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Ethnology of Manihiki and Rakahanga

Vegetable Foods

Vegetable Foods


The vegetable food supplies consisted of the coconut, the puraka, the fruit and tips of the aërial rootlets of the hala (Pandanus), and the fruit of the nenu (Morinda citrifolia) which was used as a flavoring agent with one of the food preparations.

The Coconut

The coconut was introduced by Huku and planted by successive generations, so that at the present time all the islands are thickly covered by coconut groves. Many of the trees have been self-planted and there appears to have been no particular system followed.

The green nuts were plucked from the trees as required by the owners. The mature nuts that fell to the ground were gathered in heaps and removed as required. A heap of nuts (komua) belonged definitely to the owner of the trees, as expressed by the phrase, “Te komua ni nei na Tuteru.” (This heap of coconuts belongs to Tuteru.) A large heap is termed whetomo, but the term is sometimes loosely applied to a small heap.

In removing nuts, a strip of husk was peeled down, leaving one end attached. By means of the strip, the nuts were tied together in pairs. The page 93 connecting strip of husk was termed a whakahani and the term was used in counting the nuts in pairs as follows:

E tahi (1) whakahani = 2
E rua (2) whakahani = 4
E teru (3) whakahani = 6
E ha (4) whakahani = 8
Purupuru whakahani = 10
Purupuru ma tahi whakahani = 12
Purupuru ma rua whakahani = 14
Purupuru ma teru whakahani = 16
Purupuru ma ha whakahani = 18
Takau = 20
Rau = 200

The coconut tree is termed ni, the leaves, nikau, and the textile-like stipule at the base of the leaf, kaka. The flower is first inclosed in a small sheath (poepoe), from which an inner sheath (taume) emerges. The taume grows to a much greater length than the poepoe. From the taume emerges the flower (roro), which consists of a main spike with a number of smaller spikes. The secondary spikes have a number of male flowers (pua ni), with one female flower (huariri) at the base of each secondary spike. When the female flower has been fertilized and commences to grow, the male flowers with the main and secondary spikes dry up, and, still under the term roro, are used as firewood when the nuts are removed. The long boat-shaped taume also dries and is used as firewood. The growing stipules are cut off for use as strainers for coconut cream, and dry stipules are used as kindling for the fire generated with the fire plough.

The nut is contained within a thick envelope of husk (puru) which is covered by an outer skin (kiri). Nuts in the green stages (ni mata) are classified into two kinds, those in which the husk has a sweet taste (mangaro), and those which are not sweet (kawa, bitter). The husk of the green nuts is soft and contains a certain amount of moisture, whereas that of the mature nuts is hard and dry. The mangaro husk, owing to its sweetness, is used as food. It may be chewed raw like sugar cane to extract the sweet juice, or it may be cooked. When eaten raw, the husk is removed in segments with a husking stick and the outer skin (kiri) is peeled off. The term for chewing is ngaungau, but chewing mangaro husk receives the special term, kopani. To cook the husk, the nut is cooked whole without husking. The husk is then removed and chewed. The fluid contained within the nut may be drunk in the ordinary way.

The husk at the base or stalk end of the green ni mata stage contains less fiber and more parenchymatous material (mokomoko; Tongarevan, karisi) which is utilized as food. The green nuts are husked in such a way as to leave the mokomoko end still attached to the shell. The outer end which carried the stalk is broken off, and the mokomoko material is scraped off in small pieces with a hand grater to be mixed with dishes prepared from the grated nut. The material has a slightly bitter taste and thus provides a flavoring agent, as in Tongarevan cookery. In the later stages of growth, the moko page 94 moko is invaded by more fibrous material and becomes too hard and dry for food.

The nut, as it develops, contains a fluid within the nut cavity which at first is too bitter to drink but which in the green nut stages forms a cool, refreshing beverage. The fluid also enters into the composition of dishes made from the grated flesh. In the mature stages of the nut the fluid becomes too bitter for use and is gradually absorbed by a part of the growing embryo and diminishes in quantity until it entirely disappears. The various stages of the nut are distinguished not only by external appearance, but also by shaking the nut to determine by the sound and feel the quantity of fluid present.

The fluid appears in the earliest stages before the flesh. The flesh then appears at the base end of the shell as a thin, slimy layer (havarevare). In the ni mata stages of growth, the flesh completely covers the interior of the shell and gradually thickens and becomes firmer. In this condition, the flesh is grated and utilized in various dishes. When the hakari stages are reached, the flesh assumes its maximum thickness and hardness and is still used as food. From then on, two courses are open. If the embryo grows, it gradually absorbs the flesh until only a thin, hard layer is left. If it does not grow, the flesh remains thick, hard, and well preserved. It shrinks slightly from the shell, and the loosened flesh rattles within the shell when the nut is shaken. This preserved form provides a useful reserve food.

The embryo develops in the flesh at the base of the nut. One part grows out externally through the patent eye of the shell base to form the root, stem, and leaves of the growing plant. Another part appears as a rounded protrusion (mata uto) at the base of the cavity. This is the growing absorbing organ which gradually fills the cavity with a soft, spongy mass (uto). The uto is edible raw or cooked and forms a welcome variation from the ordinary flesh of the nut. The uto, in expanding, absorbs all the remaining fluid, and unless used at the stage when it fills the cavity, it will gradually absorb the mature hard flesh with its contained fat crystals.

