My Cultural Culinary Cuisine

What is it? Is it a food culture created from the wilderness of New Zealand by our ancestors in order to survive a harsh environment through time, trial and error, or is it a culture in its purest form……unique? Compared to other nations around the world during the past thousand years or so, probably not 

Successive methods formulated and modified to gather food from the environment, like flowers, roots, tubers, pollen, the trapping of bird life, animals, fish and seafood cooked or eaten naturally is a process still practiced by Maori communities across New Zealand today.  

Established food sources with physical evidence found throughout New Zealand showed that cultivation was an asset that would see Maori survive harsh conditions in early New Zealand times.

Original culinary delights appreciated by our early Maori communities could be summed up as being bland, chewy, tough, and at times disagreeable to the palette compared to what Maori will tolerate today but of course, the early Maori were adaptable enduring survival skills at a level folding what nature had to offer to modifying those resources to create food that was made safe to eat. 

The preservation of this culture played an important role in our history handed down by word of mouth, pushing ones memory to hold onto this archive of knowledge one generation to the next… however this system had its limits. 

Our knowledge holders of these skills and practices retained by the few, would eventually go with them to the grave but not all was lost… Knowledge was shared across a lot of members of the tribe ensuring knowledge preservation. My challenge was finding asking things like who were these people?, who held what knowledge?, what were the guarantees of this information?... 

In a nutshell, and based around the food scene we can only scratch the surface on what our people ate on a daily basis… We can trace back what the Romans ate, we can trace back what the English ate, the Dutch, the Chinese and even the Aztec people because someone wrote it down.  

Fortunately, early visitors to New Zealand captured, preserved and recorded a lot of information about our fauna, flora, and wild life had it not been for the likes of Captain James Cook who had with him scientist Joseph Banks, who in 1768 traveling throughout New Zealand till their return to England in 1771.

It would have been impossible had it not been for missionaries, botanists or ethnology botanists like William Colenso, Elsdon Best and Richard Taylor who researched and studied which plant materials were used for medical purposes, building, clothing, and more importantly used as a food resource.  

I still remember clearly food prepared in a Whare Putae built purely to cook food, a sort of lean to with dirt floor. Separated from the main house. Perishables kept in ceramic jars with wooden lids, preserving bottles and meat hung in meat safes hanging from a tree close by. 

Introduction I am of Tuhoe descent, I am the great great grandson of Rua Kenana, Prophet and community leader from Maungapohatu. My home land as a child growing up surrounded with experts, practitioners, scholars and knowledge holders of our National Maori culture living a communal lifestyle unique in our area deep inside the folds of Ngai Tuhoe in the Urewera region where 95% of the population then were Maori. 

My desire is to revive, preserve and promote our culinary cultural heritage for the Maori and people of New Zealand. I have been associated with the hospitality services industry since 1973. A subject I enjoy sharing. 

My passion and research in the culinary Maori cuisine philosophy has been with me since 1964 learned to my generation by our grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins and fellow villagers with favorit uncle Te Karo Titoko who was adament we worked and learned together the arts and crafts of the forests… 

The teaching practices were taught by some colourful characters unless they had your utmost attention, a very swift belt across the ear area would soon get it. With teaching policies like that one would hardly forget the subject taught. A practice I am so glad no longer happens in schools I think?

We were in my opinion privileged to be schooled in the practice of respect at an early age like our culture, heritage, close association with nature but more importantly our customary hospitality cultural experience you get on the Marae  

Our right to collect flora, fauna, wildlife and seafood for whanau, hapu and iwi consumption has changed with restrictions now placed far across the forager gathering process once the role our village or marae leaders held. 

Changes to our culinary ethos

The shift from total organic cooking to mainstream cooking happened soon after the arrival of the early settlers 1805 with more coming in came after the treaty to the Maori Land wars then a flood of settlers thereafter. 

The huge land grab, the deforestation program, swamp and estuary clearing and draining destroyed many of our forests, food resources, habitats and wildlife structures changing the entire face of New Zealand forever.

The introduction of metal tools, the horse…. Yup the horse, clothes, leather, commodities like tea, maize, potato, flour, fruit and sugar would become the norm for Maori. It was however the implementation of cooking utensils like pots, tea pots and Dutch ovens that would change our cuisine culture in a big way. 

A typical meal at home consisted of the national pot of boil up, - wild pork or corned beef with potato, kumara, kamokamo, puha, watercress or pikopiko.

The Sunday roast, a national treasure would always be accompanied with roasted vegetables notably the pumpkin, kumara, potato and when it was available and always a treat was kamokamo tails. 

Paraoa Rewena made using “Kotero” as the leaven, dripping with butter and wild honey. Whakamara puha cooked with onion and on rare occasions with kutae. preserved for later and marinated cockles and fermented corn “wai-kanga”. 

My grand parents remembered the change over from Kai Parapara, Kai Mata, Kai hinuhinu, Kai maroke and Kai Rangi wehi, over to the now infamous “boil up” culture that is so synonymous with Maori cuisine.  

