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Forest Lore of the Maori



The hinau (Elaeocarpus dentatus) is a forest tree that attains a height of forty to sixty feet, and is found in many of our forest areas. Its berries provided the Maori with a prized food supply, and, as we page 37shall see anon, its bark also was useful. In some inland districts where food-supplies were short especially such places whereat little was obtained from cultivated plants, hinau and tawa berries formed an important part of the food-supply. The berries were collected in great quantities and conveyed to the village, often being placed in a kind of creel made of split supplejack, termed a toi by my Waiapu informants. In preparing the berries for food they were placed in a wooden trough (kumete) and pounded with a pestle-like implement called a tuki. This name is applied to such pounding clubs as were used endwise; when such a tool is used as a beater, as in pounding fern-root, it is alluded to as a patu. This process served to disengage the mealy substance from the hard stone within the berry. The whole of the pounded matter, meal and stones together, was then sifted through specially made kete or baskets called hitari and tatari. These plaited sieve-baskets retained the stones of the crushed berries but allowed the meal (renga) to pass through the interstices of the open-basket during the vigorous shaking process, and this meal fell upon a closely plaited mat. It was then placed in a vessel, usually a wooden kumete, sometimes a bowl (oko) made by cutting a large gourd (hue) in half, water was added, and the meal kneaded into a thick paste; the meal is dark-coloured, neither it nor the cooked product has an attractive appearance. A basket (kopae) was plaited of Cordyline or Freycinetia (kiekie) leaves, and in this basket the heavy, dark mass was placed, the basket being then placed in a prepared umu (steaming pit), where it was carefully covered with mats and earth to confine the steam, and so left for not less than twelve hours. Flax (Phormium) leaves were not employed as material for the basket, inasmuch as they impart a bitter taste to the cooked meal. When the loaf, or cake, or pudding, termed a komeke and poha by the Maori, was taken from the steaming pit it became hard when it cooled. These heavy, sad-looking cakes were then placed in a toi or creel-like receptacle that had been lined with leaves, covered with a pad of bracken securely lashed round the toi, and that container was then put in a pool of water, such was the storage place for komeke hinau. It is said to have been so kept for a year or even two; when wanted a komeke was taken out, the soiled outside parts scraped off, and the interior eaten.

When the natives of the eastern coast acquired maize they packed the grain in toi receptacles fern-lined and fern-covered, and placed these under water in a similar manner. A long immersion resulted in a decomposed mess called kānga pirau, the appalling stench of which was enough to 'stagger humanity,' as Paul said, but it was highly appreciated by the Maori. Angas, during his wanderings in page 38the interior in the fifth decade of last century, speaks of seeing children eating a cake of decomposed shark and putrid maize, and adds: "The children soon afterwards began to cram themselves with hinau cakes-a black, filthy mass consisting of the fruit of the hinau tree compressed together, and kept till quite rotten and musty, which they eat with avidity." This deterioration of such conserved food-supplies as hinau and preserved birds does not seem to worry our native folk. Dieffenbach, another observer of the 'forties, wrote: "I observed that many of the natives were occupied in preparing a kind of food which I had not seen before. It consisted of the amylaceous seed covers of the hinau, which they powdered and made into cakes."

Another account of the making of this course form of bread was obtained from Waikato natives, and therein we are told that the surface of the ground beneath well-fruited hinau trees was first cleared of debris that might incommode collectors, then men ascended the tree and beat the branchlets thereof to cause the berries to fall. These berries were then gathered up and placed in baskets, which were tied up and placed in water, where they were allowed to remain until the following spring. The baskets were then reclaimed and the contents thereof spread out on mats and dried in the sun; when dry the berries were poured into baskets and sifted so as to separate the meal, which escaped through the open-plait baskets as explained above. In this method the long soaking to which the berries were subjected so loosened the mealy matter covering the stones (karihi) that no pounding process was necessary. When it was not required to sift and use all the meal at once it was kept in peculiar bag-like baskets termed pu; these were about 3 ft. in length, and 8 in. or so in width. The sieve-baskets are said to have been made of the tuaka or midribs of the leaves of Cordyline pumilio (mauku or ti karaha). In some cases the sifter was in the form of a plaited mat-like fabric, in either case it retained the stones and husk or skins (papapa) of the berries. Again, we are told that the berries might be placed in a large wooden trough, covered with water, and allowed to steep until the meal was loosened, and so was separated from the stones by a process of hand-squeezing. A strainer was then drawn repeatedly through the trough so as to collect all the refuse matter, after which the meal was allowed to settle, the water was carefully decanted, and the sedimentary meal allowed to dry out. The meal-cakes were wrapped in leaves of rangiora (Brachyglottis rangiora) and so cooked, being left in the steaming pit as long as were the kernels of the karaka tree and the roots and stems of Cordyline, say from 16 to 24 hours.

page 39

The oily, unappetizing appearance of hinau meal-cakes is not alluring to Europeans, nor is the taste of it pleasing to his palate. Personally I could never stomach this prized delicacy of my native friends. It was made by the Tuhoe natives as late as the last decade of last century. A fugitive northern note is to the effect that the cakes were made about two inches thick and six inches wide, but I have seen them much thicker. They were sometimes wrapped in leaves of raurekau (Coprosma grandifolia) says one, and deposited on a thick layer of kawakawa (Macropiper excelsum) leaves laid in the steaming pit. If a number of cakes were cooked at once, spaces were left between them.

