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Māori feasts and ceremonial eating – hākari

by Basil Keane

Hākari – feasts – play an important role in Māori culture as a demonstration of hospitality and mana. Some 19th-century hākari featured vast amounts of food, displayed in stacks or on stages.

Food in Māori tradition

Ranginui and Papatūānuku

In the Māori creation tradition of Ranginui (sky father) and Papatūānuku (earth mother), the couple were pushed apart by their children, who then began to fight. Tāwhirimātea attacked his brothers for separating their parents. The only one who fought back was Tūmatauenga, the god of war. Tāwhirimātea defeated four of his brothers, and then used them as food. They were Tangaroa (god of the sea), Tāne (god of the forest), Rongomātāne (god of cultivated foods) and Haumia-tikitiki (god of uncultivated foods). In doing this Tāwhirimātea undermined their tapu (sacredness) and made them noa (ordinary). He also instituted incantations to make these foods abundant and easy to obtain. Many of the ritualised aspects of collecting and eating food are related to the gods, and thus heavily influenced by tapu.

Tapu and food

As illustrated by the creation story, food is noa. Much care was taken with food to ensure it did not infringe upon tapu. The Takitimu canoe, from which the people of Ngāti Kahungunu are descended, was said to be so tapu that food was not allowed on board during its voyage from Hawaiki.

Some tohunga were so tapu that they could not feed themselves. Food was placed on a stick for them to eat, and water was tipped onto their hands or into a kōrere (funnel).

In certain rituals, food is used to remove tapu.

Last supper

When someone was near death, they were often brought a special food as a last meal, or water from a favourite spring or stream.

Food and hospitality

At hākari (feasts) attended by guests from other tribes, the mana of the hosts would depend on their ability to be lavish with food. There are a number of traditional stories in which the host and guests compete to outdo and at times undermine each other.


A Rotorua chief, Tūhourangi, came to visit a Waikato chief, Kapu-manawa-whiti (Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Maniapoto). Guests usually visited in autumn after the harvest and would send a messenger ahead so that food could be prepared. Instead, Tūhourangi visited in summer, a time of scarcity, and sent no messenger.

Kapu was deeply embarrassed as he struggled to feed his visitors. Tūhourangi rubbed it in by noting that his favoured foods were preserved birds and seafood. Kapu argued that water was best, while his guest strongly disagreed.

Kapu invited Tūhourangi to visit again, suggesting he come in early summer. Kapu prepared for the next visit by putting aside a huge feast of dried seafood and preserved birds. However, he moved his to a hilltop far from any rivers and with only one well, which he covered. When Tūhourangi arrived, he and his retinue feasted on preserved birds and seafood. However, when he ordered his men to get water, they could not find any. Tūhourangi begged Kapu for water. After Tūhourangi agreed that water was indeed the best food, Kapu unveiled the hidden well, regaining his mana.

Tūrongo and Whatihua

A rivalry between brothers over a woman also played out in hosting guests.

There were two chiefly brothers in the Waikato, Whatihua (the elder) and Tūrongo (the younger). Tūrongo began courting Ruapūtahanga, a beautiful high-born Taranaki woman. He was keen for her to visit him and asked Whatihua's advice about how to prepare for this. However, he did not realise that Whatihua coveted his intended wife.

Whatihua told Tūrongo to shorten the house he was building as it would be too long. Meanwhile Whatihua constructed a much bigger house and secretly stored significant amounts of food. Before his brother had managed to put aside enough food, Whatihua sent a message to Ruapūtahanga, telling her Tūrongo wanted her to come now.

When she arrived, Tūrongo did not have enough food or space in his house. Whatihua stepped in and offered Ruapūtahanga and her people accommodation and food. Ruapūtahanga was won over by the hospitality and married Whatihua instead of Tūrongo.

Land for food

Te Whatuiāpiti of Ngāti Kahungunu held a feast called Wharepunga. Another chief, Te Angiangi, went to the feast and received two calabashes of preserved food. Te Angiangi hosted a return feast called Pohaetakataka, but was embarrassed when Te Whatuiāpiti commented that it was too small.

Te Whatuiāpiti then hosted another great feast, which was handed over to Te Angiangi and his people. Te Angiangi was now greatly in Te Whatuiāpiti's debt and made plans to host a huge return feast, including food brought from the South Island. However, this food was lost in the sea, and Te Angiangi then gifted land to Te Whatuiāpiti as an appropriate exchange for the feast.

