The birds are gathered every April and May under strict harvest tikanga. Rakiura (Stewart Island) Māori are the only ones with ancestral rights to gather these prized delicacies during this culturally significant harvest. The birds are collected from 36 different islands in the far south of Aotearoa, known as the Tītī Islands. The islands are uninhabited, abundant with tītī, and the harvest is 100 percent sustainable.
Tītī are very oily and salty, and certainly not to everyone’s liking. But they’re a favourite in our whānau, especially for our older generation, and something of a delicacy. Some have described tītī as tasting like roast mutton with a whisper of fish! Tītī has a very distinctive, sometimes pungent smell when it’s cooking — some people prefer to do the first boil outside. I do the final roasting of the tītī with a mānuka-honey baste, so that the sweetness of the honey balances out the saltiness.
Serves: 4 (half a bird each)
2 tītī (muttonbirds)
2 medium kūmara, peeled or scrubbed and chopped into
4 medium potatoes, or 8 small Māori potatoes, peeled or scrubbed and chopped into 3cm chunks
Optional: any other favourite boil-up vegetables, such as pumpkin, yams or carrots, chopped into chunks
2 big bunches pūhā or watercress
2–3 tbsp mānuka honey, or regular honey
1. Rinse the tītī well under cold water. Put the birds in a big pot, cover them with water and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down to low and simmer uncovered for 1 hour, topping up water if necessary to keep the birds covered. You can do this part outside on a gas cooker or barbecue, as the smell is not always too pleasant — keep a window open if you are cooking inside.
2. Drain the water from the pot, refill with boiling water to cover the birds, and simmer again for another 30 minutes, uncovered, topping up water if necessary.
3. Preheat oven grill to 200°C. Remove tītī from the pot and when cooled, pat slightly dry with a paper towel or tea towel. Skim off any excess oil from the pot and add more boiling water to make a weaker stock. Add the veges and pūhā or watercress, ensuring that everything is fully covered with water. Bring to a boil over a high heat, then turn the heat down to low and simmer for 20 minutes or until potatoes are soft. Taste the stock, and season with salt if necessary.
4. While the veges are cooking, cut each tītī in half lengthways, and place on an oven tray, skin side up. Soften the honey, if necessary, in a microwave or a small pot, and, using a pastry brush, baste the skin of the tītī with the honey.
5. Grill for 10 to 15 minutes until the skin becomes crisp and golden. You will find that more oil is released from the birds when grilling.
6. Arrange a bed of pūhā or watercress and the boiled vegetables in a large bowl or lipped dish with a little of the liquid from the stock poured over as well. Place the honey-glazed tītī on the veges, and enjoy.
Extract from ‘Kai: Food stories and recipes from my family table’, by Christall Lowe, photography by Christall Lowe, published by Bateman Books, RRP $59.99, Available now