Monday, August 17, 2009

A Tasty Dried Snack

When I visited Tuahiwi Marae near Christchurch recently, to write about the big hangi – the final in the set of kai features for Ngai Tahu’s TE KARAKA magazine – I got these great shots of Grenville Pitama smoking and preparing tuna (eel) for a snack for the men who had helped lay down the hangi. Once the prepared food had been safely laid on the hot rocks and then buried in earth and left to cook for four hours, Grenville hauled out his tin smoker and set it over the hot embers that had been removed from the hangi fire pit. He tossed a little manuka ash in to flavour the fish, laid down the pawhared (dried) Wairewa tuna and left it to cook for around ten minutes. “You wait,” he said with a grin, “That will cook up beautifully in just a few minutes.” And it did – golden, chewy, flavoursome.
A couple of years ago, one of our kai features had taken us to Lake Wairewa ( east of Christchurch, close to Little River. I spoke with many of the kaumatua (elders) about their traditions of eeling and one I remember was Naomi Butler, who was just ten when she started learning the tikanga of tuna gathering. It was always an important part of her life and by the time she caught her first eel at sixteen, she was well versed in family traditions and gathering practices.Then in her early eighties she talked to me about how eeling had shaped her childhood.
“I was the third eldest of fifteen children and during the war years we’d always be out gathering tuna and kaimoana. But Mum and Dad only ever took two of us at a time when they taught us how to catch tuna.
"Back in the 1920s and 1930s families had their own drain and we’d go and sit there at night and wait for the eels to come in. Everyone had to be very quiet and we’d listen for their tails flapping in the water. We had torches to spot them but you weren’t allowed to turn them on until someone gave the signal. The best time for tuna was when the sky was dark and a norwester was blowing. The eels would be thick then – hundreds of them, writing about in the drains,” she says.
“We’d gaff the eels in their hundreds and toss them into the shingle parua (pit) beside the drains. I’ve been there when over 700 tuna were caught in a night.”
Tuna migration has always had an element of mystery and strict tikanga has surrounded tuna harvest. They have traditionally been caught between February and April during the last quarter of the moon (hinepouri) when the nights were darker and the eels had begun moving down the streams and into Lake Wairewa, ready to migrate out to sea to spawn in the Pacific. Local whanau adhered to strict rules – food, drink and smoking were all banned from the drains and stepping across drains was equally frowned upon. I’ve written about tuna (eels) here before and shown the drying process at Rapaki, which you can see by clicking on traditional foods below this post.

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