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Forest Lore of the Maori

Miscellaneous Food Products of Lesser Moment

Miscellaneous Food Products of Lesser Moment

A few other plants furnished a certain amount of food in the form of roots, but in most cases such supply was insignificant. Several species of ti (Cordyline) furnished the most important quantity, but these roots have already been dealt with in Bulletin No. 9 of this series. Hochstetter teils us that early missionaries brewed beer from the tap-root of this palm-like tree. Natives of the South Island describe a form of gruel or beverage made from the root: Me he mea kei te nui te kaum ka mahia te waitau kauru ti hei pia. The New Zealand Journal of 1842 states that: "The Ti or Dragon tree produces tolerable molasses," but as it also maintains that "the Manuka shrub makes a good substitute for tea," and that it "will obviate the necessity of the settlers ever depending on China for its boasted herb," then we need not take the molasses Statement seriously. In the Waiapu district the flowers of the ti are called puhina.

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The Maori has several sayings concerning the ti, or 'cabbage tree,' as it is termed, and these mostly refer to a persistent habit of the tree, the sending forth of new shoots when the trunk is destroyed. Thus we have the old proverbial saying: He uru a ki, he uru ti, e pihi ake. Herein we are reminded that, even as the ti reproduces itself, so does the spoken word reappear; hence it is well to be guarded in one's speech. Another is: Ka whati te ti, ka wana te ti, ka rito te ti. —the ti that is broken down sends forth a young shoot that develops and forms a new crown of leaves. Yet another is: Waiho kia tangi ahau ki taku tupapaku, kapa he uru ti e pihi ake —let me mourn for my dead; 'tis not as if he would spring up again as the ti does. E hara i te ti e wana ake —it is not a ti tree that it should grow again, or regain life.

The following account of the preparation of the para or fecula contained in the trunk and tap-root of Cordyline australis and some other species, was contributed by a South Island native. The Maori text appears in No. 6 of our Addenda. Both are inserted as supplementing the data given in Bulletin No. 9 of this series:—

In explanation of the Ngai Tahu and Ngati Mamoe methods of manipulating the kauru: this task commenced in the sixth month, according to the Maori method of time division, the month called October by Europeans, but preparations would be made in the latter days of the fifth month, when the people would leave their villages and go and camp at the places whereat the kauru or ti trunks were obtained. Care was taken not to trespass on the lands of other families or groups when actually procuring the kauru, each party would go direct to their own land, and there work; the Maori folk were very careful in such matters. In some cases arrangements were made to conduct the work on a large scale, and several clans would go out to the kauru grounds together. Such activities in the way of procuring food supplies were often connected with social meetings and feasts. When a feast was given by a clan, then it was expected that, at some future time, the recipients would return the compliment, and so, perchance, a dying man might lay a Charge upon his off-spring, or clansmen, saying: "After I have passed away, remember that no return has been made for the feast and presents given us by Ngati Mea." Even if that man died suddenly, and left no such behest, yet his offspring would attend to it, for truly was it an old, old custom. If he had no offspring, then probably his other relatives would attend to the matter.

On the evening before the work of procuring the kauru commenced, a fire was generated at which to cook the rito or young undeveloped leaves of the ti, and this task was conducted by experts; each person page 88took thereto his kouka or rito (see p. 143 of No. 9, Ist ed., of this series), while the necessary charm was recited by the expert, he would himself place the leaves on the fire. He would also take them off at the proper time, and conduct a ceremonial Performance into which the male and female elements entered. Each clan or family group of the people acted in like manner. On the following morning all the people commenced to work; the first task being the cutting down of the trees and the removal of the outside of each trunk by a chipping process done with stone adzes; some parties would feil the trees, other parties would hew off the bark. In some cases there might be twenty fellers and thirty hewers; in yet other cases more, or less. When all the trunks had been so treated they were set up on end to dry in the sun, like floor mats hung up to dry, and the people returned to their homes in order to plant the sweet-potato crop.

