Breaking bread: a Māori family feast in New Zealand

Hospitality and communal dining are central to Māori culture, and on New Zealand’s North Island, Nadine Toe Toe and her whānau (family) welcome guests with open arms.

By Jean Teng
photographs by Josh Griggs
Published 26 Feb 2021, 08:00 GMT, Updated 9 Mar 2021, 19:44 GMT
Nadine Toe Toe and her three-year-old son, Bodhi, sitting down to dinner in their home in New ...

Nadine Toe Toe and her three-year-old son, Bodhi, sitting down to dinner in their home in New Zealand’s North Island.

Photograph by Josh Griggs

My shoes squelch in mud as we stand on a grassy bank, waiting for Himioa, or Himi as he’s better known, to coax the hīnaki out of the lake. The hīnaki — a cylindrical, woven rope pot — slinks unhappily from the water, empty. It was laid last night in the hope of trapping a freshwater eel.

“I expected this,” Himi says, laughing. “The moon has been too bright for them.”

Native longfin eel, or ‘tuna’ as they’re known by Māori, are a traditional source of food, though numbers have dwindled in New Zealand's Lake Aniwhenua and Rangitaiki River due to dams disrupting their migration and breeding patterns. Himi Nuku is involved in a conservation effort to preserve the fish for future generations, manually transporting them from one end of the river to the other so they can reach the sea. It’s vital work, and personal: his iwi (tribe), Ngāti Manawa, are known as the Eel People. Each time they fish, they take only enough for one meal, but if there’s a special occasion — such as a tangihanga, a funeral rite — calling for larger numbers, special permission from the rest of the tribe is sought.

We jump back in the car, heading to Whirinaki Forest. Although eel is off the menu, there are other ingredients to forage for our dinner back in Murupara, a predominantly Māori township in a sparsely populated part of the North Island. Despite being less than 40 miles from Rotorua, a place so rich in geothermal activity that the eggy stink of sulphur permeates the entire city, Murupara has clear, fresh air. Its grassy pastures are bordered almost entirely by forest; besides Whirinaki, Murupara is a gateway to two others. I ask about the pine forest, Kaingaroa, a huddle of towering matchsticks that look as if they’re standing guard over the rolling hills. It’s a touchy subject — the land on which this commercial plantation sits belongs to a local iwi. “We say they own the trees, and we own the land,” Himi tells me.

Himi leading a guided walk in Whirinaki Forest.

Photograph by Josh Griggs

He points out the farm he grew up on, where, as a child, he’d ride a horse through the bush, across the river and into the forest. His koro (grandfather) would make the children go  with him to forage and hunt — for deer, ducks, pheasants and wild pigs — passing down his knowledge so it could live on, “even though we thought it was boring as”, Himi laughs. Today, you can still spot groups of kids marching into the foliage, puppies and pushcarts in tow, fishing rods slung over their small shoulders, off to catch rainbow and brown trout.

Himi slows down, spotting something we can use tonight: watercress. He pulls over to a creek where bushels of green are sprouting from the water, hops out of the car and starts whacking off bundles by the roots with a small knife as he sings a song in te reo Māori (the Māori language). “My koro was always singing when he did this, and now I do it subconsciously too, I think,” he tells me.

All is silent in Whirinaki Forest. Feathered ferns stretch out, tucked beneath rimu and totara trees — some, centuries old — which paint the sky with their spindly branches. To the Ngāti Manawa iwi, the Whirinaki is mother of the land, a chemist and pātaka kai (a food storehouse). Himi stops at its entrance, leaning on a supplejack vine cane, and begins a karakia (prayer), and then a mihi (formal greeting), introducing us to the Whirinaki.

Himi has been a bush guide for more than seven years, leading groups into a quiet that’s punctuated only by birdsong. I’m hoping to see the kēreru, a large pigeon with a feathered head the colour of an aged bruise, all green and purple. Before rats arrived on the North Island — on the ships of European colonisers —  and started consuming kēreru at an alarming rate, the birds were a traditional food source for Māori. Eating them is now illegal, but Himi hints that some people in the area still occasionally partake.

“This is all medicine, pretty much,” Himi says, looking around. We pause often for him to tell stories about medicinal plants: whauwhaupaku leaves that can be gathered in a muslin cloth and dipped in a bath, like a giant tea bag, to treat skin conditions; makomako, with leaves as jagged as shark teeth, known to the aunties as the ‘fountain of youth’. Bulbous growths protruding from its trunk are sawn off and used as bowls in which to mix medicine.

