What do Mountain Oysters, Whitebait, Huhu Grubs, and Kumara chips have in common? They’re all grown in New Zealand and all foods I tasted at the 2012 Hokitika Wildfoods Festival. Though many of the old-timers complained about how the event had been coopted by drunk teenagers (I don’t blame them, the streets were a sh*t show), the party was nonetheless a wild and wicked way to explore some local delicacies.
Mountain Oysters appeared in New Zealand alongside white settlers, who brought sheep for wool and mutton production. The oysters are an ingenious byproduct of shepherding and a unique way to minimize food waste. However, the tradition of shepherding in NZ is waning. As global dairy and beef demand began to boom, cattle, which require up to seven times more water per kilogram of meat than sheep, gradually replaced the dumb-but-cute cottonball grazers associated with Kiwi tradition. Nowadays, dairying is New Zealand’s number one industry while mutton is hard to find. My partner, who visited NZ in 2004, came with a mouthwatering appetite for mutton pie, but all we could find was beef! It seems even the most isolated populous on the planet cannot escape the demands of global capitalism.
Whitebait is an even more traditional food in New Zealand. Tiny fish caught in a yearly anadromous migration, Maori used to seine them up for a seasonal treat. Unfortunately, as Pakeha discovered whitebait’s deliciousness, national demand began to strain the fishery. Nowadays, the fishing season is limited, and rivers that still support significant runs are kept secret by fisherpeople who can sell the four-centimeter long fish for up to 150 NZD per kilogram!
Speaking of tiny packets of protein, Huhu grub was probably one of the weirdest foods I tried at the festival. The larval stage of a New Zealand’s largest bark-boring beetle, this larger-than-whitebait grub was another seasonal forage for the Maori people. Luckily for the grub populations, Europeans seem less inclined to consume insects than fish, even if bugs are far more protein rich.
Finally, we return to the Kumara, a ubiquitous Polynesian staple. Borrowed centuries ago from the distant shores of South America where potatoes originated, Kumara is central to Polynesian survival. Much like indigenous Maori settlements, Kumara production is concentrated in the semi-tropical North Island, where a mild climate protects the plant from frost and agriculture can be sustained year-round. It is hypothesized that Kumara was carried by Polynesian explorers because its starchy tuber could feed them during their journey, and it could still be planted upon arrival.
Connecting food diversity with traditional ecological knowledge, Kumara was but one of many foods that Maori brought with them to settle Aotearoa. Each species, from dogs to rats to taro, provided indigenous Polynesians with a perennial crop that could feed the people until new, endemic forage was discovered and passed down through generational transfer of TEK. This demonstrates how people take their TEK with them to a new place and how TEK gradually adapts as a population gets to know its landscape. Through the generations, Maori would discover native edible and medicinal plants as well many birds to eat, but they would not simply disregard the old traditions they brought with them.
Diversity in food has never been just for the fun of trying new things, it is part of the redundancy that maintains reliable harvests. If in a wet year one variety of potato fails, a different variety may flourish, or a crop better adapted to saturated soil (e.g. taro) might be planted instead. Certainly wild forage will augment agricultural production, but farming generally produces a more reliable yield. Together, farmers and gatherers, and the foods they harvest, form a safety net for a growing population. And while it is possible to plant and harvest a single genotype over thousands of acres (monocrop), doesn’t an interwoven net present a safer backup than a single strand of twine? Under the same logic, don’t locally grown and harvested foods promote a sustainable food system by protecting a populace from a volatile global market that sends food to the highest bidder?