25 Sep 2020

A history of kai in the capital with Liz Melish

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 25 September 2020

A whakatauki, or proverb, is providing inspiration for Te Ati Awa's Liz Mellish who's kicking off a series of food history talks for the Visa Wellington on A Plate festival  in the capital next month, by prominent Wellingtonians.

"Nau te rourou, naku te rourou, ka ora te manuhiri" or  "with your food basket and mine, the people will thrive."

Liz Mellish

Liz Mellish Photo: Te Raukura Whare Whaka

Mellish has an accomplished business career spanning over 40 years which began with a milk run, then a business smoking fish with her husband.

She is now, among many other senior roles, the chairperson of Te Raukura Whare Waka in Wellington and serves on the Māori Heritage Council.

The The VWOAP Food Story Speaker Series  features one session every week over the month of the festival, it's free entry, taking place at Te Papa.

“In New Zealand, we really have adapted exceptionally well to those two strands of kai,” she tells Kathryn Ryan.

The fusion of Māori and European dishes has been on the boil for nearly two centuries and much has changed with food cultivation over the past century.

“The journey of culinary fusion started in 1839 when the New Zealand Company came," she says.

 “Previous to that we had extensive cultivations in Wellington and I’ve actually got an atlas we made in 2004 that shows the cultivation throughout Wellington City and through the Hutt Valley.”

Her talk will cover the moana of the Whanganui Harbour and the Cook Strait, what’s in the forests and how Māori lived, particularly in the Hutt Valley.

Fresh water kai was also a major food source, especially because New Zealand had no browsing animals at that time.

Mellish says the very basic diet was healthy and akin to today’s so-called ‘paleo diet’, giving people a natural balanced intake of food stuffs, with fresh water to drink and the rivers recognised as providing the best water.

“We ate quite differently and we were very healthy in fact because we subsided on fish, on vegetables and on birds with very little fat. We cooked by steaming rather than any other method."

Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington Harbour) offered an abundance of shellfish, and edible seaweeds, with ocean fish sweeping in and out with the tide.

“We still catch a lot of fish in this harbour in spite of it servicing four cities… there is still eels in the streams of Wellington, even though you can’t see them.

“The Basin Reserve of course was a swamp and that was a wonderful place for eels. They were really useful animals for us to use as a staple diet.”

Water has always been associated with wellbeing and keeping healthy and with water degradation, so its loss is painful and a sign of lack of wellbeing. Streams in modern Wellington are often out of sight and out of mind.

“That’s the pain for us and that our rivers are all hidden from us, they’re all in drains… Kumutoto stream runs down Woodward Street Lane and that starts up in Kelburn. Waitangi stream starts up in the hospital grounds because that was a healing place, two healing springs, that you can hear if you know the spot to go to. We all know that they’re there, we’ve just covered them up and all over the world that is happening.”

Hutt Valley once had an embarrassment of food riches, with flocks of kereru (wood pigeon) 1000 strong roaming the the area.

“I’ve seen flocks of 30 in the Hutt Valley, but I haven’t seen 1000. That would be quite stunning. Certainly in Eastborne you’d see big flocks of tui, quite extensive, up to 100,” she says.

Te Raukura, Wharewaka o Pōneke Function Centre

Te Raukura, Wharewaka o Pōneke Function Centre Photo: supplied

The weka was a prized food source. “They’re lovely, I’ve certainly has them in the Chatham Islands. They’re not as gamey as a duck, more like chicken but not quite as gentle as a chicken."

Melish says the birds are still worth breeding to sell as meat.

Foraging for herbs added flavour, vitamins and minerals. Plants like supplejack were often used in meals.

Supplejack is a vine that grows throughout the lowland, coastal forest of New Zealand. “The very tips of a supplejack are beautiful to eat,” she says.

Traditionally families probably only ate a meal once a day, with hangis used to feed hundreds of people. Families also prepared smaller meals using heated stones on top of the ground, cooking things like fish that didn’t need significant heat.

Manaaki was central to life and mana when visitors came it was the responsibility of the hosts to present the best table of food possible, Melish says.

“For us as Māori, the main thing for us, I want to use the word mana and I want to use the word manaaki – the most important thing for us is manaaki and that is to look after people… a very important part of our mana was being able to take care of and feed manuhiri. We still practice that today.”

Melish and her husband ran a successful smoked fish business for several years before selling up. Her husband is a keen hunter and forager, as well as a skilled cook.

She oversees a function centre, a café and a tourism business involving waka activities and history tours, and in 24 hours their businesses came to a grinding halt with the covid-19 emergency health response. Their 70 staff became immediately anxious about job security.

The café is opened but with shorter hours and remains closed on Monday. Some staff is the other businesses lost their jobs, as the conference centre was hit hard and US contracts that made up the mainstay of the tourism venture dried up completely.

Students who had been waka guides are now being redeployed within the business.

"We've basically stopped the waka tours, but really the walking tours have picked up as people want to do something, so we're teaching them now that history and training them them to be walking tour guides."

Māori businesses continue to flourish and those involved in horticulture, forestry, fisheries, and within other sectors have moved swiftly to adjust to the covid restrictionns and have focused on mental health issues associated with unvcertainty too, say shes.

"There's a confidence for Māori, right across the country," she says.