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Memories and recollections of the Kumara and other traditional Maori food {part 1}

Posted on : 22-06-2009 | By : Cindy | In : Maori kai, Traditions, Vegetables

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My father-in-law, Haare Williams (now in his 70’s),  grew up with his Maori grandparents, Rimaha and Wairemana, on the shores of Ohiwa Harbour near Whakatane, New Zealand. Here he recounts the food they ate, especially the kumara (please see my related post: “Kumara to KFC”). The back-breaking work, the use of the stars to guide planting and harvest times and the ingenious storage method – it’s a far cry from my quick drive to the vegetable shop to buy a few kumara for my roast beef!  Thank-you, Haare, for sharing your memories and treasured knowledge with us in this 3-part series.

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Kumara planting“Ko te kumara i a Rangi

Ko Pekehawani ka noho i a Rehua

Ko Ruhiterangi ka tau kei raro

Te ngahuru tikotiko i a Uru

Ko Poutu te rangi te matahi o te tau

Te Putunga o te hinu e

Tama”

(Excerpt from Ori ori from Te Aitanga a Mahaki tribe)

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Of all the crops at hand to us at Karaka, the most valued was kumara. You see, kumara has a long whakapapa and apart from the story of Poutini, the green eye of pounamu, and later the movements of whales, kumara is a part of the epic journey of Maori across the Pacific to Aotearoa. Acknowledged in songs and whakapapa, kumara is traced to Maui Wharekino and Pani their mating seed they begat the essence of kumara.

The arrival in Aotearoa of two migratory birds, the shining cuckoo with its distinctive call, was celebrated with songs, prayers and tears of joy. The other was the long tail cuckoo. They too paved a pathway to this land and back again, guided by instinct and the prevailing currents.

The sacred seeds after all, were borne here on the backs of two giant birds, nga Manunui a Ruakapanga, across Te Moananui-a-Kiwa from Parinhuitera.

Rimaha and Wairemana each year scanned the skies for the appearance Te Aotahi and Takurua (Canopus and Rigel), sent a prayer to Rehua (Antares) and his two wives, Pekehawani and Ruhiterangi, guardians for the seasons of planting and for the harvest. They offered thanks to these deities as kaitiaki of kumara.

The planting season was marked with rituals, which ushered in the calls of spring and planting. Rimaha and Wairemana followed closely the seasons of the moon and awaited and read the appearance of Matariki (Pleiades) and Puanga (Rigel) in the sky. Their appearance indicated the beginning of the season for planting. Planting and harvesting were determined by appearances of lunar measures, which they understood and applied knowledge honed over centuries of observation and practice by their tipuna.

Planting, cultivating, and preserving food was an art with Rimaha and Wairemana. That isn’t surprising given that they, and their hapu came through a time where mere survival was an imperative following the legislative taking of their Tuhoe and Te Whakatohea lands. These matters surfaced often, a link to land grievances and the economic devastation of Tuhoe and Te Whakatohea whanau and hapu. In that frame, kumara was also a symbol of survival.

Gardens. Lots and lots of gardens. Extensive gardens for just three people, two of them elderly and the third, a kid.

Wairemana sat in the dust moving around on her hands and knees from one spot to the next, working from dawn to dusk. They seemed to live for those gardens and their annual yields of kumara, potatoes, kamokamo, watermelons and rock melons, sugar cane, maize, onions and tobacco. Puha seed was scattered around the perimeter of the gardens amongst the kamokamo. There was even greater responsibility to ensure the preservation of mauri (the life essence) in all things and the food planted and harvested.

The mauri was embodied in the seeds and in places where food was obtained. In these, the mauri of the land must be protected from abuse or over use and was applied by them not only to kumara but all other food bearing resources. It was a natural way of life for them.

Wairemana would remind me, “Kaua e tukinotia te whenua.” Do not take the land and its natural gifts for granted.

In the case of kumara, the part that was eaten was accepted for the body (tinana), but the mauri, that is its spiritual substance (wairua) needed protection through karakia and by being mindful of its importance to life. With such a noble lineage, no wonder kumara had a life of its own.

Back breaking work. A shovel was modified into a heavy hoe with the blade bent, and used to break down clumpy, lumpy turf into fine malleable soil.

Weeds. Everywhere weeds. Wairemana was especially attentive to her patch of watermelons and rock melons. She tended the gardens well and occasionally I helped with watering the tender shoots. She sang lullabies and fondled the plants as friends.

We lived close to nature’s lushness with the bush behind us and the sea in front. To one side there were the streams and extensive swamps with their seasonal offerings of kopururpuru, eels, weka, raupo and flax. On the other side the stretches of mudflats in the harbour, a constant source for flounders, herrings and the muddy titiko (periwinkles). Besides it provisions of medicines, the bush at the back yielded timber, kiekie and dyes, and as well the delicious harore, a fungus which grew best on rotted logs, teure a very sweet pine-apple shaped fruit found in the centres of the kiekie. Then there was pikopiko, the delicious curly fern fronds. Berries as well …

Kei runga

Kei runga ko Ranginui

Kei raro ko Papatuanuku

Kei mua ko te moana

Kei muri ko te ngahere

Kei tena taha

Ko nga awaawa

Kei tera taha

Ko te puna wai

Ko nga repo

Kei konei

Ko nga momo oranga

Katoa

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Part 2 of this series by Haare, recounting early experiences with traditional Maori food is to follow on another post soon …

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Related:

Maori Dictionary Online
Kumara to KFC – How Maori eating habits have changed
Kaipara Kumara

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