Māori have been cooking with ingredients from New Zealand's native forests for more than a thousand years.
Māori brought edible plants from Hawaiki, including kūmara, yam and taro. New Zealand kūmara is particularly sweet and grows in the semi-tropical regions of the North Island. It is available in red, gold or orange varieties.
Along with root vegetables, they also introduced Kiore (the Polynesian rat) and Kurī (the Polynesian dog), both valuable sources of meat.
Māori hunted a wide range of birds (such as mutton birds and moa), collected seafood and gathered native ferns, vines, palms, fungi, berries, fruit and seeds.
When Pākehā (European) settlers arrived in New Zealand. These crops included wheat, potatoes, maize, carrots, cabbage and other vegetables. Māori also began raising sheep, pigs, goats and poultry.
Potatoes were easier to grow than kūmara, and pigs could be fattened quickly, so pork, pūhā and potatoes became a new staple meal - called ‘boil-up’.
Flavours from the bush
Cold-pressed flaxseed oil is an unrefined oil, and nothing is added or removed. It is a great source of Omega 3 and six essential fatty acids, Omega 9 antioxidants and vitamins.
Mānuka was named 'tea tree' by Captain James Cook and English botanist Joseph Banks when they found it in Mercury Bay in 1769. Mānuka wood chips can be used to add flavour when smoking food, but it is best known as the source of mānuka honey, which is used to produce a growing list of products with outstanding medicinal and antiseptic properties.
Pikopiko (fern shoots)
Most of the wild fern varieties that grow in damp shady areas of New Zealand’s native bush are carcinogenic - of 312 different varieties, only seven varieties are edible. The edible fern fronds, known as bush asparagus, are pale green with brown speckles. Picked before the leaves unfold, the fronds add a unique 'forest' flavour to dishes.
Pūhā, also known as sow thistle, is a green-dark green plant often found growing as a weed. The stem contains a milky coloured sap. Eaten raw, the stem and leaves have a bitter taste. Cooking does not remove the bitterness but it can be reduced by rubbing the pūhā plants together (vigorously) under running water. Pūhā is traditionally served cooked with pork.
Kawakawa trees are mostly found in coastal areas of New Zealand in damp bush. The heart-shaped leaves are dried, ground and then used to season, adding a rich forest aroma with a light minted flavour.
Kōwhitiwhiti or watercress grows on the edge of freshwater rivers and creeks around New Zealand. Eaten raw or cooked, it has a mild mustard flavour.
Flavours from the sea
Pāua is recognisable for its beautiful blue/green, iridescent shell and thin, black surface covering its creamy-white flesh in its natural state. Pāua is considered taonga (treasure), a gift from the god of the sea. It is highly valued for its firm meaty flesh and savoury, sea flavour. Its shell is used for jewellery and incorporated in traditional Māori carvings, usually to represent the eyes.
Bluff Oysters are a prized delicacy in New Zealand and many of the fishers who catch them have lived on the sea for generations. The season to try these tasty morsels is from March until August.
Kōura are freshwater crayfish closer in size to a king prawn than lobster.
Kūtai (green-lipped mussels)
New Zealand Greenshell™ mussels are the ultimate health food. They are a good source of protein and are low in fat and calories. As well as being particularly flavoursome, they are also a very good source of omega-3.
Hāngī, is a feast cooked in an earth oven for several hours. The kai can include chicken, lamb, pork, kai moana (seafood) and vegetables (particularly kūmara or sweet potato) and is placed on top of the stones then topped with dirt to trap the heat.
Rēwena paraoa (potato bread) tastes sweet and has a slight sour/tang flavour to it, a result of the long period of fermentation it undergoes. The bread is wonderfully textured and flavoursome.
Traditional foods to avoid
Tipa, or Queen Scallops, are caught through unsustainable dredging fishing practices. This makes them one of the worst seafood choices. It's best to avoid eating them.
Whitebait fishing was a well-established tradition before European settlement. To this day eager anglers wade in the water during spring to net fish.
However, four out of the five whitebait species in New Zealand are now endangered, according to DOC. Be a responsible traveller and skip the whitebait fritters.
One of the most popular fish to eat in New Zealand, tarakihi is a common feature on fish and chip shops' menus. Yet tarakihi fish stocks have plummeted to crisis level.
Kina (sea urchin)
Kina is a traditional food of the Māori, eaten raw this is a delicacy. The traditional method to eat a kina is to crack open the kina shell with a rock and take out the roe by hand.
Kina can be sustainable, depending on how it is caught. Make sure you only choose kina collected by diving (breath-hold). If it is collected by dredging then it should be avoided, due to the environmental damage caused.
Māori delicacies that are harder to find
The origin of the name refers to the mutton-like taste of the flesh, and possibly the woolly appearance of its young. The bird is the size of a very small duck. Due to a very short season (1st April until 31st May) these birds are very expensive to purchase and are only available for a short period of time.
Kānga kōpiro (fermented corn)
Also known colloquially as “Māori porridge”, Kānga Pīrau is decidedly an acquired taste. Kānga Pīrau is prepared by putting corn cobs into sacks which are left in a clean running stream for up to six weeks until they have fermented. The corn kernels are then stripped from the cob, mashed and then cooked just like porridge and served either hot or cold.
Huhu grubs were part of a traditional Māori diet. A good fossick in fallen logs may reveal a wriggling colony. When eaten raw huhu grubs have the taste and consistency of peanut butter.