Traditional feasts

A variety of traditional feasts to mark different events and rituals were categorised by ethnologist Raymond Firth.

Stages of life

  • At the koroingo or maioha ceremony to greet a newborn high-ranking child, gifts of food would be made to the parents.
  • The hākari (feast) for a child’s tūā (naming rite) might involve up to four hāngī ovens, the food from which was ceremonially distributed.
  • For the tohi ceremony, in which a child was dedicated to a god, the parents would put on a hākari for the community.
  • When a young person of rank received a tā moko (tattoo), a feast was given by their parents.
  • For a marriage, a number of hākari might be arranged, and the whānau of the husband and wife would attempt to maintain reciprocity.
  • At a tangihanga, a hākari would be put on for visiting relations. Also, at the return of the burial party to the marae, a special ceremonial hākari was held.
  • Traditionally, Māori would exhume the bones of their relations after a certain period and a ceremony would be held. A hākari was important at a hahunga (exhumation).

Maramataka (calendar)

  • Hākari were held at the conclusion of planting.
  • The kūmara harvest in March – ngahuru (autumn) – was a highly ritualised affair. First fruits were set aside for Rongo, god of cultivated foods, and a hākari was held.
  • When fishing or hunting, the first fruits of a season would be offered to a particular atua. The first fish would go to Tangaroa, god of the sea, and the first bird to Tāne, god of the forest.
  • The appearance of Matariki (the Pleiades) or Puanga (Rigel) signalled the New Year in traditional times. The harvest was in and food had been stored. A harvest festival would take place, with a large hākari.
  • The whare wānanga (house of learning) was opened with a hākari each year.


Hākari were held for:

  • summoning allies in war
  • hohou rongo (peace making), when the sealing of a peace agreement would include a hākari at which the former combatants ate together
  • important visitors
  • tribal rūnanga
  • paremata or kaihaukai (traditional feasts where tribes exchanged foods from their own regions)
  • return feasts.

Economic activity

When a community organised to build a large communal house and needed significant effort from related hapū, it would hold a feast at the start and at the conclusion of the work.

19th-century hākari

Hākari (feasts) became huge affairs in the 1800s. European spectators recorded the food items and the numbers of people present, as well as the ritual of dividing the food between hapū and iwi.

Dividing the food

At hākari a chief would divide up the food. Piles would be set up and a chief would go along and note that a particular pile was for a particular hapū or iwi.

An example was given by missionary Richard Taylor:

When the guests arrive they are received with a loud welcome, and afterwards a person, who acts as the master of the ceremonies, having a rod in his hand, marches slowly along the line of food, which is generally placed in the marae, or chief court of the pa, and then names the tribe for which each division is intended, striking it with his rod. This being done, the chief of that party receiving the food, sub-divides it amongst his followers. The food is then carried off to their respective homes.1

Hākari herald

When a chief intended to give a feast, he sent a member of his family as a herald to summon those for whom it was intended. As this messenger passed through each village, he sang, ‘Uea uea i te pou o tou whare, kia wiriwiri, kia tutangatanga wakairi kapua naku, ki runga moeahu taku kira ka tongia e te anu matao e taku e – nau mai e waha i taku tua he karere taua, he karere wainga.’2

Quantities of food

Hākari inevitably involved great quantities of food. One feast at Matamata in 1837 was held by Te Waharoa for tribes from Tauranga. A commentator wrote:

They have collected for the feast, six large albatrosses, nineteen calabashes of shark oil, several tons of fish, principally young sharks, which are esteemed by the natives as a great delicacy, upwards of twenty thousand dried eels, a great quantity of hogs, and baskets of potatoes almost without number.3

Hākari stages

Traditionally food was set out in huge stacks or placed on whata (stages). From the mid-1800s food was presented on large hākari stages – huge pyramid- or cone-shaped structures. Hākari stages could be up to 30 metres high, and one was up to 2 miles (3.2 kilometres) long.


