The History of Māori Cuisine in NZ

Geothermal cooking, circa 1910

Part One

By Ann Allen

Over the coming weeks and months I want to write some pieces on the history of Māori cuisine in New Zealand. This is the short first part.

A number of writers (Beaton, 2007; Leach, 2010; Morris, 2010) have written persuasively about the historical and contemporary politics of the marginalisation and lack of visibility of Māori  cuisine, foods, cooking, cookbooks and ownership of the right to call ingredients ‘indigenous’.

To look at the lack of visibility of Māori foodways and cuisine in present day New Zealand one must examine the two waves of colonisation that have occurred in New Zealand and at the historical development of Māori indigenous foodways.

Being a member of the original inhabitants of a particular place is commonly defined as indigenous. Thus Māori are indigenous to New Zealand. New Zealand was colonised first by Māori between 950 and 1130AD with a colonial period lasting 100-150 years. Bringing typical Polynesian foods including yam, taro, kumara, banana, gardening became increasingly important in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries with the depletion of large game animals. This transitional period in food production and preservation, with the development of sustainable practices in hunting animals and fish, saw the settling of many nomadic groups in specific areas and in specific social groupings. Warfare, although not endemic, was, for many communities always a potential. However, the cultivation of gardens was a primary occupation in settled times as was foraging and the trading of food with neighbours (Houghton, 1996).

Māori were considered skilled horticulturalists (Leach, 1997, 2010). Indeed with the influx, in 1769, of British traders, explorers and military, Māori skills became essential to the survival of those pre- colonisers. Māori supplied quantities of meat, dressed flax and vegetables (Leach, 2010) in return, for example, for wheat milling technology which allowed them to further supply their own communities and those of the settlers and visitors. Unfortunately, with the 1860 fall in wheat prices, the increase in the settler-coloniser population and the New Zealand Wars, Māori visibility in the new New Zealand food traditions waned. Their produce and dishes were not wanted, nor were their cooking methods. As Leach (2010) notes, ‘after 1869 … there are few accounts that recognised the existence of a separate Māori culinary tradition’, and the same is said to continue into the late twentieth century.

The next part will have a look at Māori cuisine today

Beaton, S., (2007). A Contemporary Māori Culinary Tradition – Does it Exist? An Analysis of Māori Cuisine. Cited in Leach, H. (Ed) From Kai to Kiwi Kitchen, New Zealand Culinary Traditions and Cookbooks. Otago Univerity Press, Dunedin, New Zealand. 53.

Houghton, P., (1996). People of the Great Ocean. Aspects of Human Biology of the Early Pacific. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, England.

Leach, H. M., (1997). The Terminology of Agricultural Origins and Food Production Systems – a Horticultural Perspective. Antiquity 71(271), 135-48.

Leach, H. M., (2010). Cookery in the Colonial Era (1769-1869). In Leach, H. (ed) From Kai to Kiwi Kitchen, New Zealand Culinary Traditions and Cookbooks (pp. 31-48). Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago Univerity Press.

Morris, C., (2010). The Politics of Palatibility on the absence of Māori Restaurants. Food, Culture and Society 13(1), 6-28.