The Maori are the indigenous Polynesian people of mainland New Zealand. Māori originated with settlers from East Polynesia, who arrived in New Zealand in several waves of canoe voyages between roughly 1320 and 1350.
As the Maoris depended upon the sea and the rivers to provide them with a very important article of diet, they were naturally experts in catching fish.
In this they were guided largely by the advice of their tohungas or priests; special days of the month were marked as most suitable, and special incantations prepared for recitation.
Fish appears to have had a definite scale of values to the Maoris. The most esteemed was the hapuku (or groper), then the moki, warehou, the mullet, the schnapper, tarakihi, kahawai, blue cod, in something of that order. Eels and lampreys were probably in a class by themselves.
Even to-day, the older Maoris in the remote parts observe certain rites in their fishing. They recognize definite seasons for certain fish, and resent any intrusion at other times.
On the hapuku or moki grounds “food” of any kind must not be carried on your boat or even be mentioned. The fish must not touch the anchor or any iron substance, nor must it afterwards be cooked in an iron vessel, lest the other moki, in their disgust, leave the grounds for more secluded spots where the rules will not be so rudely broken.
Being thus limited in their methods of cooking, the Maoris had few ways of doing it.
For an ordinary “picnic” meal they might grill fish. This is easily done by putting flat stones in the fire, making them quite hot (so that a drop of water is converted into steam at once), the food is then laid, skin downwards, on the stones, and is soon cooked.
Fairly thin steaks, such as small schnapper, tarakihi, are, of course, used. Small bits are also “toasted” over the coals. The most common way of cooking fish, however, is by the hangi or Maori oven. A hole is dug to the depth of about two feet, the diameter varying with the amount to be cooked. In this, a fire of good burning wood, such as manuka, is made, stones of the size of one’s fist being laid on the top.
When the wood has been entirely consumed and the stones are almost red hot, any unburnt embers are removed. The light ashes are “flicked off” with a small brush of manuka dipped in water, and the hot stones packed into a saucer shape, round which a wreath of fern is usually placed.
If potatoes are required, they are now poured in. The fish is then laid on top and water is dashed on. This is immediately converted into steam. The food is quickly covered by a clean cloth.
Over this, damped mats or clean sacking is placed, and earth is heaped over the top, so as to stop completely the escape of the steam. The hangi is then left for about an hour, when the coverings are carefully removed, and the food is ready. Fish may also be cooked in a kopaki.
This is done by wrapping the fish in a covering of leaves, e.g., puha (or sow thistle) and placing it in the hangi. The leaves give a flavour to the fish, and may be eaten with it.