‘[O]n reaching the coast we were compelled to eat the rimu, or seaweed, instead. Yesterday, I should have thought seaweed poisonous, or nearly so; now, I eat it with a relish. So much for hunger.’ 1
Māori traditionally used a few species of red and green seaweed as food, and bull kelp or rimurapa, with its inflatable blades, for storage. Karengo (Porphyra species), the most commonly eaten seaweed, is fairly tasteless when fresh but has a distinctive fishy taste when dried. It is pulled from tidal rocks in winter and spring and usually air-dried before use. Karengo was an important supplement to the winter diet of Māori because of its high nutritional value – up to 30% protein, and rich in vitamins and iodine. It reconstitutes readily in water and may be boiled or fried in fat. Dried karengo was sent to members of the Māori Battalion in the Middle East during the Second World War.
The following cooking suggestions are taken from Gwen Skinner’s book Simply living:
Take a handful of dried karengo and steam it for about an hour. Add 2–3 cups of boiling stock and a knob of butter, then simmer.
Alternatively, wash and crush freshly gathered karengo, then add 2–3 cups of boiling water, salt and butter, and boil for 20–30 minutes. You can also cook it with corned beef or bacon.
Pōhā – kelp bags
The southern Māori tribe Ngāi Tahu had various uses for bull kelp, or rimurapa: the narrow stalk, connecting the holdfast to the blade, was fashioned into a flute; the blade was roasted and chewed; and wide blades were used as bags for preserving food. Māori made bags called pōhā by splitting open the blades and inflating them. They produced the bags in large quantities during summer in preparation for the muttonbirding season. Inflated blades were hung up to dry for several days, then deflated and rolled up.
In autumn the bags were taken to the islands around Stewart Island where muttonbirds, or tītī, were caught. They were filled with muttonbird chicks; an average-sized pōhā could hold up to 50 birds. When the bag was full, hot fat was poured over the birds and the top tied off to exclude air. Birds have been preserved for up to six years with this method.
Although not widely practised today, customary harvest of some seaweed species by Māori has continued and is recognised in legislation. The Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1998 protects bull kelp and karengo from commercial harvesting within the tribe’s traditional seaweed-gathering grounds.