A kaihaukai was a traditional feast in which a tribe from one area met with a tribe from another and exchanged foods which were specific to their region. Teone (Hōne) Taare Tīkao gave an example:

The people would send word of a proposed kaihaukai some weeks beforehand. The people from Kaiapoi might go to Rapaki carrying tuna (eel), kiore (rat), kauru (cabbage tree), kuri (dog), aruhe (fernroot), kumera [sic] (sweet potato) and so on, while the home people would prepare pipi or kuku (shellfish), shark, maraki (dried fish), and other sea products as a return gift. The food was not eaten at the time but was exchanged, and some of the Rapaki people would assist the Kaiapoians to carry the Kaiapoi share to that place to feast on. The stuff taken to Rapaki would be stored there until the carriers returned, and then would be enjoyed by all. In two or three years time Rapaki would carry food to a kaihaukai at Kaiapoi and bring back inland food in exchange.4


The poukai are a series of hui held mainly in Waikato. They were started by King Tāwhiao in 1885 after his return from England, as a harvest festival and a way to provide for the needy. The first poukai was at Whatiwhatihoe marae, Pirongia. The next was at Pārāwera marae, Te Awamutu. In the 2000s poukai were held on a circuit of nearly 30 Kīngitanga-affiliated marae both inside and outside Waikato.

    • Richard Taylor, Te Ika a Māui, or, New Zealand and its inhabitants: illustrating the origin, manners, customs, mythology, religion, rites, songs, proverbs, fables, and language of the natives; together with the geology, natural history, productions, and climate of the country, its state as regards Christianity: sketches of the principal chiefs, and their present position. Wellington: Reed, 1974 (originally published 1855), p. 169. Back
    • Te Ika a Māui, p. 170. Back
    • Quoted in ‘1842, William Wade, A journey in the North Island of New Zealand’, p. 120, (last accessed 6 May 2013). Back
    • Teone Taare Tikao, Tikao talks: ka taoka tapu o te ao kohatu: treasures from the ancient world of the Maori. Auckland: Penguin, 1990, p. 130. Back

20th- and 21st-century changes

Traditionally, a hākari (feast) could be the sole reason for a hui. In the 2000s feasts were held at the end of a hui, but were not the only reason for the gathering. Large hui attended by thousands, including political or religious events, continued to take place.

Kawiti hākari, 1945

While feasts changed in the 20th century, they could still be significant. A whānau unveiling in Kawiti, Northland, in 1945 saw 500 people arrive. A list of food included two beef cattle, four pigs, four sheep, 50 chickens, eight sacks of pipi (shellfish), six sacks of potatoes, 10 sacks of kūmara (sweet potatoes), 1,000 tuna (eels), 100 bottles of preserves of some sort, five sacks of apples and four sacks of cabbages. The food that was not eaten was distributed amongst the guests.


Mana (prestige) remained an important part of hospitality. Mana of the manuhiri (visitors) is demonstrated at the start of the hākari. Respected guests and kaumātua are called first and are seated in places of honour. How well the visitors are fed is the measure of hospitality, with guests often asked afterwards, ‘How was the food?’

Kārangaranga putiputi (flower ceremony)

In Northland, a tradition has developed which acknowledges the attendance of different iwi and hapū at a marriage. At the cutting of the wedding cake the master of ceremonies calls out the name of a hapū, or sometimes an iwi, if visitors are attending from a distance. ‘E karanga ana kia Ngāti ____, kia haere mai, ki tā koutou putiputi.’ (I call on Ngāti ____ to come and collect your flower).

A representative will come forward to take the cake and is then expected to perform a haka or waiata.

Marae dining halls

A late-20th-century description of a hākari at a marae reflects a common pattern for hākari inside the wharenui or dining hall.

When the dining-hall is prepared for a feast, it is a tremendous sight. Streamers hang from the roof, the tables are laden with trifles, sweets and jellies; mounds of apples and oranges stand between plates of seafood and great round home-baked loaves; and by each setting stands a bright coloured bottle of ‘fizz’. The local ladies put great effort into arranging the tables so that they look hospitable and plentiful. All sorts of rare delicacies are collected, and there are special signs of thought, like apples bristling with cigarettes on toothpicks, or piles of toffees for the children. Waitresses walk to and fro from the serveries with steaming plates of vegetables and meat, and schoolchildren serve cups of tea from large enamel teapots.1

Hākari in the 2000s

Hākari of the 2000s were very similar to those of the 20th century. Many marae had close interactions with local Māori health groups, which typically promoted a healthy-eating and smokefree message. Marae were more likely to be smokefree and many had changed their menus to include healthier foods. Some marae replaced the traditional boil-up with leaner meats, and salads were made available.

    • Anne Salmond, Hui: a study of Māori ceremonial gatherings. Wellington: A. H. and A. W. Reed, 1975, p. 53. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Basil Keane, 'Māori feasts and ceremonial eating – hākari', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 September 2021)

Story by Basil Keane, published 5 Sep 2013