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When Maori first arrived in New Zealand they hardly had any food known to them to survive except for the common food of New Zealand. The Maori people had to make a drastic change to their lifestyle if they were to survive and succeed in building a new lifestyle.

There was no immediate danger of starvation because kaimoana, fish, shellfish, crayfish and crabs were in abundance along the coastal waters. Gradually generations of Maori discovered plenty of edible plants and berries of different kinds in the vast forests of New Zealand, the most important of them being the RARAUHE (edible fern roots).

Huge adjustments were made to an almost totally new type of food supply which they had never seen before. Because the Island was entirely within the temperate zone, none of the Maori traditional (tropical) crops grew here. Only the Kumara (sweet potato) that was imported from Polynesia provided a valuable crop, although it required a lot of labor and was difficult to store. The breadfruit and coconut are essential foods in the north but could not survive in the climate in New Zealand.

Through pure observation, trial and error, many feats of endurance were overcome studying the ways nature had intended life to exist in harmony with each other. Tohunga were blessed with this gift of observation and over time, the handing down or passing on of these observations would occur through many generations. Out of these observations came  recipes and cooking methods. Many still used today in the traditional sense. Preservation of these instances were inter-woven into myths, legends, and many stories inter-woven into our tribal genealogies carried through over the centuries with most stories still told today in tribal lore and our heritage. Our people tell their stories about their lands and links to our food. We call our "WHAKAPAPA". The following videos takes us through a timeline actuating benefits from the past to changes that now affecting how things are in today's environment
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Our Mountains
Our Rivers
Our Forests
Our Lands
Our Homes
Our People
Our Food
Our Waters
Our Spirit

Fisheries conservation

Maori developed a set of practical rules to protect the natural habitat, allowing for regeneration.

The rules include:

Nets and lines must not drag on the seabed, because this could damage the fishing ground. On shore, sacks and baskets must be lifted, never dragged over shellfish beds

Dislodged rocks should always be returned to their exact position

Only certain fish could be taken at certain times and places

There were some size limits

If the feeler of a rock lobster (koura) is snapped off, the feeler must be removed from the water before any more koura can be taken - otherwise other life forms would be disrupted

Rahui, or a total ban on fishing, were applied at certain times for various reasons, for example to protect fishing grounds under pressure; and - to give species of fish, shellfish and seaweed a chance to spawn or multiply

The amount of bait, length of line, etc were carefully controlled so that only the right amount of fish of the right species was caught

Protecting the resource from pollution

Maori have strong beliefs about protecting fisheries resources from pollution. For example, it is forbidden to gut fish in the open seas or throw small fish, excess bait, food or rubbish into the water. Waste like this is seen as attracting predators and polluting sensitive habitats.

Trading with each other

Trading became a common thing to share resources, knowledge on food processing, planting, harvesting, warfare, marriage, funerals, and inter tribal bonding of peoples. Huge amounts of gifts would be exchanged after performing traditional greetings and blessings which were usually followed up with huge banquets

The sorts of items traded were, dried fish, dried eels, vegetables, meats, mats, kete(baskets), cloaks, tools, weapons, slaves. Sometimes things were bartered or exchanged.

The Pace of Change

The pace of change kept accelerating so much so that the Māori diet today is much the same as everyone else in New Zealand.

1772 saw change for Maori to come. 

The changes seen were those of discovery, learning,
and yearning for things that would make life easy for Maori but that yearning for change came at a price and that price was brutal.

That price almost wiped out our people, our lands, our food resources, our history but thankfully the Mana, the Mauri and the ihi stayed intact.. Food for thought when even a vegetable cannot grow must grow in unity

Cast iron cooking pots were the utensils bought over by the settlers from 1800 onwards changing Maori cooking styles forever

Traditional Fisheries

The sea and its fishing grounds were as important to early Maori as the land. The sea was not only a major source of food, but was of customary value as well. Seafood - kaimoana - was the main source of animal protein, fats, vitamins and minerals. It was also a very important way of showing hospitality (manaaki) and generosity at hui or tangi. The food provided for guests is a great status symbol in Maori culture, and kaimoana rates highly. There is a highly organized set of customs - tikanga - to manage the way seafood is gathered and handled.
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Preparing and storing fish

Because food from the sea can spoil quickly, it was important to avoid waste by either sharing a large catch or preserving it.

Traditional methods for preserving kaimoana are still used today. Mainly smoking, drying in the sun, cooking it in a hangi and then drying it out for example our pipi. The salting process came later.

Rock lobster and kina were sometimes left in fresh water for a few days before eating.

A delicacy we referred to as Koura-mara and Kina Toroi

Shellfish like pipi, kuku, toheroa, tuani, puupuu, was preferred fresh, but most were cooked, dried and threaded on to long strips of flax to keep for reserve food.

* * * *

Shark, seaweed (karengo) and small freshwater fish were also dried. Other seaweeds were eaten fresh or used as food gathering/storage bags. Small whitebait were cooked in leaf packages (tied up , dried in the sun and stored.

* * * *

Fish like snapper, parore and kahawai were filleted and left to hang out and dry during the day and bought in at night to stop mildew setting in during the drying process. This process would take several days to a week pending of course the weather conditions

In the past the roof of their thatched homes were used as drying places with exposure to direct sunlight a key point for drying food. In terms of the sacredness of this process the roof. used would never be used for other uses apart from drying out food.

Eels were cleaned by placing them directly in a fire and rolled into the ashes to burn the slime and skin off then washed later, the insides taken out  and maripi was used to cut it up. The eels were always wrapped in flax and tied up before going into the hangi.