It’s not the right time for berries, but come May, bucketfuls drop to the forest floor; Himi mentions his koro would carry a tin of condensed milk to mix into a creamy berry dessert, like an instant cheesecake. He spies a couple of small, firm berries and hands one to me, noting they taste just like mango (they do). Off the track, we see horopito, a shrub with piquant leaves that can be rubbed on meat or ground into as earthy seasoning, and pikopiko, edible fern shoots with tightly curled tips.

Kawakawa is a healing plant mainly used for tea. 

Photograph by Josh Griggs

Cooking for a crowd

Nature’s bounty in hand, we head down a long dirt driveway to Kohutapu Lodge, where Himi’s whānau offer guests cultural experiences and accommodation. Deer, goats and small guest cabins sit against a backdrop of grassy fields: a simple slice of solitude.

Nadine Toe Toe, Himi’s cousin, had greeted us earlier with a tight hug and sent us off with stern orders not to come back before school pick-up at 3pm. Now she reappears, asking how our trip went, taking charge with a fierce warmth I’m happy to be swept up in. She herds us into the wharekai (dining hall), where Nadine’s husband Karl and another cousin, Weku, are chatting outside on the deck, looking across misty Lake Aniwhenua. It’s winter, and the glassy surface of the water is set off by naked trees stripped down to shades of rust and silver, with solemn green pines looming behind them.

Cheese platters are assembled for us to pick at while dinner is prepped. I spread a homemade pickle of abalone and apple onto crackers, while kawakawa tea, made with leaves we’d foraged earlier, is boiled up on the stove.

“You’ll feel amazing in the morning, honey,” Nadine says as I sip on the tea, which tingles in my mouth. The planned starter of eel pate has been changed to salmon, which Nadine had smoked in manuka sawdust while we were trekking through the forest. The men are called upon to debone the salmon just as Nadine and Karl’s energetic three-year-old son, Bodhi, charges through the wharekai’s doors, followed by their teenage daughter, Tylah-Fern. Soon, prep blurs as everyone joins in.

Nadine reaches out her arms to corral Bodhi, who begs to taste-test the pale pink pate in the food processor. “You tell me what it needs,” Nadine says. We all get a spoon with which to taste the creamy, sweet pate; I suggest a little more lemon and Nadine tells me to go ahead and add it in.

An assembly line forms to tackle the basket full of sweet potatoes, carrots and parsnips, whose skins are peeled straight into an old beer box for the fat pig penned in a field outside. “We’re used to cooking for around 100 people,” Nadine laughs. Feeding busloads of hungry tourists as part of their day-to-day business means cooking en masse comes naturally, and I have a sneaking suspicion there’ll be some leftovers today.

Everyone flits between the kitchen and the deck, time stretching out slowly. Nadine emerges with a silver bowl large enough to feed a giant, and I know it’s time to make the fried bread. Something akin to an unsweetened doughnut, fried bread is the kind of food you can’t help but fill up on before even taking a seat at the table. Flour and salt go into the huge bowl, which is put to the side; in another, Nadine measures out sugar, oil, milk, warm water and yeast. “We don’t do small here,” she says, generously heaping all the ingredients in before mixing them together. A tea towel is thrown on top of the wet mixture to let it rest, before everything is combined and kneaded to make a springy dough.

Fried bread with salmon pate. 

Photograph by Josh Griggs

Karl enters with the venison, which has been hanging for two weeks in a chiller and has now been carved up into rich, red slabs. He plops hefty chunks onto the counter to slice into. “I’m not a butcher or anything,” he says, working the silver skin with his knife, “but I get the job done.” Karl tells me this wild venison will almost certainly taste better than its supermarket counterpart due to the animal’s omnivorous diet, which includes the medicinal plants of the forest. The meat is a staple around here, hunted locally and cooked very simply, usually just with a little butter and onion.

Indigenous cuisine revolves around seasonal ingredients from the land, so every iwi has its own traditions, although there’s commonality: smoke, root vegetables, seafood, native plants, and preservation. The importance of the ingredients and a connection to the land is apparent in all conversations with Nadine’s family. The cuisine, centred around a principle of allowing ingredients to taste just as they are, makes sense, as does the traditional way of cooking — hāngi, where food is cooked underground with heated rocks. Just outside is a square of dirt where a hāngi is often laid down — although not today. A stack of jute sacks wait to the side, ready to be soaked in water and used to cover the food, creating steam trapped by earth. It’s a lengthy process, requiring at least three hours for the rocks to get red-hot in the fire and another three for cooking, so it’s not done daily.

Atamira, another member of Nadine’s whānau, arrives with a bottle of wine. She lives nearby, in Te Urewera, and is soon tasked with fixing the watercress salad from the large pile of leaves soaking in the sink. “Should I leave the stems on?” Ata calls out to Nadine, who replies, “Are they bitter, babe?” They are, so we snap them off by hand. Watercress is conventionally eaten in a boil-up (a bone-based stew), but Nadine tells me her cooking strives to utilise indigenous ingredients in ways her older relatives may never have experienced, bringing in a little global influence from her travels and the international visitors who stop by at Kohutapu. Muddled with avocado, red onion and feta, the salad is then drizzled with sundried tomato oil.