Now, when the sweet-potatoes had been planted, then the people returned to work at the kauru. They felled more trees, then chipped and stacked them up to dry. This second cutting was left to dry, while the workers set to at making the first cutting portable, tying pieces in bundles, or placing them in large bundles. Should there be no fuel-supply near the place the kauru was obtained, then each clan or group carried its collection of kauru to the nearest wood where fuel for steaming the product was obtainable. It might take a week to carry it all to the wood-side. As soon as a party had so carried its supply then its members began to collect fuel and dig the pits, the puna, in which to carry out the cooking process. In some cases these pits might be made as long as two chains; it depended on the number of persons in the party. It might take two full days to dig the trenches and arrange the fuel therein. The pits were about six feet in depth, deep enough to conceal a person Standing therein, and great quantities of fuel were stacked in them. When nearly full of wood, then the stones were stacked on the top of the fuel, and so completely filled up the trench.

When the morning star rose then the kindling of the fuel in the trenches commenced, As the day advanced the stones became heated and, when very hot, were carefully arranged at the bottom of the trench, after the fuel had been consumed. The baskets or bundles of kauru were then arranged in the trench. The first act was to spread some earth over the stones, and on this was arranged a layer of green Vegetation, ti leaves, ferns, etc., while on this layer the baskets of kauru, stacked one layer above another, were placed. A layer of grass, etc., was then arranged over the baskets, and this was covered with a thick layer of earth, so that no steam might escape. The steaming pit was so left for a day and night, when it would be opened and page 89the Contents allowed to cool, after which the sections of kauru were subjected to a pounding process and then put away, stacked on elevated platforms, where it had to be carefully shielded from rain, otherwise it would be spoilt. It would be left there, while the people would return to their village home, for by this time it was the seventh month (of the Maori year), and the sweet-potato crop called for attention, while in the eighth month the pora was planted. (This pora is but a late arrival, and is, or was, a degenerate form of the introduced turnip or cabbage.) After this the people set off to cook the second cutting of the kauru; in the ninth month this task was completed for the year. Such was the procedure each year, even from olden times, in preparing kauru as a food-supply, and this task was so performed until three years after the arrival of Matara (W. B. D. Mantell), when it ceased, for Europeans had much increased in numbers, the kaura-producing lands had been swept by fire, and everything destroyed.

When the second batch of kauru was cooked, then the whole of the two batches was conveyed to the permanent homes of the people. All members of a clan would assemble to assist in this task, and would be known as an ohu (volunteer workers, a working-bee). Having carried home all the produce of the party, then these carriers would assist others, until the whole was stored at the permanent residence of the people. Such was the procedure, from Kaiapoi even unto Otakou; from October to December this work continued; in January all returned home, for the work was over.

When used as provender the kauru was soaked in water ere being eaten; in some cases it was converted into waitua. The fibrous matter containing the para or fecula was twisted and rubbed in order to disengage such fecula, and this, mixed with water in a bowl, was known as waitau; it was sweet and resembled jam in that respect, and also in its consistency.

The tap-root of the ti was dug up by the Maori, and was prepared in the same way as the kauru, and it furnished a most delectable food.

Marattia fraxinea, known to the Maori as para, parareka, paratawhiti and para taro, the last mentioned used by Tuhoe and Whakatohea natives, furnished a small amount of food. It was available over about half of the North Island, and is nowhere a common plant. The rhizome is described as 'a large, irregularly shaped tuberous mass,' and this is the edible part. The para is said to have occasionally been planted by natives in their cultivations, or at their villages. As a pot-plant, it is very striking. Potts, in his Out in the Open, writes of the para as follows: "This edible is of a pinkish or pale purple tint when cut, solid, tough, and nearly tasteless." Further on he again page 90refers to para rhizomes as a food-supply: "We have tasted them in the King country, but did not find them very palatable. They were hard, dry, solid, like a very indifferently flavoured potato, with a slightly acid taste." In 1880 Colenso stated that he had only once found this plant in the forest, a curious fact considering his long residence and tnany wanderings here. Richard Taylor, who sampled it up the Waitara river, says that the rhizomes 'were sweet and mealy, and pronounced excellent.' He considered that, 'if the para could be raised in any quantity by cultivation it would be valiable as a delicate article of food.' The fact is that it is highly unwise to seek in books clear and reliable Statements anent the qualities of old-time food-supplies of the Maori. One seems to be able to find any kind of opinion, good, bad, and indifferent: rather let each seeker after knowledge sample such products for himself; the writer has done a fair amount of such sampling, and is quite content to leave it at that.