A kind of gruel was made by mixing this meal with water and then placing hot stones in the mixture; this is usually termed stoneboiling, but so far as I could ascertain it was simply a heating, not boiling, process. This gruel is called wai haro; at the isle of Niue a boiled mixture of scraped coconut and arrowroot is known as vai halo, while at Tahiti vai haro is the juice of plants. The hinau mealgruel is said to have been sometimes made for sick folk. White alludes to it as rerepi, which seems to be a modern term applied to a mixture of flour and water, the lillipee of early Colonial writers. The same writer speaks of the berries being put in a close-plait basket and so laid on a flat stone for the pounding process, a wooden beater resembling a tuki being used for the purpose.

The Rev. R. Taylor tells us that the fruit of the hinau was prepared for use by steeping it in running water for a few days; this appears in his Maori and English Dictionary, but in his New Zealand and its Inhabitants he says: "The berries are steeped for nearly a year in running water to get rid of their bitter and astringent quality." The 'few days' steeping would have no effect, but 'nearly a year' errs in the other direction. Taylor explains the method of putting the berries in a basket for the pounding process, which White seems to have copied without acknowledgment, as he did in other cases.

Kia whakaoho koe i taku moe, ko te whatu turei a Rua is a saying applied to this hinau bread, so says the Maori; it may be rendered as 'When you awaken me let it be for the whatu turei of Rua.' White renders it as follows: "When you startle my sleep let it be for the kernel that stands in the chest of Rua!" Taylor is not quite so severe, he gives it as: "When you disturb my sleep let it be on account of the arrival of Te Whatutureiarua," who, he explains, was 'the first person who made bread from the hinau' These lame explanations are not Maori, for natives explain that the expression whatu turei a Rua denotes komeke hinau. A few old wise men derided this explanation and stated that the words refer to sexual connection; page 40certainly hinau bread is not a food that any right-thinking person should desire to be wakened for. As an old sage briefly put it: Ko te tikanga o tenei whakatauki mo te ai, no te mea ko te mea nui tera hei whakaaratanga i te tangata i te moe …. Mo te whinau hoki, otira ehara noa iho tend, engari tona tikanga nui mo te wahine.

The berries of the hinau are not desirable as a food unless properly prepared, though occasionally eaten uncooked in times of stress, as they were by our Native Contingent in the 'sixties when, during strenuous marches through bush lands, rations became exhausted. Colenso explains that, in some cases, the berries were not steeped, but pounded and sifted, then formed into cakes and cooked; a big cake of 20 lbs. weight or so would be left two days in the steam oven; it was darker than barley-or rye-bread.

The Tuhoe folk informed me that they sifted the pounded berries twice, the second tatari or sifting-basket being of a closer plait than the first. The refuse stones (karihi, iwi, iho) had, after the sifting, still a certain amount of meal adhering to them, hence these stones, together with the skins retained by the sieve, were put into a bowl or trough, water was poured in, then a vigorous stirring with the hands produced a sort of thin wai haro, or gruel-like drink appreciated by the Maori. The stones, etc., in it were scooped out with the hands. The so-called stone-boiling may or may not have tended to thicken the mixture; I have not actually seen this part of the 'process. The meal to be formed into cakes was put in a bowl, water was added, and the two mixed (poipoi, pokepoke) into a stiff but plastic mass, and this was put into shallow baskets termed rourou, made of leaves of mauri or kokaha, two forest-growing Astelia. The baskets were first lined with fronds of the paraharaha fern (Polypodium diversifolium), and, when the doughy meal was packed in the basket it was covered (raupi) with the same material. The solid, heavy mass, when cooked, bears a striking resemblance to a dried linseed poultice. In late times Tuhoe have mixed honey with the meal ere cooking it. I have heard the expression whatu o Poutini (stone or kernel of Poutini) applied to the berries of the hinau, but obtained no explanation of the saying; in Maori myth Poutini is a being connected with the highly prized greenstone, which is also known as the whatu o Poutini.

The timber of the hinau tree is unkindly to the timber-worker, but the heart wood of C. dentatus is remarkably durable. The Maori folk do not appear to have made any particular use of it, for it is difficult to split and is a very indifferent fuel. They sometimes utilised the bark in making vessels of the patua type, and perhaps others resembling hollow cylinders, and it was widely used in dyeing page 41operations, water in which the pounded bark has been steeped seems to act as a mordant. An exudation from this tree was also employed in the preparation of a black tattooing-pigment. In my own youth we were wont to make writing ink from this bark.