans.
“When we did our first pop-up restaurant, we were basically selling animal food,” says Cameron Sims, an Auckland chef who sells hemp seed products through his business Plant Culture.
Thankfully, these days Sims doesn’t have to skirt around the edges of the law, and he’s teamed up with BurgerFuel on a delicious new vegan burger.
Sims, a big BurgerFuel fan, was in the Hamilton branch when he had a lightbulb moment. “I’d been playing around with hemp burgers at the time, and I was just like, ‘OK, I really want to help BurgerFuel bring a hemp burger to the menu. Let’s see if I can get BurgerFuel to get hemp out to the masses.”
The BurgerFuel team, meanwhile, came along to one of Sims’s pop-up restaurants, loved what they tasted and after dinner, made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. “I felt like I was getting approached by the mafia,” laughs Sims. “I didn’t even know who they were, but they were like you should come into our kitchen and we’ll play around.
“It went from there – I was back and forth heaps trying to educate them about all the properties of hemp seed and how it works, then we did multiple trial days. It was a long process – you step into their kitchen and they’re kind of like these mad scientists, they’re really relentless with getting it perfect. It really inspired me and I learnt a lot through the process.”
The development of the burger was a real team effort, and the result is the 100% locally sourced, 100% vegan Electric Pūhā burger (more on the pūhā bit later): crumbed hemp and broccoli bites (a combo of hemp seed butter, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas and broccoli), pūhā and cabbage kraut and hemp seed oil aioli join rocket, relish and avocado inside an organic hemp sourdough bun.
BurgerFuel was keen for the hemp inclusion to be much more than token. “We’re seeing so many products on the market incorporating hemp, but we didn’t want to just sprinkle some seeds on a patty, we wanted to hero the flavour of hemp itself,” says Dylan Kelly, a member of BurgerFuel’s research and development team.
Hemp has a unique earthy, nutty flavour that can challenge the taste buds at first – Sims equates the taste to “grassy pine nuts” – but after much trial and error the BurgerFuel team is confident they’ve nailed the flavour profile. They’re particularly pleased with how filling the burger is – if you have one for lunch, it’ll see you through well into dinner time.
Sims, whose goal is for every New Zealander to eat three tablespoons of hemp seeds a day, is excited about taking the product mainstream. “There’s still a lot of confusion out there about what hemp is, and I think this is really going to help Kiwis to start getting more of it into their diet.”
Hemp isn’t the only unusual ingredient to feature in the Electric Pūhā burger – as the name suggests, the native leafy green pūhā also features, joining cabbage in a fermented kraut.
To source the pūhā, BurgerFuel collaborated with Māori-owned South Taranaki company Kaitahi, whose primary focus is frozen smoothie drops that champion indigenous superfoods. The BurgerFuel team met Kaitahi’s business development manager Leonie Matoe (Ngā Rauru, Ngā Ruahine) at the Food Show in Auckland last year and loved what the company was doing, then later approached her about sourcing pūhā.
Matoe, understandably wary of the ever-present risk of appropriation of Māori taonga, admits she was a little suspicious at first. “Just about every one of our cultural elements is exploited in some way, and food isn’t discounted from that. But once I understood the detail, and just the quality, wholesome meal these guys are serving up with the burger, then yeah, absolutely we wanted to work with that.
“That’s why developing that relationship with them right from the beginning was really important. It was along the way that we thought, ‘these guys are actually genuine, they want to support and help us, they want to celebrate us as a company as much as celebrating the ingredients’.”
It’s been a two-way street, with BurgerFuel gaining as much from the relationship as Kaitahi. “We were invited down to South Taranaki and saw where the pūhā was grown in the wild, and how Kaitahi had begun growing it in greenhouses,” explains Kelly. “It was a massive source of inspiration for us, seeing where the proceeds would be heading and tangibly seeing the effect it would have on the people. We just knew we were on the right track.”
Nutrition and wellbeing are at the heart of Kaitahi’s kaupapa, so the health-giving aspects of the burger appealed to her, says Matoe, as well as the benefits of bringing pūhā to a wider audience. “It’s another platform for indigenous food ingredients like pūhā to be shared with the population and communities that normally wouldn’t be exposed to it.
“That’s always been part of our vision,” she says. “That’s why we created Kaitahi, to share this awesome indigenous food with the world. So while it’s early days, we’re seeing a big company like BurgerFuel having indigenous ingredients on the menu as a win-win. And they’ve been great to work with, which has made the collaboration all the sweeter.”
BurgerFuel’s collaborations with both Kaitahi and Plant Culture will continue to develop, with hemp-based sides and a Kaitahi smoothie hitting the menu in coming months. It’s all about keeping it local, so keep an eye out for more collaborations with innovative New Zealand businesses in the future.
This content was created in paid partnership with Burger Fuel. Learn more about our partnerships here.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.