Ranginui and Papatūānuku
In the Māori creation tradition of Ranginui (sky father) and Papatūānuku (earth mother), the couple were pushed apart by their children, who then began to fight. Tāwhirimātea attacked his brothers for separating their parents. The only one who fought back was Tūmatauenga, the god of war. Tāwhirimātea defeated four of his brothers, and then used them as food. They were Tangaroa (god of the sea), Tāne (god of the forest), Rongomātāne (god of cultivated foods) and Haumia-tikitiki (god of uncultivated foods). In doing this Tāwhirimātea undermined their tapu (sacredness) and made them noa (ordinary). He also instituted incantations to make these foods abundant and easy to obtain. Many of the ritualised aspects of collecting and eating food are related to the gods, and thus heavily influenced by tapu.
Tapu and food
As illustrated by the creation story, food is noa. Much care was taken with food to ensure it did not infringe upon tapu. The Takitimu canoe, from which the people of Ngāti Kahungunu are descended, was said to be so tapu that food was not allowed on board during its voyage from Hawaiki.
Some tohunga were so tapu that they could not feed themselves. Food was placed on a stick for them to eat, and water was tipped onto their hands or into a kōrere (funnel).
In certain rituals, food is used to remove tapu.
When someone was near death, they were often brought a special food as a last meal, or water from a favourite spring or stream.
Food and hospitality
At hākari (feasts) attended by guests from other tribes, the mana of the hosts would depend on their ability to be lavish with food. There are a number of traditional stories in which the host and guests compete to outdo and at times undermine each other.
A Rotorua chief, Tūhourangi, came to visit a Waikato chief, Kapu-manawa-whiti (Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Maniapoto). Guests usually visited in autumn after the harvest and would send a messenger ahead so that food could be prepared. Instead, Tūhourangi visited in summer, a time of scarcity, and sent no messenger.
Kapu was deeply embarrassed as he struggled to feed his visitors. Tūhourangi rubbed it in by noting that his favoured foods were preserved birds and seafood. Kapu argued that water was best, while his guest strongly disagreed.
Kapu invited Tūhourangi to visit again, suggesting he come in early summer. Kapu prepared for the next visit by putting aside a huge feast of dried seafood and preserved birds. However, he moved his pā to a hilltop far from any rivers and with only one well, which he covered. When Tūhourangi arrived, he and his retinue feasted on preserved birds and seafood. However, when he ordered his men to get water, they could not find any. Tūhourangi begged Kapu for water. After Tūhourangi agreed that water was indeed the best food, Kapu unveiled the hidden well, regaining his mana.
Tūrongo and Whatihua
A rivalry between brothers over a woman also played out in hosting guests.
There were two chiefly brothers in the Waikato, Whatihua (the elder) and Tūrongo (the younger). Tūrongo began courting Ruapūtahanga, a beautiful high-born Taranaki woman. He was keen for her to visit him and asked Whatihua's advice about how to prepare for this. However, he did not realise that Whatihua coveted his intended wife.
Whatihua told Tūrongo to shorten the house he was building as it would be too long. Meanwhile Whatihua constructed a much bigger house and secretly stored significant amounts of food. Before his brother had managed to put aside enough food, Whatihua sent a message to Ruapūtahanga, telling her Tūrongo wanted her to come now.
When she arrived, Tūrongo did not have enough food or space in his house. Whatihua stepped in and offered Ruapūtahanga and her people accommodation and food. Ruapūtahanga was won over by the hospitality and married Whatihua instead of Tūrongo.
Land for food
Te Whatuiāpiti of Ngāti Kahungunu held a feast called Wharepunga. Another chief, Te Angiangi, went to the feast and received two calabashes of preserved food. Te Angiangi hosted a return feast called Pohaetakataka, but was embarrassed when Te Whatuiāpiti commented that it was too small.
Te Whatuiāpiti then hosted another great feast, which was handed over to Te Angiangi and his people. Te Angiangi was now greatly in Te Whatuiāpiti's debt and made plans to host a huge return feast, including food brought from the South Island. However, this food was lost in the sea, and Te Angiangi then gifted land to Te Whatuiāpiti as an appropriate exchange for the feast.