But it is the infamous “Hangi” which still reigns supreme on the lips of most people familiar with Maori culture. Prepared with skill taught by iwi right across the country by their men folk with principles in its preparation held to the chest perfecting how each food item was cooked, where it would placed and how long it would take to cook. 

The Hangi is our principal method of cooking, other methods were 

“Kohupara” where food is placed into flax baskets called tipoti, tapora, whena or rourou lined with feral herbs and spices then matched with meats, birds, fish, eels and other native animals and then cooked in the hangi.

“Whena” foods wrapped in leaves and tied with flax or Harakeke and placed beside the fire to cook or placed directly into ashes 

“Hua paera” Placing of hot stones with food wrapping tightly with leaves and tied tight with flax or Harakeke to create a sort of pressure cooker 

“Kohiku” for example skewered birds placed along side the fire to cook

During festive gatherings, be it a wedding, funeral, birthday was always a communal effort and a task I enjoyed as a young kid always volunteering to help out because;

1. It got you out of the house 
2. It meant going somewhere 
3. Excitement was on the horizon
4. Gathering, preparing, cooking food was part of the whanautanga process
5. Setting up the venue, helping in the kitchen, the meeting house was fun.

Cultural changes in our diet and character that remains to this day is our “Aroha” and spiritual gift of “Kai Tiaki Tangata”. The art of hosting, looking after, feeding and in some cases drowning our guests in a sea of tea’s and coffee’s accompanied sometimes with a barrage of cakes and biscuits our version of being a good host.

Cultivation Culture of our Taonga

The fields would be readied for ploughing, the fruit trees trimmed, pruned, and cared for every autumn, cut back the raspberry shrubs, gooseberry vines, and in some cases the grape vines and citrus trees.

Whanau would have orchards where the fruits were picked and gathered for jam making and bottling 

Meats were preserved in vats of fat, eels smoked and dried, fish was dried, beef dried as well. And yes, my grandfather delved into the art of preserving pigeon, kiwi and Tui in fat. We unfortunately are stuck with the chicken. Many traders too would delve into trapping our kiwi but only for its feathers. One such trader caught over 2500 to adorn the hats of the European households.

The annual planting of corn, potatoes, kumara, watermelons, pumpkins, with other growers down the road going that extra mile and plant onions, cabbages, reweti, silverbeet and rhubarb. These were annual events and the norm for all our whanau up and down the valleys of our home.

So what happened? Why have these practices stopped? In the past Maori grew things for survival. 

Granted there are some folk who still do this but in the wider picture, not that many. The emphasis today for Maori is cash cultivation with very little of these crops donated for free to the Marae as was the practice in the past. 

The Hospitality Industry and our food icons 

From an international point of view, we are surrounded with some the best natural food sources in the world. A source I take my hat off to and to show it off to the world. 

Our Maori Cultural Culinary Cuisine is still here waiting to be discovered, tapped and exploited. In my inception into the Hospitality Industry in 1973, I did not once see any foods anywhere that resembled what I grew up with in the kitchens I worked in until recently now that this craft is in demand.  

However I did learn about Tuatua soup, Pacific raw fish, and floaters (fried bread) with a hole in it, the Americans called it a doughnut. 

Many books exist today on Maori Food, the history about Maori food, television programs partly cover topics on Maori food and there are businesses promoting some Maori foods under label  

But nowhere can I find a book, a program or even a documentary or study material that plainly lays out what each tribal Iwi cooked, grew or had in their area. There are facts relating to certain areas in New Zealand but no one book, story and program that tells it all 

An idea and challenge put to me by my colleagues and friends therefore was to put together something relating to this Kaupapa. It is a huge ask and indeed a very big subject to cover. But the benefits I see would be enormous.

Colleagues from hotels here in New Zealand, overseas, entrepreneur business people, restaurateurs and our own Maori people alike are keen to know and our general public are now akin to learn about Maori cuisine so the asking is; 

What is Maori food as there is little understanding of it 

There is now demand for Maori food so where is it?

There is now a place for a Maori Culinary platform, who is going to build it?

There are businesses out there now who are catering to the interests of Maori Culinary Cuisine

We have the resources pertinent to Maori cuisine out there but few have tapped into it 

Should a Council of Maori Chefs be formed to task this mission?

Who would qualify as a member in such a council to perform such a task?

Should we as an ethnic group work to formulate a division under the umbrella of the Chefs Association of New Zealand or should Maori tackle this alone?

Could we perhaps create icons on typical Maori cuisine we could market as products wholly Kiwi made to establish a New Zealand identity nationally or worldwide?

There will be no doubt as to who would benefit from this? yep.. New Zealand would of course

Pretty heavy questions to place from a Chefs point of view let alone a Maori one 

Personally I have always used New Zealand food products whilst on post overseas. I would promote any New Zealand product but when it comes to cooking Maori cuisine the equivalent produce would not always be available. However I could gather puha and watercress in most countries visited because it was readily available even in our back garden when we did have one. 

So I often wonder why an ICONIC product we could proudly identify as typical Maori Cuisine has not yet been created. Maybe something will come of it soon enough. 

