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.
Māori never cooked in the same buildings that they slept in. Instead kai (food) was prepared in the open air or in special cooking sheds.
The hāngī or earth oven is a traditional Māori method of cooking, especially suited to preparing food for large numbers of people. Hot rocks and water are used to create steam in a shallow pit dug into the earth. The food is layered on top of the rock (meat first, then vegetables) and covered with leaves, whāriki (flax matting) or, in more recent times, sacking or cloth. The soil is then replaced to trap the steam for a few hours. The exact time depends on the size of the hāngī.
In regions such as Rotorua hāngī have for centuries been cooked using geothermal steam.
Smaller quantities of food such as fish and birds were grilled on sticks over glowing embers. Birds might also be wrapped in clay, or fish in leaves, and placed on the embers.
Since Māori did not make pottery, their only means of boiling food was to place a red-hot stone in a wooden bowl of liquid.
Understanding the effect of the moon on preservation and preparation of kai was very important. In 2012 Charles Royal, a chef specialising in traditional Māori foods, remembered his grandmother Cinny Callaghan drying tuna (eel): Royal said that she would bring the kai inside at night, out of the light of the full moon, so it would not sour or spoil.
Māori preserved large quantities of food, to save for leaner times or to trade with other tribes.
Food could be dried in embers or, in the geothermal Rotorua area, spread on hot rocks. Foods commonly dried included kūmara, shellfish (such as pipi) and fish (such as shark and eels). Shellfish were threaded onto long lengths of twisted flax and hung from lines or whata (platforms) to dry in the sun and wind. Meat, fruits and seeds were also dried.
Fatty birds such as tītī (muttonbirds) were preserved in their own fat. After cooking, the hot fat was set aside. The meat was packed into hue (gourds), and the fat poured in to set around it. Southern tribes inflated pōhā (bull kelp) to make storage containers for tītī.
Mara kai is a traditional fermentation process for food such as crayfish and fish. After European arrival, it was also used for kānga (corn). The kai is placed in a kete (flax basket) and steeped in very slow-running water for days or weeks until the kōpiro (inner flesh) settles to the bottom of the kete. Although the smell becomes pungent, the kai is safe to eat and a delicacy to those who have acquired the taste for it.
The varieties of kūmara eaten today are quite different from the varieties eaten before-Europeans arrived. The most common modern kūmara, Ōwairaka Red, was introduced by a whaling ship, the Rainbow, moored at Ōpōtiki in the 1850s. A carpenter on board noticed the large Rarotongan sweet potatoes on board, and took some away to propagate. Māori soon replaced their traditional varieties with the new waina (vines), so-called because cuttings could be taken from their long, trailing shoots.
Whata were elevated platforms to hold or hang kai from until it could be stored more permanently in pātaka (storehouses) or rua kūmara (underground storage pits). Whata had thatched tops and protected the crops from kiore (rats) and the elements.
Rua kūmara were sited on slopes or other free-draining places so water never sat inside them. Whole kūmara were carefully placed on shelves cut into the inner walls of the pit. The kūmara were regularly checked for rot and rotated to ensure they stayed dry. If the kūmara did start to rot, they could be preserved by fermentation, producing kōtero. Kōtero looks shrivelled but maintains a rich, sweet flavour.
Whitebait, small freshwater fish, are plentiful in spring when they run upstream. There are five native species, including īnanga, kōaro and kōkopu. Iwi often have their own specific names for them at different stages in their life cycles.
Huhu are still eaten by some Māori today, especially the inland, bush iwi and hapū. They are prised from rotting logs and have a buttery-chicken taste.
Kōmata (also tī kōuka or tī-kāuka) seeds are edible. The growing tips or leaf ‘hearts’ of these trees could also be harvested for eating by twisting them out at their natural snapping point, leaving the plant to regenerate and produce multiple hearts.
Flax seeds can be prepared as a laxative by crushing them.
Pikopiko are fern shoots. Only seven out of around 200 species of New Zealand fern are edible.
Mouku (Asplenium bulbiferum, commonly known as hen and chickens fern) is the most widely eaten. Huruhuru whenua (Asplenium oblongifolium, commonly known as shining spleenwort) is very robust and flourishes on the coast, in native bush and, in recent times, in pine forests.
In the central North Island, pikopiko can be harvested all year round.
The fleshy berry of the karaka tree is initially green, then ripens to bright orange in summer. Its ripe texture is like that of a date and it has a light mango flavour. The kernel is poisonous and can cause paralysis. After removing the berry’s flesh, Māori made the kernel safe to eat by steeping it in water and cooking it for up to 12 hours. To make flour, the processed kernels were sundried until the husk came apart. The nut was then pounded into flour, mixed with water and cooked on the embers.
Karengo, sometimes known as parengo (Porphyra species), is a seaweed with exceptional eating qualities, also used as medicine and as a storage container or a steaming vessel for fish, kōura (crayfish) and other kaimoana (seafood). Karengo has a strong flavour and can be eaten dried or reconstituted in hot water as soup.
Toroi is a dish of fresh mussels combined with pūhā (Sonchus species, commonly known as sow thistle) and mussel stock to create a distinct and flavoursome relish or soup.
When the sun comes out after the rains, harore can be found by following the smell. Native mushrooms are very pungent when they burst forth. They have to be harvested quickly to beat the bugs and insects that can strip a wall of mushrooms on a bank or a log in no time. If the bugs have beaten you there, harvest the fungi, then immerse them in water, and lift them out again to clean. Shake them and spread them on a tray to dry.
Māori knew of many varieties of edible fungus including harore (bootlace mushroom), hakeka (wood ear) and pukurau (puffballs). Fungi grew abundantly in the cool, damp New Zealand bush.
