by Judith Fein
hotos by Paul Ross

“You¹re asking me what we eat in New Zealand?” Russell bellowed when my husband and I arrived at the Auckland airport.

“I¹ll tell you what we eat here. We eat you! And we Maori are very picky, so I hope you are tasty. There¹s nothing worse than bland white meat that¹s dried out from the New Mexico sun!”

In New Zealand, the native people have a wonderful sense of humor about themselves and their gustatory preferences. In fact, the Maori have been excluding human meat from their menus for about a hundred and fifty years, so I wasn¹t really nervous about being white and in need of some serious spices.

The Maori people are not only funny, but they are also talented, sophisticated, and masters of the sea. Thousands of years ago, long before Columbus and Cortes, they were expertly navigating the great oceans of the world in double-hulled canoes. They were deeply spiritual people whose voyages were undertaken on the wings of karakia, or prayers, and their maps were the stars and celestial bodies.

Where did they originally come from? The Maori themselves propose several different answers. One woman insists they hail from Southeast Asia. “No,” says her friend. “I believe there¹s a Polynesian ancestor–from the Pacific–before that, South America–then back to the House of Israel.” Another man, whose nickname is “Ching,” pipes, up: “We came from China, and were expelled in the 3rd dynasty…we moved through India….to the Pacific…..” “My personal view,” says a man named John,” is that there¹s a Mesopotamian influence.”

How can all of these different migration stories be true? Pourotu, a tohunga or spiritual leader who proudly wears full body and face tattoos or mokos, is very knowledgeable about all things relating to his Maori people. “The term Maori was coined to classify all (New Zealand) tribal nations under one umbrella,” he explains.

In other words, “Maori” may be a generic term like “American Indian,” invented by the colonizers. Even though the Maori today speak one common native language, they may actually be diverse iwi or tribes that had different origins and migration routes in the distant past.

Although travelers to New Zealand can enjoy spectacular scenery and meet many welcoming Kiwis, in my opinion it is the discovery of the Maori people that offers the deepest and most unique experience in this tropical paradise. And many Maori are willing to provide the encounters.

The Number One tourist attraction in New Zealand is a night at the Tamaki Maori Village, outside of Rotorua. Despite the whiff of Disneyland, it¹s a good generic introduction to the culture. The Maori were traditionally fierce warriors, and they meet us at the gate with menacing war chants and brandishing their long, sharp wooden spears called taiaha.

A branch of green fern is tossed at my husband¹s feet by a warrior in a flax skirt with moko covering his face. If my mate picks up the green branch, it signifies that we come as friends. If he declines it, he is declaring that we are enemies.

“Pick it up quickly, please,” I beg my husband.

Looking into the warrior¹s angry orbs, he hastily grabs the fern.

Inside the Maori village, fully-costumed Maori re-enact the lives of their pre-colonial ancestors–planting kumara or sweet potato, playing stick games, making wood carvings and tending fires. In the ornately-carved Wharenui or meeting house, an exuberant Maori cast performs songs, dextrous digital manipulations with white balls called poi, and the eye-popping, tongue-lolling, meant-to-terrify war chants called haka.

After the show, the dinner is a “hangi” –chicken, lamb and vegetables cooked underground. There is nothing quite like plucking your food from the earth, where it has been steamed and nourished.

During the day, the Maori Arts and Crafts Center in Rotorua has demonstrations of traditional flax weavings and ancestral wood carvings by top flight Maori student artists. And you can buy all the crafts from bone carvings to pounamu–the greenstone or jade that is sacred to the Maori and which dangles from their necks in diverse shapes and sizes.

To penetrate the Maori world a little more intimately, the Kiel family in Rotorua invites visitors to eat with them and then sleep Maori style in their family wharenui. Mattresses line the floor and you pray your neighbor doesn¹t sleepwalk or snore too loudly. In their front yard, where flowers bloom and birds chirp, the Kiel women offer a powhiri–the traditional Maori welcome to their marae or gathering place. Women are not allowed to speak during the welcoming ceremonies, but the wail of their powhiri is the first sound to greet visitors. Then the men take over, with formal, oratorical speeches that are made by the hosts and then the visitors.

One of the Kiel orators explains the purpose of the formalities: “Through the speeches, we find out who you are and what you came for. Then you become family.”

In the northern part of the North Island of New Zealand, on a secluded beach called Mitimiti, Tipo Cash offers hostel-style accommodations and delicious home-cooked food right next door to his own abode. Then he takes you out for an adrenaline-charged ride in his eight-wheel vehicle. He roars over the hills and along the beach, stopping at scenic spots and telling stories of the Maori ancestors.The high point, or lowpoint–depending upon your taste for the macabre, is when Tipo pauses in front of a large flat rock. Here he tells the tale of two warrior chiefs who fought to the death and then they indulged in a strange habit that gave Mitimiti its name. “In the old Maori days, to get the power of the chief you ate his flesh, so you could get his mana. They put him on this rock…they cut him up….there was nothing left but the bones and blood…so they decided to lick the blood off the rock. Mitimiti means lick-lick, and that¹s how it got its name….”

Rest assured that Tipo is a modern Maori with no penchant whatsoever for fresh human flesh. His taste runs more toward playing the guitar and singing for his foreign guests.

In seaside Mitimiti, fish have always been a food staple. As the Maori say, when the tide is out, the table is set. If you ask, Tipo will take you fishing the old Maori way, and it is a rare treat which catapults you back into the Maori past.

Carrying a long net, Tipo marches into the ocean, perfectly times the waves, casts his net, and in two minutes he wades back to shore with five huge, flapping mullet. Then we grill and eat them. How do they taste? Well…when our plates are empty, we dive in for another lick-lick, or mitimiti.

