Once and Future Spud

According to the Maori origin story, the tribe originated on an island called Hawaiiki and traveled to New Zealand in large canoes, bringing with them stone tools and a collection of plants that included coconuts, bananas, breadfruit, and kumara—what Europeans would call sweet potato. Of these crops, only the kumara could adapt to New Zealand’s cooler climate. Fortunately, the original settlers had landed on the North Island’s northeastern corner, the only place warm enough for kumara to survive using traditional cultivation techniques (though innovative growing systems allowed them eventually to grow the crop farther south). The Maori rounded out their diet with local plants, fish, and moa: huge, flightless, and now-extinct relatives of the ostrich and emu.

Today, kumara is more fundamental to Maori life than ever, and for good reason: A typical quarter-pound spud supplies 20 grams of carbohydrate, 1.6 grams of protein, and high amounts of Vitamin A and beta-carotene. The multiple varieties of kumara come in three colors: red, gold, and orange. Gold kumara are usually the softest, while orange kumara are the sweetest. The vegetable is served in countless ways, including as an entrée, as a side dish, and as an ingredient in soups, salads, pies, and much more. Today New Zealand produces 20,000 tons of kumara each year—roughly 15 pounds per person—and more kumara are imported to meet the demand.

The Maori traditionally cooked kumara in hangi, or shallow earth ovens. To prepare a hangi, the Maori first piled stones on a fire built in a shallow hole. Then—after a couple of hours—they placed meat and vegetables wrapped in leaves on the hot stones, covered the food with leaves or woven flax mats to prevent it from burning, and topped the entire hangi with soil to keep the steam in and cook the contents for three or four hours.  Food prepared in a hangi has a unique, subtle, smoky flavor.

In the past, the Maori prepared hangi during rituals to open a new house, to start a new harvest, or to celebrate the Maori New Year, known as Matariki. The Maori believe that through the hangi the essence of the food ascends to the gods. In early June, the star cluster Matariki (known to Europeans as the Pleiades) appears in the New Zealand sky, and the Maori count the start of the New Year with the first new moon thereafter, celebrating it with hangi feasts, music, dancing, and storytelling.  According to legend, the visibility of Matariki determined the coming season’s harvest:  Brighter stars indicated a warmer growing season and a more productive crop.  Ceremonial offerings of food, including kumara, were made to the gods to ensure a good harvest for the coming year.

Today, because few Maori have time for building and using traditional hangi, hangi cooking is reserved for special occasions, especially the Maori New Year. Although Maori make up only 14 percent of the country’s current population, Matariki has become a special time of year for New Zealanders to come together and celebrate Maori culture. Common modern hangi ingredients include pork, lamb, chicken, kumara, pumpkin, carrots, potatoes, onions, and cabbage, all typically placed in wire baskets to make it easier for steam to circulate and to remove the feast from the oven.

While some New Zealand farmers still cultivate the same varieties of kumara as their precontact ancestors, the majority of people favor the larger and sweeter kumara introduced in the 19th century. In recent years, however, groups of Maori farmers have collaborated to explore ways to popularize Indigenous crops like the early kumara. These groups include Tahuri Whenua (“Returning to the Land”), also known as the National Maori Vegetable Growers Collective, and the Te Pu Hao Rangi Trust, who call themselves the “guardians of the early kumara.” They believe that by growing original indigenous varieties of kumara to sell in markets, Maori farmers can share one of their traditional foods and reduce poverty among their people. Given New Zealanders’ increasing demand for wholesome regional foods, original varieties of kumara have been a hit, and, if Maori farmers can grow enough of the crop, it has potential for export.

To promote sustainability and teach primary school children how to grow Maori potatoes and kumara, Tahuri Whenua started a nationwide program in 2006 called “Spud in a Bucket.” In each community, local businesses partner with Tahuri Whenua to provide students with buckets, potting soil, and seeds. The accompanying curriculum teaches students important gardening rules and the Maori use of the lunar calendar to guide planting. Those and similar efforts are the best hope for introducing this traditional crop to future generations and securing its rightful place in New Zealand’s agricultural sector.

Miranda Vitello was an intern at Cultural Survival during the spring of 2010

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