The coconut provides food from the husk, flesh, fluid, and uto which are present in different stages of growth. The particular stages of growth were thus of the greatest practical importance. The individual was not forced to make the food preparations from a haphazard collection of nuts, but he selected his nuts for the particular dishes that he desired. Experience had taught him exactly what parts of the nut were still edible in the nuts that he saw growing on the trees. Accumulated knowledge led him to recognize the different stages from their practical value as food. From the female flower to the nut only fit for planting, thirteen names distinguish the stages of the coconut growth (Table 15).

page 95
Table 15. Stages in Growth of the Coconut
 1. Huariri Female flower.
 2. Mokomoko puapua Small, no flesh.
 3. Havarevare Flesh starting to grow; thin, slimy.
 4. Ni mata mua
   Ni mata muri
Thin flesh covers interior of shell.
 5. Ni mata matua Flesh thicker.
 6. Ni momoto Shell darker, flesh mature.
Slight rattle of fluid.
 7. Hakari kahatea Flesh thicker, fluid rattles more.
 8. Hakari uri Flesh hard (copra).
 9. Takataka Hakari uri kept in house, fluid dries, flesh loosens from shell and can be rattled, hence takataka.
10. Mata uto Commences to sprout, absorbing organ shows at base inside, fluid not all dry.
11. Uto pine Cavity filled with uto (pine, filled up), no rattle. Katinga flesh still present. Uto may be eaten and flesh made into copra.
12. Uto puni Katinga thinner and harder, too hard to eat. More uto but too tough. Kept too long, only fit to grow.
13. Purapura uri Uto puni when planted.

The flesh can be eaten uncooked at any stage from the thin havarevare to the hard takataka and the katinga of the uto pine. The fluid is drunk from the havarevare to the ni momoto stages. Out in the plantations where the nuts are opened for drinking, the flesh is generally eaten on the spot, or the nut is carried home for a later meal. In the earliest stages, when the flesh is thin, it is readily removed from the shell with the fingers. From the ni mata muri stage, it is customary to grate the flesh with a hand grater (tuai). The slices of flesh removed may be made fine or thick by altering the pressure on the grater. To grate finely is termed varuvaru, and to remove in coarser slices is tupere. The finer grating is used with the softfleshed ni mata stages and the coarser grating with the firmer ni momoto. Hence the following chant or pese:

Tupere au te ni momoto,
Maroro au,
Ki te kopu,
Pakari te waewae,
Matutu te kopapa.

I grate the ni momoto coarsely,
That I may be strong,
That the stomach be filled,
The legs strengthened,
And the body fattened.

Before a green nut is grated the fluid may be poured out into another shell, and the process of grating is then termed varuvaru maro (dry grating). In some preparations a little of the fluid is drunk to prevent spilling, and the grating process with the rest of the fluid in the shell is termed varuvaru tavai (wet grating).

The grated flesh of green nuts with the fluid retained (whakaehu) forms the basis of a number of preparations. The grated flesh of green nuts page 96 without the fluid is termed takarari. When mixed with other food such as hala or puraka, the term pana is used to denote the mixture, but the actual mixing process with two grated foods is kahiro. When required, the liquid contained in the grated nut is squeezed through a stipule strainer. The remaining dry flesh is termed ota.

The mature hakari flesh is eaten (ka ngaungau te katinga). The fluid is apt to be bitter and is never sought after as a drink, though it may be used with the flesh. The Tongarevans do not drink it.

The takataka nut has three recognized stages: takataka maimaeha, in which the flesh is still completely soft; takataka whati, in which the flesh hardens but has not changed color; and takataka kura, in which the flesh darkens and turns somewhat reddish (kura) after being kept some time. The takataka kura is regarded as the best form for eating. The flesh is eaten without any special preparation. The thin inner part left after rubbing off the outer part for oil on sharp coral or ray skin is termed uhio and is eaten. The hard nut is eaten with dried fish, dried Tridacna (pahua maro), and puraka. A person with a large stock of takataka used it as a medium of exchange for fish.

The uto stages of the nut are, of course, known by the presence of the growing plant projecting from the base of the unhusked nut. When the nut is unhusked it is termed uto kiri (kiri, skin), and when husked it is uto ko (ko, to husk). The growing part is jerked off (huhuti) from the outside. A part left attached to the uto is called the pito (navel) and is removed (huhuti) after the shell is opened. To open the husked shell is kohoa or whowhoa. The end of the uto toward the base of the shell is the mata, as it is near the mata hole in the shell. The other end is the take. To cut in pieces is tehi, as in tehia mai na uto (to cut up the uto). Several preparations are made with the uto.

The uto puni is used medicinally but is of no use as food. The Manihi-ki-Rakahangan people considered it too tough; but as they had the puraka, they did not have the same incentive to experiment with pitting the uto as the Tongarevans, who had to rely on the coconut alone.


The puraka species of taro was extensively grown on both Manihiki and Rakahanga. Large areas had been excavated, especially on the island of Rakahanga, so that the level which was well below the surface reached the brackish water beneath. The large plots must have entailed considerable community labor, for the areas so dealt with are quite extensive. The spoil has been thrown out so long ago that it has formed natural-looking mounds and ridges at the sides of the excavations. These mounds on Rakahanga page 97 form the highest part of the island, and it is here that the people retire to avoid the high tidal waves that inundate the land during some of the severe hurricanes. When the mature puraka was dug up for food, the top of the leaves termed the seed or puraka purapura was replanted. The tubers were then pitted in a damp place in the sand near the cookhouse for use as required. The presence of the puraka gave the people a great advantage over the atoll of Tongareva, which the puraka never reached in pre-European times. A number of preparations were made from it.

Hala (Pandanus)

Hala fruit is eaten raw when ripe, or it may be cooked on the stones of an oven without covering. Hala gratings were also dried and kept as reserve stock.