Food Preparation and Diet

Cooking methods

The hāngi (earth oven) is made by excavating a circular pit about 60-100 cm in diameter by 15-30 cm deep. Firewood is then placed in the pit forming a pile some 30 cm above ground level. Stones are then placed on top of the wood and the fire lit. After burning, the coals are removed and water sprinkled over the red hot stones.

A layer of greens is often placed on the stones and around the sides of the pit and then meat (birds or fish) wrapped up in leaves is placed inside. This is then covered with more greens and more water is sprinkled over the food.

A layer of old kete (baskets) or mats previously soaked in water is placed on top and the hāngi is then covered with earth to prevent the steam from escaping.

Food was also boiled in gourds by adding hot stones from a fire and also in hot springs and hot pools.


Pottery or earthenware was not made. Instead, gourd and fibre baskets were used for cooking, eating, drinking and storage. For instance, gourds were used to store cooked foods such as pork, both wild and domestic pigeons and other birds. Each gourd had a specific name and function.

It has been suggested that the reason there were not many fermented drinks was the lack of a suitable container. The gourd was not frequently used as it gave a very unpalatable taste to fermented liquid.

The bark of trees and shells was used for cutlery.

Diet patterns

Before the arrival of Europeans the diet was high in fibre, consisting mainly of plants supplemented by small amounts of food from animal sources.

There was also a reliance upon a small number of staple plants that were slow growing and maturing and that gave low yields.

Europeans brought with them many novel and unfamiliar plants, the versatility and worth of which was soon appreciated and incorporated into the diet, better ensuring an adequate food supply.

However this was followed by a gradual decline in active involvement in agriculture as European farming became more widespread.

The five point Star was the star used by Maori to represent all man kind and in so doing was used in many rituals to seek blessings for good outcomes in particular food

Rua Riwai / Kumara
Store houses for potatoes or kumara were built into the ground to maintain a cool even temperature in a dark area to mature them for food and seedlings for the next season
Timeline of events relevant to Maori Foods pre European to now  - 1
Timeline of events relevant to Maori Foods pre European to now - 3
Timeline of events relevant to Maori Foods pre European to now - 2
Organisation and trade

Traditional Maori fishing operations were very well organized. Different tribes had their own fishing areas. Tribal boundaries were marked by landmarks and stakes and protected against trespassers. Fishing was often a community activity. Tasks involved everything from observing the movement of schools of fish and making nets to catching fish some of them over 2 miles long. Processing fish was also a communal task with many working through into the wee small hours, a trait that hasn't'  changed much even with our modern equipment.

Early Maori knew a great deal about the life cycles of different fish. A fishing calendar was developed to work out when certain fish should be caught, what techniques to use, and whether it should be during the day or night. Kaimoana was a very important trading item. Coastal tribes traded it with inland Iwi for goods such as birds, berries or workable stone. In Canterbury, Kaipoihai pa was a trading pa with eight different gates. It was similar to European trading sites in the middle ages. When Europeans arrived, Maori started trading with them. They bartered fish for other goods or sold it for cash. They exported fish to Australia in the early 19th century

Maori are very knowledgeable and skilled fisherman. Lines were made from flax fibre and sinkers from stones. Hooks were made from wood, bone, stone or shell. Sometimes a gorge was used instead of a hook. It was a straight piece of bone, sharp at each end and attached in the middle. When the line was pulled it turned sideways and caught in the fish's throat.

A great variety of nets and fish traps were made, from flax fibre or vines. The design depended on the type of fish and where it was used (depth, type of bottom, etc). Some sea nets were very long and needed a community effort to set them and haul them ashore. Different families (whanau) owned different sections of the net. Traps were set in rivers to catch migrating eels. Spears were used to catch some fish such as eels and flounder.Shellfish, rock lobster, octopus, lampreys (tuna korokoro) and freshwater eels were caught by hand. Lampreys were a highly prized food.
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Plants Trees Forest
Take a quick step back in time when Maori totally lived off the land - Snippits of history as told by whanau right across New Zealand

Maumahara - amazing stories told by elders when they were children -  Stories told when they were children - experience foods they ate ate, planted, grew and cooked. The games they played, the dances and outings, generally getting along just fine
The History of the Kauri Tree and the soul it beckons - 2

Kauri are among the world's mightiest trees, growing to more than 50 meters tall, with trunk girths of up to 16 meters and living for more than 2000 years. Kauri forests once covered 1.2 million hectares from the Far North of Northland to Te Kauri, near Kawhia and were common when the first people arrived around 1000 years ago

Waipoua, home to Tane Mahuta, king of the forest and the largest remaining kauri tree in the country is a 1500 years old, 51.5 meters tall, with a girth of 13.77 meters.

Tane Mahuta (Lord of the Forest) is New Zealand’s largest known living kauri tree.  It is thought this tree was discovered and identified in the 1920’s when contracted surveyors surveyed the present State Highway 12 through the forest. In 1928 Nicholas Yakas and other Bushmen, which were building the road, also identified the big tree Tane Mahuta.

Maori mythology Tane is the son of Ranginui the sky father and Papatuanuku the earth mother.  Tane was the child that separated his parent’s parental embrace and once parted set about clothing his mother with the forest we have here today. 

The arrival of European settlers in the 17-1800’s saw the decimation of these magnificent forests. Sailors quickly realized the trunks of young kauri were ideal for ships' masts and spars, and the settlers who followed felled the mature trees to yielded huge quantities of sawn timber of unsurpassed quality for building.

Teure - Maori Delicacy
The History of the Kauri Tree and the soul it beckons - 3
The History of the Kauri Tree and the soul it beckons - 1