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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

KaiJuly 14, 2023

The seven stars of kai Māori literature

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

It’s always a good time to reconnect with kai Māori – but Matariki is the perfect reminder to do so. Charlotte Muru-Lanning shares her favourite books to add to your kete as you learn more.

This is an excerpt from our weekly food newsletter, The Boil Up.

As the Matariki cluster begins to twinkle above us in early winter, it signals the Māori new year, or te mātahi o te tau. These stars are a cue to come together, to reflect, to remember, to acknowledge those we have lost and to set intentions. As well, the constellation signals changes in our environment, a change of seasons and a time to hunt or harvest. Among those whetū are generous clues as to what the next year might bring. For our tūpuna, astronomy was woven into the kete of the everyday – and that includes kai.

The strands that link Matariki with kai are plentiful, and as someone who engages with the world around me through food in quite an obsessive way, I see the allure of attempting to create some kind of codified menu of what or how we should eat to celebrate the season. Especially as part of the broader reclamation of traditions that have arisen from greater awareness of Matariki. But there’s a complexity to this. Matariki traditions are manifestations of perspectives and relationships with the natural environment that differ from place to place. Even the number of stars is dependent on where you are: some iwi recognise seven stars while for others there are nine, and in some parts of the country, you can’t see the cluster at all. That is to say, there’s no singularity to how best mark the season through food.

As part of the wider reclamation of traditions and practices, I like to think about Matariki as a prompt to reclaim kai Māori in all its variations and idiosyncrasies. Since colonisation, our connection to our kai has been severed through land alienation, urbanisation, inequality, environmental degradation and assimilationist state policies. It means knowledge of our kai hasn’t always been passed down, and in the public sphere, it’s largely absent. Matariki is an opportunity to flip this.

One of the starkest reflections of how kai has until very recently been excluded from our national culinary consciousness is the history of cookbooks in Aotearoa. In the book from Kai to Kiwi Kitchen, food anthropologist Helen Leach wrote that historically, New Zealand cookbooks “simply ignored Māori ways of cooking” and sometimes even portrayed “Māori cookery as uncivilised and alien in its own homeland”. That’s not to say we need the printed word to tell us we have culinary traditions. The mātauranga or knowledge of kai Māori exists best in memories that are passed down, through conversations, or eating or absorbing what’s going on in the wharekai, but books are useful when it comes to establishing cuisines and ensuring a continuation of tradition.

On that note, I wanted to share seven books on kai Māori that I cherish. These are pukapuka that hold a heap of knowledge about kai; taonga I return to repeatedly.

Māori Women’s Welfare League Recipe Book

Of all the books on my bookshelf, it’s this, which I’ve (accidentally) stolen from my mum (sorry Mum!) that I love the most. Recipes range from the traditional like kaanga waru (steamed corn pudding)  to more contemporary like cheese souffle, and the copy I have is filled with tiny biro stars added by my mum next to recipes she wanted my dad to cook for her. The first cookbook that included Māori cooking was published in 1908, but it wasn’t until the 1970s Māori renaissance movement that wāhine Māori began publishing their own recipes in printed cookbooks, geared toward a Māori audience. Of these, the most significant is surely this: the Māori Women’s Welfare League Recipe Book. These cookbooks, Helen Leach wrote, did more than “disseminate cookery instructions – they simultaneously asserted mana Māori and Māori identity”, paving the way for ongoing revival of Māori culinary traditions.

Māori Food and Cookery by David Fuller

This 1978 book by Pākehā author David Fuller prompted me to sign up for a library card earlier in the year. And while parts of the book are admittedly rather dated, I can look past that for its abundance of detail on traditional kai Māori, ingredients, preparation and origins – like accounts of nikau cooked in hāngī till it formed sugar crystals or the preparation of kooki (dried shark). A treasure of a book.

Hiakai by Monique Fiso

A sleek masterpiece of a book that’s filled with history, tradition, tikanga and very helpfully, practical tips for foraging and gathering ingredients. Interspersed are recipes that apply mātauranga passed down, as well as avant-garde culinary techniques. This is kai Māori futurism at its finest.

Te Ika a Māori: The Struggle for Māori Fishing Rights by Brian Bargh

As far as kai Māori goes, seafood is a pillar – a food source that has sustained us for centuries. And yet, over the course of a century, Crown policy, in multiple ways, worked to dispossess Māori from access. Te Ika a Māori tells the vital story of the struggle for Māori fishing rights.

Māori Cookbook

There’s not a whole lot of information on this cookbook but from what I can tell, it was published in 1996 (someone please correct me if I’m wrong) and many of the recipes seem to be direct copies of the Māori Women’s Welfare League book mentioned above. What sets it apart is its 11 pages of comprehensive instructions on preparing a hāngī – with gorgeous hand-drawn images to boot.

Te Mahi Oneone Hua Parakore: A Māori Soil Sovereignty and Wellbeing Handbook

For Māori, soil is more than just a place to grow kai or build upon, it’s taonga and an ancestor. This 2020 handbook, edited by Jessica Hutchings and Jo Smith, digs into Māori relationships with soil, linking that to soil and kai security and more broadly, tino rangatiratanga.

Kai: Food Stories from my Family Table by Christall Low

It’s no surprise that this cookbook won the Judith Binney Prize for Illustrated Non-Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards earlier this year – it’s stunning. A compendium of stories, photographs and recipes for dishes like pani popo, tītī, tahini-drizzled toast and boil up, it weaves the traditional with ingredients and techniques one wouldn’t immediately associate with kai Māori. I return to this book often, for its everyday-ness. As I wrote in a review earlier this year, “in a world where kai Māori has been seen as something relegated to tourist attractions or presumed to solely exist in marae wharekai and never beyond, there’s a power in delineating kai Māori as everyday comfort food.”

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