Past and present use of our Taonga

Natural ingredients for dishes and cooking methods employed by Maori in the past have changed in that no longer are we restricted to methods used to prepare, preserve, store and cook our foods for example in a Hangi.

The modern chef’s choice of similar ingredients have not changed only the style and fashion 

The presentation, flavors, textures and indeed the overall appearances of foods served today can be a sight to behold as demonstrated at the recent Auckland National Culinary Competitions;  

Ingredients used in these three dishes are pikopiko, Paua, karengo, Taewa Tutaekuri and Urenika, and Manuka smoked eel 

Creations for dinner parties at home and at posts whilst overseas 

Hua Kaimoana 
Soused Green-lip Mussels served over a fresh Puha and Kawakawa salad accompanied with dollops of sour cream and crispy matchstick Tutaekuri potato

Roasted Koreke with Huiarau Miro
Seared Breast of Quail crusted with Miro and wild honey garnished with toasted Kotero bread and deep fried baby Pararaika potato

Poaka a Tanemahuta 
Poaka Puihi infused with makaika, riki and Manuka, carved onto a bed of pressed Tiotio and Kamokamo greens finished with steamed baby Tamahou potato

Tangaroa’s Wash
Torere Koura and Hapuka chowder dressed with saffron & chive cream topped with fine ribbons of sun dried Hue and Karengo

Te Kehua’s Marsh
Delectable Pavlova scented with lemon custard, wild berries and Tawhara syrup 

Our Taonga and its future

Further a field where would we go with our food resources. 

Our traditional foods once forgotten are making a come back as demonstrated in the pictures and dishes. In small doses sure but in the long term our foods once re-established back into daily use and hopefully into the market place such as are our esteemed Taewa or indigenous food crops, would it not be feasible then to 

• Include such delicacies into menus in main stream restaurant or hotel chains?
• award a National prize for creating original Maori dishes or icons
• school establishment teaching the history of Maori Cuisine?
• Identify restaurant establishments as servers of genuine Maori cuisine and certify them as the genuine article?

Questions we need to ask 

• Would such a venture take off? 
• Would the general public take to such an establishment that serves only Maori cuisine? 

Several establishments have failed and one that I know has done very well. 

Do we give up as a unique race and wait for someone else to create these icons for us?


Can our Maori Cultural Culinary Cuisine be revived? Can we go back into the past and drag our cultural cuisine back and give it the revival support it needs. 

I have touched briefly on my past, where I have been and which direction our cuisine could go. 

It is up to us now, to preserve what we have left of our culinary culture, research and revive what we can from our cuisine culture because I know there is place for it and it can work and it does have its place along side our European and Asian counter parts world wide.

Dare I say it but we have at our disposal the best technological tools unlike anything our Tipuna have seen. Our Kaupapa has a world wide reach now, we even have our own television station, universities BUT we do not have that food identity we could call our own and be very proud of yet.

I feel our Maori culture in the kitchen needs to be there, my colleagues feel our culture needs to be there but are not sure how without upsetting Maori.

Members of the New Zealand Chefs Association, Restaurateurs Association would like to know how to best market Maori Cuisine. They want to know from Maori so as not to upset or worse discriminate in terms of spelling but more importantly know the kawa or proper protocol that dictates the service of Maori foods in the traditional manner.  

Our greatest resource in the realm of Maoridom is …………its people and its food culture

Currently I am working with a fantastic couple who have inspired me on a personal mission to part knowledge as a chef back to our Maori people through television and a restaurant they now own in the hope of finding key young people to carry the mantel into the future to the next generation of talented chefs for our people, our cultural heritage and indeed the Hospitality Industry. 

It is our right to be identified in the culinary world and present our Maori Cultural Culinary Cuisine the best way we know how, through our own unique hospitality ethos. Tikanga Maori

I must also acknowledge those amazing people who have taken the reigns of pursuit and no doubt will succeed in their presentation of our Maori Culinary Culture as artists and promoters of our Maori food culture be it in the kitchen servicing the Hospitality Industry, presenting on television, presenting and marketing on the Internet, in newspapers, in magazines to fulfil our mission of promoting our food culture to the world. We are on an amazing Maori Food Cultural revolution here and I must say I am proud to be part of that

I thank you all for your time in allowing me to have my say on a subject very close to my soul.

This is the one photograph I would like to share with you that portrays the skill, talent and patience that we are renowned for around the world, our food art……

The Hongi sculptured in margarine

No reira te Iwi e nohonoho mai nei.
Ka mutu hia Nga paku korero mo tenei wa. 
Tena koutou, 
Tena koutou 
Tena ra tatou katoa


Riley, M. 1988 Maori Vegetable Cooking Viking Seven seas NZ Ltd,Paraparaumu
Salmon, J.T. 1980/9 The Native Trees From New Zealand Heinemann Reed, Auckland
Crowe, C. 1990/1 Native Edible Plants of New Zealand Hodder & Stoughton, Auckland

Foot Note. Mission title now revised and changed to "Genuine Maori Cuisine" written in 2005

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