The roots of the papai, the young form of Aciphylla squarrosa, furnished a meagre food-supply; these carrot-like roots were often pulled up forcibly by means of a rope, for the plant is not one that any person wishes to be intimate with, owing to its innumerable spines. Natives have informed me that the roots of such plants as had not yet blossomed were sought as food. In his Out in the Open Potts teils an interesting story of some miners having been saved from death by starvation by the roots of this plant.

The pohue (Calystegia sepium). A northern note is to the effect that the roots of this plant were dug up and stacked to dry much as fern-roots were, after which they were packed in baskets and stowed in a storehouse for winter use. When about to be used they were soaked on water for some time, then cooked in a steam oven. Williams gives rarotawake as a name for these edible roots. The Tuhoe folk informed me that the leaves of the plant were formerly eaten in their district. The roots are but thin, and so, like the perei, it took many to furnish a meal. Potts, in bis Out in the Open, describes a Maori hakari or festival attended by him in the Waikato district, and writes thus: "Amongst the edibles was a preparation of the roots of the pohue… it is as floury as a potato with a slight bitter taste." One "Crayon," writing in the N.Z. Journal of April, 1842, remarks: "The root of the pohue, or native convolvulus, is a delicacy in the Maori cuisine; it is very plentiful."

The perei (Gastrodia Cunninghamii) also furnished in its roots a small food-supply; these are described by an expert as 'starchy thick and tuberous roots,' but three-quarters of an inch was the thickest of such roots I have seen dug up by natives. These roots, termed maukuuku by the Tuhoe tribe, were roasted and eaten, or cooked in page 91the steam oven. This name served as an alias, for, when engaged in seeking these roots it is imperative that the name of the plant (perei) should not be mentioned; if it is, then no roots will be found by the diggers, inasmuch as they will 'hide themselves.' Diggers must refer to those roots as maukuuku, so I was informed by excellent authorities, men who had spent rnuch time during the 'sixties and early 'seventies in seeking such delicacies, what time the dogs of war, represented by the Native Contingents, were harrying the Potiki a Tamatea. I was also told that this plant had no common origin; it did not spring from the earth, but was brought into being by the gods for some purpose not explained. The second name given above represents a Singular superstition that seems to have had a very wide range; it was common in Europe and elsewhere. Tahitians, when speaking of a collection of arrow-root (pia), called it apara, otherwise the heap would vanish. The perei roots were dug in the winter season, and formed but a very small part of the food-supply. Refugees and other stricken folk would, of course, be ever ready to secure any food product at any time of the year.

The maikaika (Microtis unifolia) produces a diminutive tuber that was eaten by children, sometimes roasted, and such insignificant edibles would be sought during times of stress.

Kukuraho (Scirpus maritimus). Another minor food-supply. The roots or rhizomes of this swamp-plant furnished a kind of tuber, node or nodule, the inner part of which was sometimes eaten. These black knobs are alluded to as nga raho o Tuna; they pertain to Tuna, the personified form of eels. The edible part is said to be of a mealy nature.

Colenso teils us that the roots of Arthropodium cirrhatum (rengarenga) were eaten by the Maori, after being cooked in the steam oven.

The nikau palm (Rhopalostylis sapida). This fine tree supplies a considerable amount of edible matter in the form of rito, the undeveloped leaves, and this supply can be eaten raw or cooked. It is superior to much of the green-stuff formerly eaten by the Maori, and it was sometimes pickled in vinegar by early settlers. Such supplies could never have been of much importance; if much used the supply would soon have given out. This remark applies also to the mamaku (Cyathea medullaris) and a number of other food supplies. Early travellers speak of utilizing nikau as a food-supply when on the march through our forests. The present writer can recall many such repasts enjoyed in bush solitudes during the past sixty years and more.