Gifts of the sea
Because New Zealand has the fourth largest fishing zone in the world, it has access to a great variety of seafood. It is therefore surprising that the average New Zealander consumes so little of it. This was not the case in pre-European times, when seafood was a major component of the Māori diet. Māori were accomplished fishermen, using nets and traps as well as hooked lines to catch fish.
Early Māori diet
By analysing fish bones at different coastal sites, archaeologists have found that one or two fish dominated the catches over a long period. In the North Island, snapper was the main catch; barracouta and red cod were the major species caught in the South Island.
Seashells and crayfish were also harvested. The kinds and quantities eaten varied according to location, although cockles feature prominently in middens (ancient rubbish sites) near estuaries throughout New Zealand. Other common species consumed included pāua (abalone), pipi, tuatua, titiko (mud snails), mussels, limpets and cat’s eyes.
Fresh seafood was usually cooked by laying the flesh on heated rocks. Shellfish were often eaten raw. Māori preserved much of their seafood to eat later or trade. Fresh fish and shellfish meat was hung on poles to dry in the sun, or baked first before hanging.
In the days before dog roll and beef bones, New Zealand must have presented a challenge to the hungry kurī (Māori dog). Polynesian rats and forest birds may have been a source of protein, but kurī would have competed with their masters for these foods. Kurī coprolites (fossilised faeces) provide an answer – they are full of fish bones.
Māori supplied the first European settlers with fresh and dried fish. But the newcomers showed little interest in the 30 or so species of native fish that were offered. In the 19th century the British were importing their familiar seafoods – salted and kippered herrings, and later, canned fish. Because red meats such as mutton and beef were cheap, widely available, and kept better than fresh fish, they became the preferred source of protein.
The only shellfish the European settlers sampled were oysters and toheroa, a surf clam that was processed into a green soup and sold in cans. Other shellfish and crustaceans such as crabs and crayfish were of no interest. They may have been associated with poverty. Many Irish and Scots carried memories of foods eaten in harsh times – wild fare that had sustained them and their parents during the great potato famine, and which they were reluctant to eat again.
Early 20th-century diet
Surveys of the New Zealand diet in 1926 and 1937 revealed that only small amounts of fish were eaten. Māori ate more seafood than Pākehā; their consumption of 20 kilograms per person in 1941 was nearly three times the national average. As Pākehā became familiar with the taste of New Zealand fish, they showed a preference for firm, white-fleshed species such as snapper, tarakihi, flounder and sole. Their cooking methods were not imaginative; they either baked the fish whole, or battered and fried fillets. Small amounts of canned fish (imported salmon and sardines) were also eaten.