Harore grow in a very specific, moist, humid environment. They appear only for a short time each year, but in large quantities. They are then harvested and preserved for the off season.
When Pākehā settlers arrived in New Zealand, Māori quickly embraced the new foods they brought, in particular:
These newly introduced crops grew well in the New Zealand climate and could be harvested several times a year. Many of the traditional foods were set aside and much of the knowledge associated with harvesting and cultivating them disappeared.
As Māori became a largely urbanised people after the Second World War, they began to buy most of their food instead of purchasing basics such as flour and sugar, and hunting and harvesting the rest. However, they also adapted and combined traditional and introduced foods to develop distinctive new dishes.
The potato was introduced to Māori in the 1780s by visiting sailors. It was easier to grow than kūmara and became established throughout the country. Because it helped feed war parties, some historians have suggested that the New Zealand wars of the 1810s to 1830s (sometimes called the ‘musket wars’) should be renamed the ‘potato wars’. Early potatoes looked different from modern varieties. In 1999 Massey University began a project to increase production of these heritage varieties.
Potatoes were easier to grow than kūmara, and pigs could be fattened quickly. Pork, pūhā and potatoes became a new staple meal for Māori. This meal, called the boil-up, is popular amongst Māori today, as a large pot can be prepared to feed big families or crowds of visitors.
Both pork and bacon bones are popular ingredients but other meats such as brisket or sausages can be substituted, and pumpkin, kūmara, kamokamo (sweet marrow) and watercress can be added. Flour and water dumplings called doughboys can be placed on top of the boil-up and steamed before serving.
Corn and maize grew easily and Māori soon applied their traditional cooking and preservation methods to them, producing dishes such as kānga pirau (fermented corn). It looked like porridge and had a very strong aroma.
Kānga pungarehu was a dish of corn kernels mixed with pungarehu (cleaned ash from the fire) and boiled until the husks came away. The swollen kernels were then eaten with sugar and cream or milk, like porridge. A more modern version uses baking soda in place of the pungarehu.
Kānga waru was a grated corn dish mixed with mashed kūmara or sugar and wrapped in corn husks then either boiled or cooked in a hāngī. It is a sweet, dessert-like dish.
With the availability of wheat and flour, Māori embraced the art of breadmaking and created three favourite breads which are still widely made today.
Rewena bread is a large oven-baked loaf that is leavened with a culture made from the juice of boiled potato. Although its ingredients are simple, it takes time to master rewena breadmaking and achieve the perfect flavour (both sweet and sour) and texture (not too dry and crumbly).
Paraoa parai (fried bread) is made from a simple dough, kneaded and cut or rolled into individual buns and deep-fried in fat or cooking oil until golden. The bread is split and spread with jam or golden syrup or savoury fillings such as kina (sea urchins).
Takakau, also called flatbread or cartwheel bread because of its shape, is a simple damper cooked in the oven or the fire. It is delicious with butter and jam or can be used to mop up the juices of a boil-up or hearty stew.
As Māori became adept at cooking with pots and ovens, the hāngī was used less frequently, although it is still used for special occasions and large gatherings such as tangihanga. Alongside the traditional kai (food) from the past, the hāngī can include a bread and mixed herb stuffing to complement the meats, and dessert favourites such as steamed puddings, trifle and cream.
From the late 20th century there was a marked resurgence of interest in traditional and regional foods globally, as well as in healthier and more sustainable ways of eating. For this reason, interest in kai Māori (Māori food) grew, both in New Zealand and internationally.
Traditional Māori foods were adapted to the modern palate, and new products were developed from ancient ingredients, with kai Māori enjoyed both for its nutritional value and its distinct New Zealand flavour.
Half a teaspoon of dried kawakawa leaf mixed with mānuka honey and a slice of lemon makes a delicious infusion, and is a refreshing cold drink mixed with soda or sparkling water.
The leaves of both these plants were harvested on a commercial scale, washed, dried and ground into several different grades of powder from a fine pepper to a large flake. They were marketed and used as herbs in stuffing, as seasonings and coatings for meat, fish and vegetables, and mixed into bread, biscuit and cake doughs.
Like asparagus, pikopiko have a natural snapping point. Rub your hand up the back of a stalk, bending it slightly until it snaps at the weakest point. Carefully wash the tips in cold water and use your fingers to rub off the brown speckles along the stalk. Also remove the small fern-shaped leaves. Pikipiko then becomes a delicious bush asparagus.
Once harvested, pikopiko can be peeled and washed to remove the bitterness, then steamed, boiled, stir-fried, chopped and added to bread dough, blended with oil and nuts to make a spread or simply used as an attractive and delicious garnish. It can be dehydrated whole and later reconstituted in water or, once dried, ground to a powder and mixed to a paste with liquid, then used to add colour and flavour to dishes.
The supplejack vine is common in the New Zealand bush. Although it is thick and strong and does not appear edible, its tips can be snapped to become a juicy, delicious vegetable. When peeled and sliced it can be eaten raw like cucumber or stir-fried like zucchini.
Expert users of traditional Māori wild foods only harvest from plants showing re-growth of three or more full leaves, to ensure that they survive to feed later generations. They need to be aware of their eco-systems and growing conditions, so they can be harvested in accordance with their natural regeneration cycles, ensuring new growth for the future.
Burton, David. New Zealand food and cookery. Auckland: Bateman, 2009.
Crowe, Andrew. A field guide to the native edible plants of New Zealand. Auckland: Penguin, 2004.
Leach, Helen, ed. From kai to kitchen – New Zealand culinary traditions and cookbooks. Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2010.
Riley, Murdoch. Māori vegetable cooking: traditional and modern methods. Wellington: Viking Sevenseas, 1988.
Royal, Charles, and Jenny Kaka-Scott. Cooking with Charles Royal. Wellington: Huia, 2010.