31 Aug 2021

NZ's liquid smoke - kānuka tastes like hangi in a bottle

From Nine To Noon, 9:30 am on 31 August 2021

The native kānuka plant is being transformed into a 'liquid smoke' in a new business venture.

"Hangi in a bottle" is how the Auckland academics and Ruatōria whānau behind the start-up Nuka Institute describe their food flavouring.

University of Auckland management lecturer D Kiri Dell (Ngāti Porou) is part of the Nuka Institute team.

Dr Dell says she wanted to replicate the aroma of kānuka from her childhood memories in a flavoursome food ingredient.

"I had always been curious for quite a while around how can we create more value around kānuka trees, considering its a massively abundance resource for Māori landowners.

"At that time mānuka was kind of the hero tree of New Zealand, and nobody was interested in talking about kānuka and thought I was being quite silly with regards to my pursuits."

The scientists working to capture the taste of kānuka brought a new perspective on a plant that seems quite ordinary to Māori, she says.

"We've been surrounded by this tree all our lives, and I guess in a way we've been locked into thinking about it in a certain way so when you bring these diverse perspectives and lenses on to what might be your everybody normal, they have the ability to think differently about a resource."

By putting kānuka wood chips into a pyrolysis machine, which exposes them to high heat and starves them of oxygen, a food flavouring ingredient with an instant hangi taste is produced, she says.

The Nuka Institute team is looking to scale up as demand for their liquid smoke product is already exceeding supply, Dr Dell says.

"We're working with government to secure some funding that will help us to scale up and an operation based in Ruatōria, and with that operation comes all those good things, like more jobs, more exposure of the community to science capability and development."

There's a bigger kaupapa at play than just business, she says, and Nuka Institute won't accept investment money that potentially overrides their values.

"Our biggest need at the moment is money to purchase equipment. In terms of investment, we've been really well supported by the University of Auckland and UniServices, which is our commercial arm, and without them, our journey would've probably taken another course.

"We've been really cautious about who we partner with, there's many people we could collaborate or get investment from, but we're very particular about who we want to be involved as partners in this."

Nuka Institute is also exploring other potential kānuka food products, she says.

"We've got one product that is going to be developed in coming off the leaf, in a way that you probably wouldn't normally think of, and we've got another exciting venture for the biochar.

"There's massive potential with our native plants and I'm involved with a few other lines of inquiry regarding other native plants, and the key is to match and marry Māori land communities with the right capability to help them achieve and realise that potential."

* Dr Kiri Dell is a lecturer at the University of Auckland lecturer and director of postgraduate diploma in Māori business development.

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