Story: Te hopu tuna – eeling

Page 7. Cooking, preserving and storing eels

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In the kope or kōpaki method, eels were wrapped in leaves of rangiora, raurēkau or green flax and roasted over glowing embers.

The tāpora method involved packing eels into a small basket and covering them with pūhā leaves and young fronds of mauku (Asplenium bulbiferum), which were cooked and eaten with the eels.


Eels were a valued food source in traditional Māori society. They were often preserved, and were then called tuna pāwhara or tuna maroke. The backbones, heads and tails were removed and the eels were hung out to dry - or partially cooked on a grating of green sticks over a fire. Curing them like this would preserve them for months, and they were hung in a shed or packed in baskets. For eating, they were softened by steaming in a hāngī (earth oven).

First fruits

The first eel caught at a weir was put aside as an offering to the gods – a tradition when fishing or gathering food. When a youth caught eels for the first time, the catch was cooked on a sacred fire (ahi parapara) for a feast.

Keeping live eels

Live eels were kept in water in a hīnaki or a korotete (eel cage) – a special pot similar to a hīnaki, often made from mangemange stems. In Ōtaki, north of Wellington, these cages could hold up to 300 eels. Cages were put in a stream, and tied to a stake or tree. The eels were fed potatoes and other food.

The Ngāti Kuru-mokihi people of Tūtira in Hawke’s Bay built whare tuna – shelters in the water for eels. These were over 4 metres long, 1 metre wide and half a metre high, made of mānuka lashed with flax. The downstream end was blocked and weighted with stones, and the top was open. The shelter was filled with waterweed, rimurimu. Eels gathered there of their own accord, and were removed as needed.

Ponds or lagoons that had no outlet to the sea were sometimes deliberately stocked with eels. Matamoe and haumate tuna (two types of eel) were put into a lagoon that used to exist in Miramar, Wellington. The Ngāti Porou tribe sometimes dammed a stream and stocked it with eels, taking them as the need arose.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Te hopu tuna – eeling - Cooking, preserving and storing eels', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 24 Sep 2007