Throughout the northland, seafood is part of the hospitality, but sometimes it¹s difficult to adjust one¹s palate.”I¹m eating kinna or sea urchin. See all the seaweed in there? Yummm. Look at it…all the veins and blood vessels…don¹t you feel hungry for it?” one of our hostesses asks us, grinning good-naturedly at the horror that freezes my face.

“Hey,” my husband reminds me as he digs in, “remember that when we first arrived in New Mexico, you didn¹t like chili.”

Also in the north, in Paihia, Grace Edmonds, her husband Tomati and their 22 Maori grandchildren welcome you to the Pine Lodge motel, replete with a traditional earth-cooked dinner and full Maori performance by the little ones. Then they¹ll all “hongi” or touch noses with you.

Near Pahia, down at the docks. a charming local man offers swimming with the dolphins, Maori style. He recounts tribal legends and blows a conch shell. Then he illustrates how the powerful warriors cut off the tops of heads or jabbed their taiaha into the enemies¹ hearts. He smiles at me, even though I am a confirmed pacifist.

At the Auckland museum, you can enter a wharenui or meeting house, and gawk at the staggering amount of ancestral information carved into the entryway, wooden posts and walls of the building. Whakapapa, or geneology, is the lifeblood of the Maori. Most of the people I met can proudly tell you which of the famed wakas, or canoes, their ancestors paddled to New Zealand close to a thousand years ago. Some of the Maori can trace their ancestry back thousands of years. There is tremendous pride in their forebears, who are often powerful and cunning. “My ancestor could use words like weapons,” one woman crows, “and all his descendants are like that. Don¹t ever get into an argument with us. We¹ll always beat you with words.”

At Waitangi, visitors learn about one of the most impressive treaties ever signed between European colonizers–or pakeha–and native people. The Maori were great strategic thinkers and they realized that the British were there to stay, and they had to co-exist with them. In l840, over 500 Maori chiefs met here with representatives of the British crown. As the director of the Waitangi center explains it: “It was a magic moment. Two people came together from entirely different parts of the world. It was a vision for the way our peoples could develop together.”

The Treaty of Waitangi, although it has often been broken by the pakeha, still governs all land, resource and reparation treaties that are ongoing today. At Waitangi, you can also see–up close and personal–a huge, elaborately-carved war canoe and the sacred tree it was created from.

One of the jewels in the Kiwi crown is the recently-constructed, $380 million dollar Te Papa Museum in Wellington. Besides a stunning Maori collection, there is a soaringly-beautiful but very controversial pastel-colored contemporary version of a wharenui–or meeting house. To me, it¹s like entering into Maori dreamtime.”One of the central figures here is the goddess of darkness–the guardian of the spirit world we all go to. She¹s the center of the wharenui,” our guide explains.

What¹s extraordinary about this marae–or gathering place– is that it¹s smack in the middle of a museum but, according to our guide, it is still part of the ceremonial life of the Maori. “This marae is functional–it has tangihanga where the dead are mourned and farewelled and we¹ve had occasion to bring in human remains from offshore and they¹re received here.”

If you¹re fortunate, one of your new Maori acquaintances will give you a piece of pounamu, or greenstone. It is considered a taonga or treasure, and is the most valued of all possessions. If you do not receive pounamu, perhaps you and your travel companion can buy a piece for each other. Present them at a special moment when you get back home. Wearing this honored gift will bring you luck and an increase in personal mana or power. It will also be a cherished souvenir from friendly, fascinating, faraway New Zealand Maori country.

As we head to the boarding gate at the Auckland airport, I whisper into Russell¹s ear: “With all your talk about weapons and warriors, I think you are wonderfully tender and gentle people.”

Russell grins and hugs us farewell. My kind of warrior.


(Please note that it will take approximately 3 hours for food to cook in the earth, in addition to the time it takes to prepare the fire. The following general recipe was used by the Wilson family on the occasion of the 80th birthday of Maori chief John Wilson.)

various vegetables (peeled sweet potato, peeled potato, onion, pumpkin)

meat ( chicken, lamb, pork and beef–whichever you prefer, and in any combination)

stuffing prepared from bread, onions, mixed herbs and moistened with steamed pudding


hangi stones

clean cotton and muslin

burlap sacking

In the kitchen, the food is peeled, washed and prepared, and then placed in metal baskets. The quick-cooking food goes at the top, and the slower-cooking food (the meat) is at the bottom of the baskets.

Traditionally, the men prepare the wood, light the fire, and then place the hangi stones in the embers and wood. Wood is added to the fire for a few hours so that the stones are well-heated.

As the stones are heating, the men folk dig a pit. When the stones are ready, they are placed at the bottom of the pit, and water is sprinkled over them to create steam.

The baskets of food are rapidly placed on top, and covered with a few layers of cloth. Burlap sacking is placed on top of the cloth, and then dirt is shovelled on top.

After about three hours, the dirt is scraped off, the burlap and cloth are removed, and the food is ready to be served. It is accompanied by fresh bread, which was not cooked in the hangi.

Dirt is shovelled into the pit to fill it again, and the stones are saved for the next hangi.


Tourism New Zealand 1 877 9PURENZ (1 877 978 7369)

Grace Edmonds Amorangi P O Box 97, Pahia, New Zealand Tel: 649 402 7808 Email:

Kohi and Dorina Kiel 33-35 Whittaker Road, Rotorua

Tel: 07 348 5693 Fax: 07 349 1291

Tipo & Sally Cash Mania Hostel in Mitimiti l(North Hokianga) Ph 09 4095347 Fx 09 4095345.

If she is in town, and you give her advance notice, chief John Wilson¹s wife can arrange a hangi:Christine Wilson 103 Symonds Street Royal Oak, Auckland 011-64-9-624-2125

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