Tena koe is the Maori greeting one person gives another, and it literally means “be well and healthy.” Maori food or kai is prepared using a combination of ingredients from the land and the sea, deliciously continuing practical cultural traditions.— By John Jacobs
New Zealand’s indigenous Maori have a culture that seamlessly blends the sacred with the practical. This also applies to food (kai) and how it is served. The word tapu refers to things considered special and sacred, while noa indicates something safe and ordinary.
The sacred and the ordinary must not mix, and serving food is no exception. The traditional food tray must be carefully managed during serving. Since food is noa and the head is tapu, a plate of food should never be passed over a Maori person’s head. To do so will strip the person of tapu. A Maori food tray could hold something like paua (abalone) or tio (oysters), rewena paraoa (potato bread) and korengo (seaweed). It would be a tray of food blending the sea and the land.
Be Well and Healthy
The indigenous people of New Zealand are people of the land and sea, who came to the island in canoe voyages with settlers from Polynesia in the early 1300s. The ocean migrations to Aotearoa (now New Zealand) were driven by difficulties the Maori were experiencing with fishing close to their homeland. Once in New Zealand, they were not discovered by Europeans until 1642.
Over the next centuries, Europeans came to settle, bringing new foods that were incorporated into the Maori diet. This meeting of two cultures and how one inevitably changes the other has been repeated throughout history.
The Maori were hunters, crop farmers, fishermen and gatherers, and they harvested food from every source – forest, garden, ocean and stream. The traditional diet was based on fish, birds, wild roots and herbs, and root crops brought from Polynesia. Originally, food was never prepared or cooked in the same buildings where people slept, so the traditional form of cooking was in earth ovens like the Maori used in Polynesia. Called hangi, the earth oven combines the smoking of burnt wood, the steaming of wet cloths, and the unique flavor that can only come from food cooked in the earth.
The elements of the hangi are gifts from the gods – firewood comes from Tane (forests and birds), while Papa (Earthmother) provides the land on which the oven is used. The goddess Mahuika gives the gift of fire, Hineawaawa (streams) and Ranginui (Skyfather) deliver the water needed for steam. Near Rotorua, Maori use the natural pools of boiling water and steam.
Cooking with What Nature Provides
The original Maori foods were made from what the Maori could hunt, fish and forage for in the native forests.
This original diet consisted mostly of seafood and birds, like the muttonbird, chicken, sheep, and pork. They also brought root vegetables from Polynesia such as the sweet potato (kumara). They also brought and grew yam, and taro. They foraged in the forests for vines, palms, berries, fungi, fruit, seeds, horopito tree leaves and puha (green vegetables growing in the wild), and they gathered kelp from the sea. Wild foods also included green-lipped mussels, salmon, the small freshwater fish whitebait, eels, shellfish, and kina – sea urchin eaten raw.
Europeans introduced a variety of foods after they began to arrive. These included items such as wheat, maize, white potatoes, cabbage and carrots.
One such item was the pig. Europeans introduced pigs, sheep, chickens and goats. Maori discovered pigs could be fattened quickly, so the boil-up was created – pork, puha and potatoes boiled together for a one pot meal. This meal is still popular today.
However, the traditional Maori recipes offer a chance to taste foods cooked just as they were hundreds of years ago. Whitebait is battered and fried, while toroi is a dish of fresh mussels served with puha juice. For the brave person determined to try authentic foods, huhu grubs are a must. The larvae of the huhu beetle is foraged from under the bark of fallen trees and cooked, reported to taste like peanut butter.
Connected to the Land and Sea
Another traditional dish is the paua fritter. The paua is a large sea snail called abalone in the U.S. Paua is considered a treasure, because it is used as kai moana (seafood) and for arts and crafts. Minced paua is combined with chopped onion and then added to a fritter mix.
Pork and puha is another traditional recipe, in which root vegetables like potatoes or kumara are boiled with puha (watercress) and spinach in a pork stock. Rewena pararoa is traditional sourdough bread made from potatoes.
Foods are seasoned with items like horopito (which replaces traditional pepper) and kawakawa, which has a mint flavor. Seaweed is also used as seasoning, and pikopiko fern tips are added to dishes. Traditional food is connected to the land or the sea.
Today, the hangi meal is used mostly for large gatherings and special occasions – after all, it takes many hours to steam food in an earthen oven-fueled steaming rocks. Like many cultures, food accompanies most Maori celebrations, including those held on Waitangi Day. Each year on Feb. 6, the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 is celebrated. That was the year the representatives of the British Crown and more than 500 Maori chiefs signed what is now considered the country’s founding document. It is a great day to try kai at the treaty grounds because there are numerous food stalls serving traditional Maori foods such as hangi, a pot of kina, fry bread, tuatua fritters, and so much more.
There are restaurants in New Zealand that are either serving traditional Maori recipes or have used Maori food traditions to inspire modern-day versions.
Even better, you can go on a Maori cultural experience, like a visit to the Tamaki Maori Village south of Rotorua. There you can see a recreated traditional village in an ancient native Tawa forest. Enjoy traditions, stories and performing arts … and … food. It is an experience unlike any other.