It’s often observed that we live in a divided world. But polarisation does not confine itself to politics in modern society, writes comedian and Seven Sharp reporter Ben Hurley.
People are increasingly tribal about sport, music, art, in fact, all forms of entertainment and, of course, food.
Often described as the “Marmite” phenomenon in that you either “love it” or “hate it”, the more ardent the distaste for something by one side, the more zealous the fandom from the opposition. A classic example of this division in the cuisine of Aotearoa is the kina.
Also known as the New Zealand sea urchin, this taonga is usually euphemistically labelled a delicacy.
We all know what “delicacy” actually means — some people will kill to eat this while most others find them a bit gross. However, the thing about most delicacies around the world is, that they are usually either quite hard to come by (truffles, caviar) or quite difficult to prepare (Japanese pufferfish).
Kina is neither of those things.
Our prolific taonga is a problem
The waters around our country have too many kina. Overfishing of the kina’s predators (mainly snapper and crayfish) has led to a population explosion.
Kina are voracious herbivores, meaning increased numbers have led to reefs being stripped of vegetation leading to an inevitable imbalance in the marine ecosystem. Whichever side of the kina fence you find yourself on, the fact is, we need a few more to jump on the bandwagon.
There are a few commercial kina fishing companies.
Todd Herbert is now running the family business, Sea Urchin New Zealand, out of its Whitianga base that started in 1992.
Demand for the product is steady and almost entirely domestic. “The small percentage we send to Australia is usually for kiwis living in Australia,” he said.
I learned from Herbert that one of the best parts of kina harvesting is that it’s extremely sustainable. Gathered by free divers, using essentially a lungful of air and a sack, makes for very little, if any, bycatch or damage to the marine environment.
‘Tastes better than it looks’
So, what’s the problem then? Why isn’t kina in every supermarket in the country, nestled between the mussels and the oysters?
Well, this goes back to their polarity. They really are an acquired taste.
You eat only the roe of the kina, four or five small slithers of meat found inside its spiny outer shell. I’m not even sure what else is inside a kina but I’ve decided to not describe it here because, let’s face it, most kaimoana tastes much better than it looks and the kina is certainly no exception.
That brings me to the taste. If I were to describe it in the most rudimentary terms, I’d say it has the salty flavour profile of an anchovy but with a texture more like an oyster. This gives me an idea.
The anchovy is another one of the great polarising seafoods. Albeit a bit more globally known.
An anchovy has made relatively easy bedfellows with one of the most-eaten foods on earth since the 16th Century — pizza.
Is this the way we end up eating more kina? Could this be the missing link to persuading the kina cynic to give it a chance? Or is this even more controversial than the ubiquitous pineapple pizza debate? I had to find out.
Not 15 minutes up the coast from Whitianga is a bloke who knows a bit about pizza.
Luke Reilly and his staff at Luke’s Kitchen have slung thousands of pies at locals and tourists from their Kūaotunu spot for over 14 years.
When presented with my kina pizza challenge, he didn’t even blink. “Yeah, I love kina, I’ll give it a go,” he said.
Then, he let me put his well-earned, 14-year reputation as a pizza chef on the line.
‘Anchovies on steroids’
After he expertly added the urchin roe to the pizza I was let loose on his clientele, handing out free slices of our kaimoana/Italian fusion creation.
I know the sample size was small and people are often just grateful for free food but the response was overwhelmingly positive.
“Anchovies on steroids” was the comment from one self-confessed “foodie” visiting from the nearby town called Auckland. Is this what success tastes like?
But there is a caveat, there were still a good number that wouldn’t try it. Which was probably down to preconceived opinions on seafood in general, or that seafood in particular. It meant that I felt I only really reached the converted.
Not too disheartened, though, I think I managed to convince Reilly to occasionally put it on as a special.
And I thought if I can reach just one man… well, we’ve still got a massive ecological issue and I’ve solved nothing.