Ātea

The story of the kūmara – a superfood shaped by Māori

Health expert Te Miri Rangi looks at ways to revive indigenous Māori knowledge to optimise health and wellbeing.

Generations of evolution and human development have influenced the way our tinana, or our body, functions, and how it responds to the kai we eat. Most of the kai around us today has emerged as the result of an industrial food system. Years of scientific development have conditioned our palates to prefer foods full of ‘flavour’. These are foods that are often highly processed and full of sugar or fats. Most of us now crave that sugar hit, or that fatty burger because of it.

Once upon a time the food market looked very different for Māori, and as a consequence our bodies did too.

The traditional Māori food system originates within the narratives, or pūrākau, of the offspring of Rangi and Papa. The children of Rangi and Papa are considered the kaitiaki of the various realms on Earth. This includes Tāne, who resides over the forests, Tangaroa over the ocean, Haumiatiketike over uncultivated foods, and Rongomātāne over peace and cultivated crops, to name a few. In essence, the traditional foods available for consumption by Māori were considered to be shaped by the environment, and shared whakapapa or a lineage and connection to the various offspring of Rangi and Papa. Māori kai had the power to carry the energy or essence of atua to feed our whānau, tinana, hinengaro and wairua.

Kūmara in particular was an important food source for Māori. Compared to the tropical climate in other parts of the Pacific where kūmara can flourish, it struggled to grow in the colder conditions here in Aotearoa. Through improved technology and growing practices the kūmara soon began to thrive in parts of the country, and with limited sources of carbohydrates available, it quickly became integral to Māori communities. All aspects pertaining to the kūmara from planting to harvesting, to cooking and eating were ritualised and connected to the atua of peace, Rongomātāne. This enabled useful information to be shared amongst communities and passed on through successive generations.

Kumara. Photo: CC0 Public Domain

Interestingly, when Tāne created the first being, Hineahuone, from the earth of Papa, it was Rongomātāne who was responsible for gifting parts of the puku, the belly. The link between the kūmara and the formation of the puku of Hineahuone through Rongo tells us how our tūpuna understood the influence of our food on the gut, and our overall health. It is only in recent years we have begun to understand the influence our gut has on our immune system and overall health.

Today, kūmara is understood to have a low glycaemic index (GI) which means it releases glucose or energy slowly in to our bloodstream throughout the day. This helps the body draw on that energy over longer periods, reducing the likelihood of elevated blood sugars. Chronic elevated blood sugar can lead to insulin resistance and complications associated with type two diabetes. Compared to a chocolate bar or piece of bread, kūmara has the goods in terms of meeting the needs of our tinana. Studies have also shown that kūmara carry anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties that can assist the healing functions of the body. It is almost like kūmara is our very own superfood – maybe that explains the $8.99 a kilo price tag I have been seeing at my local farmers market.

When we think about kai it can be so easy to turn to what is convenient. Nine times out of ten that convenient kai is going to end up costing you later in life. A convenient kai for our tupuna involved a dive down the beach for a kūtai or a mussel, for us it involves a $2.50 pie from the bakery. When food is prolific in the modern era it takes a lot of conscious effort to avoid temptation. Our tupuna never had to deal with lollies, pies, cakes and takeaways, but our tupuna had the fortune of living naturally and eating kai enhanced with the whakapapa of atua. That approach enabled their vigour and strength to thrive. If you can see the kai that you eat as something greater than an instant palatable satisfaction, as kai that shares whakapapa with atua, then it feeds not only the puku, but your wairua as well. That is a kaupapa Māori approach to dieting. That is a Māori food system.

This is the first column in an ongoing series.

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