One Question Quiz
Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

KaiJuly 9, 2023

The restaurant putting extinction on the menu

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Our decimated scallop population is the somewhat surprising inspiration behind a new dish at Wellington restaurant Hiakai. And it’s sparking plenty of conversation at the dining table.

This is an excerpt from our weekly food newsletter, The Boil Up.

The third course on much-accoladed Pōneke restaurant Hiakai’s current menu is an optical illusion of a dish. If it were delivered to your table without explanation, you’d be forgiven for thinking a pair of seared tipa (scallops) were resting upon your shiny plate. But looks can be deceiving.

Tipa are entirely absent from the dish; in fact, in its seven years of operating, Hiakai has never served them. Instead, the dish, called kina tipa, features cylindrical fondant potatoes finished with kina butter, hot garlic, fennel puree, kina sauce, harakeke seed slaw, crispy tempura and sea celery. The idea behind the dish is weighty: highlighting the devastating state of our country’s population of tipa, once a pillar of our local cuisine, now dredged to near extinction.

“It’s playful but political at the same time,” says executive chef and co-owner Monique Fiso (Ngā Rauru, Ngāti Ruanui, Samoan). The dish was inspired by their current menu theme, which is whānau. Hiakai general manager and co-owner Katie Monteith is from Whangārei, and while contemplating ways to pay tribute to her home and family in the far north, scallops made their way onto the drawing board. Monteith remembers “basically an abundance of scallops, but not in a glut way”, and “a lot of freediving and obviously, scallop mornay, because this was the late 80s and early 90s”.

Despite the mollusc being central to her memories of growing up, it’s been aeons since she’s eaten them – owing to the species’ depletion. And so the resulting dish evolved from that absence, explains Monteith. “We’ve known about the dire state of tipa for a long time, we’ve wanted to have them on the menu for ever and we simply can’t – but we still wanted to pay tribute to them somehow.”

Hiakai’s ‘kina tipa’; Hiakai co-owners Katie Monteith and Monique Fiso. (Images: Supplied)

Fiso, too, has her own memories of scallops, in the professional kitchens where she worked more than a decade ago, both locally and overseas. “When it was scallop season I would be given kilos of them – you wouldn’t see that now,” she says. “We wanted to combine those memories to create something that really looks like tipa but isn’t, something really interesting and unique and thought provoking, that can be enjoyed but also discussed at the table.”

The demise of local scallop populations echoes the heartbreaking story of toheroa – an impressive bivalve species and taonga for Māori – which from the 1920s was commercially harvested to near-extinction, all in the name of soup. Once plentiful on restaurant menus and in tinned form, toheroa numbers have still not recovered since a ban on harvesting was put in place in 1979. One would think that would be a cautionary tale.

But history often repeats. Before the 1960s, much of the scallop consumption in Aotearoa was by way of frozen imports or free-diving. That all changed around 1960, when exploratory dredging of the Tasman Bay Te Tai-o-Aorere scallop beds (near Nelson) began and gradually spread into Golden Bay and the Marlborough Sounds. It opened the floodgates for a scallop frenzy and recorded production increased steadily from 40 tonnes in 1962 to a peak of 9,500 tonnes in 1975.

Menus of the past often hold information about the changing demands for and availability of particular ingredients. Scallops, as it happens, were a regular sight on restaurant menus throughout the later half of the 20th century. A 1975 menu from Auckland restaurant El Trovador features an entree of Nelson scallops, and almost a decade earlier, a 1966 menu for Logan Park Hotel in Auckland features both a Nelson scallop starter and a cream of toheroa soup. I remember bountiful New Zealand scallops for sale at our local Foodtown in the early 2000s. These days you’d struggle to find scallops on the menu at most places, and where you do find them – often in fish and chip shops, and perhaps the odd eatery – they’re likely imported.

Dredging for scallops off the Black Jack area, Coromandel Peninsula, January 1980. (Source: Communicate New Zealand / National Publicity Studios)

Concerns around scallop numbers aren’t a new thing. Less than a decade into the commercial catch, in 1966, and then again in the 1970s, worries around the plight of the scallop were already making headlines. Many have pointed to 2012 as the year when the situation for scallops turned from bad to totally dire. David Carter, then minister for primary industries, approved a controversial in-season total allowable catch increase from 48 tonnes to 370 tonnes of scallop meat weight – a 670% increase. In the years since, alarm bells around the state of scallops have been blaring. We’ve seen iwi and hapū lay rāhui across scallop beds around the country; in 2018 the Nelson scallop fishery closed as surveys confirmed it had been depleted; in the Hauraki Gulf alone, scallop mass has dropped from an estimated 776 tonnes in 2012 to just 53 tonnes in 2022; and last year the entire Coromandel scallop fishery was closed.

“I feel very sad that people are cut off from their ancestral food sources and their way of life,” says Monteith. “And a lot of kids don’t even get to try things that should really be a right.” To Monteith, the story of our scallops is intimately linked to issues that plague our food system, whether it be our country sending some of our best kai overseas or the exploitation of the environment. There needs to be change, say Monteith and Fiso. In the most immediate sense, this would be an end to trawling and dredging. In a broader sense, this would look like a shift away from commercial harvesting and a return to indigenous knowledge and practices.

In a space that is meant to provide comfort and hospitality, delivering such a metaphorically weighty dish to customers likely trying to have a nice night out seems like a rather intimidating and perhaps risky decision for a restaurant to make. “The restaurant is an escape from reality for a lot of people and we definitely want to be that, so it’s a hard line to walk, [to be] like, ‘hey, look at this environmental degradation, there’s a species that’s gone extinct, enjoy your kai’,” says Fiso. But so far, it’s been well received, both by customers aware of the issue and those learning about the state of scallops in Aotearoa for the first time.

Both Fiso and Monteith believe they have a responsibility to share their knowledge about pressing environmental issues like the threat to tipa. “We want to be agents of change and be a part of something that’s positive and proactive,” says Fiso. “If what we’re doing doesn’t have some depth and some meaning behind it, then why do it at all?”

Keep going!