The ancestors of the Māori brought edible plants from their homelands, including kūmara, yams, taro and tī pore (Cordyline fruticosa), a species of cabbage tree.
In Aotearoa (New Zealand) the climate was significantly colder than that in which these plants had evolved, and Māori developed sophisticated techniques for adapting them to the new environment. They were cultivated in huge communal māra (gardens), sometimes with gravel, sand, shell and charcoal added to the soil. Plants were also grown using hue (gourds) as containers.
Some native trees, flax and flowering shrubs were brought into cultivation closer to human settlements to attract birds. Many stands of the native cabbage tree tī kōuka (Cordyline australis) can still be seen in the bush where they were once deliberately planted.
Lieutenant James Cook described the Māori gardens he saw on his 1769 voyage to New Zealand: ‘The ground is compleatly cleared of all weeds – the mold broke with as much care as that of our best gardens. The Sweet potatoes are set out in distinct little molehills … The Arum [taro] is planted in little circular concaves, exactly in the manner our Gard’ners plant melons … The Yams are planted in like manner with the sweet potatoes: these Cultivated spots are enclosed with a perfectly close pailing of reeds about twenty inches high.’1
New Zealand was originally covered with dense native bush, and its ferns, vines, palms, fungi, berries, fruit and seeds became important foods. Aruhe – the rhizomes of the bracken fern (Pteridium esculentum) – were especially important to Māori. Eighteenth-century botanist Joseph Banks wrote that it was ‘the foundation of their meals.’2
The introduced kiore (Polynesian rat) and kurī (Polynesian dog) were valuable and highly regarded food sources.
The huge flightless birds known as moa were hunted for meat until their extinction. A wide range of other birds were also caught including weka, kererū (wood pigeons), tūī, whio (native ducks), native geese, takahē and numerous seabirds.
The oceans, lakes and waterways provided fish, seals, whales, dolphins, shellfish, crustaceans and more, and these became especially important after the extinction of the moa. Eels were abundant in many parts of the country and were prized for their eating qualities.
Shellfish included tuatua, toheroa, pipi, tuangi, pāua, kina, titiko (mud snails), pūpū (cat’s eyes) and kuku or kākahi (mussels). Although fishing was largely a male activity, shellfish gathering was traditionally a job for women.
On James Cook’s first voyage, the scale of tribally organised fishing impressed the naturalist Joseph Banks. In 1769 he described seeing a large Māori fishing net ‘which was 5 fathom deep and its lengh we could only guess, as it was not stretched out, but it could not from its bulk be less than 4 or 500 fathom.’ He went on, ‘Fishing seems to be the cheif business of this part of the countrey; about all their towns are abundance of netts laid upon small heaps like hay cocks and thatchd over and almost every house you go into has netts in its making’.3
Each tribe had its own named fishing grounds and diving rocks protected by kaitiaki (guardians). These sites were very important, and in some cases tapu (sacred) to the tribes which relied on them for their survival. In the 21st century many Māori continued to catch their local delicacies at these sites.
Māori drank fresh water and, for medicinal purposes, tonics made from seaweed, berries, fruits and leaves steeped in water. They used no alcohol or tobacco and did not regularly consume any stimulants, although special plant concoctions are known to have been drunk by warriors preparing for battle.