By now, the dough for the fried bread has been proving for half an hour, and it’s time to start dividing it up. It’s extremely sticky, so I coat my hands in flour. The dough should be handled as little as possible — to avoid knocking the air out — and cutting it is all in a flick of the wrist, slicing a straight line down and quickly freeing a small portion from the rest of the dough. We end up with scone-sized pieces, ready to cook.

Nadine and I work the deep-fry station together, turning over the golden balls as they bob in and out of shimmering oil. Fried bread was invented post-colonisation, she says, as Māori wouldn’t previously have had access to some of the ingredients, but it’s become a mainstay at marae (Māori meeting grounds), during special occasions. The first piece, smothered in butter and golden syrup, tastes so good, I eat two more in quick succession. Bodhi holds a shushing finger to his lips as he walks past, a piece of precious, stolen fried bread gripped in his other hand.

Karl preparing the venison. 

Photograph by Josh Griggs

The spirit of manaakitanga

During prep for the meal, guests from Waiheke Island (around 200 miles north west) arrive in their caravans, having begged Nadine to let them join the feast. In the spirit of manaakitanga (hospitality), a value central to Māori culture, she couldn’t say no. It’s dark outside where we’ll be eating, so there’s a soft spotlight illuminating the long table, now neatly set for 12. For a few moments, a black cat jumps up to claim a seat, tail moving back and forth as it waits for the food to arrive.

And then it does, all at once: molehills of vegetables roasted in duck fat, all tumbling over each other; bowls of fried bread with smoked salmon pate served alongside; vibrant watercress salad; crumbed venison, simply pan-fried; baked pumpkin filled with bacon soup.

Atamira leads a karakia to bless the food, and then the mood turns cheerful; there’s little formality as we reach across each other and pile our plates high. Chatter breaks up into small pockets: a conversation about local sports soon turns into a discussion on Atamira’s work with community market gardens and her interest in raising awareness about indigenous plants and medicine. It’s easy, curious conversation.

The venison is delicious and tender, but it’s the watercress salad my fork keeps reaching for: perhaps because I saw it through from soil to plate. Nadine, apron still on, flits around, checking in on all her guests. She loads a plate, scooping up a little portion of every dish, and slides it under the nose of Josh, our photographer. “I’ve been watching what you’ve been eating,” she scolds.

Somehow, there’s still room for dessert: a slice of Nadine’s pavlova, topped with raspberries that Karl and Tylah-Fern picked down the road, and forest honey from an iwi in nearby Ruatāhuna. Crunchy, chewy, silky and seriously sweet: it’s a fabulous pav.

After we whisk the empty plates back into the kitchen, Nadine insists we head to sleep; it’s been a long day. My eyes, dragging down, answer for me, and I leave with a full stomach and echoes of the whānau’s laughter in
my ears.

The whānau (family) and their guests sit down to dinner on the terrace. 

Photograph by Josh Griggs

Four flavours to try in New Zealand

1. Boil-up
This thin but hearty one-pot bone stew is typically served up on lazy Sundays and made using leftovers. Ingredients vary, but pork bones are essential, as are watercress (or pūha, also known as sow thistle), potato, sweet potato and carrot. Doughboys (small flour dumplings) can be added towards the end of cooking.

2. Kawakawa
A Māori healing plant, kawakawa is identifiable by its pointy, heart-shaped leaves. These can be chewed (great for toothaches, apparently) or infused to make topical tonics, but their main use is for kawakawa tea, which aids digestion. “Look for the leaves with holes in,” Himi advises — the insects have made a meal of those that are ready. The female variant of the plant yields peppery berries that can be made into chutney.

3. Hāngi
A method of cooking involving hot rocks, which are heated in an underground pit. The hāngi (loose translation: ‘earth oven’) can be used for slow-cooking meat, fish and vegetables over several hours to yield tender, smoky results. The ingredients would traditionally have been wrapped in leaves, but they’re now more commonly encased in tin foil and wire baskets instead. In Rotorua, some iwi use the steam from geothermal vents instead of heated stones.

4. Tawa berries
Found in the Whirinaki Forest, dark plum-coloured tawa berries are large and edible, but are particularly renowned for their kernels. These are boiled, steamed or roasted, and over fire they pop like popcorn. The kernels can also be dried and stored during the winter — although there’s some competition in gathering them, as they’re a favourite of kēreru birds and wild pigs.

Published in Issue 10 (winter 2020) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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