Kumara is the Maori name for the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas). The kumara was introduced to New Zealand during the first wave of colonization (c. 800 AD). Before contact with Europeans, Maori cultivated five main food plants; the kumara was by far the most important of these1. Its preeminence was supplanted with the introduction of potatoes (in 1769) and, to a lesser extent, maize (in 1772), by James Cook, Jean de Surville, and Nicholas Marion du Fresne. Because of its tropical origins, the kumara lacked the potato's viability over New Zealand's range of climate and soil types.

The Maori were familiar with many varieties of kumara: Eldon Best documented 82 variety names (many probably synonyms) in 1922. One variety was called Kai Pakeha (European food), indicating that Maori recognized and differentiated a strain introduced by Colonials. Best considered Merikana (American) to be the first introduced strain, probably by an American whaler in the early 1800s.

In the 1850s, an American whaler called the Rainbow introduced a sweet potato superior to Kai Pakeha, Merikana, and the Maori kumara. Gradually this strain, called Waina by the Maori, supplanted all other varieties in New Zealand. In the early 1950s the DSIR (Department of Scientific and Industrial Research) noted an outstanding mutation of the Tauranga Red strain of Waina, and named it Owairaka Red. Since 1953 the Department of Agriculture has been improving the strain; today, Owairaka Red comprises 80-90% of New Zealand's total kumara crop.

1 The others were taro, hue (gourd), ti pore (cabbage tree), and uwhi (yam), which appears to have died out by the time of European contact.


Nutritional Value

Nutrients supplied by the kumara include beta-carotene, vitamins A and C, iron and potassium. Calorie content is about half as much again as the potato, and carbohydrate and protein content are roughly equal to polished rice. Sweet potatoes contain trypsin inhibitors which may reduce the body's ability to utilize protein; however, trypsin inhibitors do not survive cooking and are of no consequence in cooked roots. See witnie's sweet potato node for more nutritional info.


Kumara in Maori Tradition

The kumara was eaten on festive occasions and required a state of peace for its cultivation, so it came to be symbolically associated with peace. Rongo, the Maori god of peace and agriculture, was the father of the kumara.

Maori cultivated kumara throughout the warmer and more fertile regions of New Zealand, in the North Island and in sheltered areas of the South Island. Some strains were imported into New Zealand with the arrival of Europeans. Because of these factors, there's a wide variety of different myths to explain the kumara's origin.

A tradition from the Tuhoe iwi (tribe) tells of Rongo-maui and his wife Pani, who cared for Maui and his five brothers after their parents' death. One day, when they returned from fishing, the brothers complained to Rongo-maui about his laziness. Rongo-maui resolved to prove he was a better provider than the foster-children of his wife. He climbed up to the realm of the gods and stole the essence of their food. He then descended to earth and impregnated his wife with the stolen seed. When her time came, Rongo-maui told her to go to the stream of Mona-ariki to give birth. As she stood in the sacred water, Pani gave birth to Nehutai, Patea, Pio, Matatu, Paurangi, and several others -- all different varieties of kumara.

Another tradition explains the kumara's arrival in New Zealand by telling of Ruakapanga, the Hawaiki tohunga responsible for teaching the art of cultivating kumara. After Kupe's visit to Aotearoa, Ruakapanga sent one of the chiefs from his house of learning to assess the possibilities of growing kumara in the new land. The chief, called Tairangahue, sailed with a crew of men and women, including a man called Pourangahua and his wife. Tairangahue's canoe landed at Gisborne, and the crew found that the land was suitable for kumara growth. They also noted by the singing of the birds and the blossoms of the trees that it was spring. Tairangahue returned with some of the crew to report his positive findings. Pourangahue sailed with him, but his wife stayed behind.

When Ruakapanga learned it was springtime in Aotearoa, he ordered Pourangahua to return there at once, since it was the right time to plant kumara. He loaned Pourangahua his two giants birds Harongarangi and Tuirangahue to take him there swiftly, also teaching him thanksgiving prayers for his arrival at Gisborne and incantations for the safe return of the birds. The two birds flew back over the oceans, Harongorangi carrying Pourangahua and Tuiranga carrying the kumara tipu (shoots) and ko (digging tools).

Upon his return to Gisborne, Pourangahua was so eager to to greet his wife that he forgot all about the prayers of thanks. Instead he feasted, sang and made merry with his friends. It was only after he noticed how wearied and sorrowful the birds were that he remembered to chant prayers of thanksgiving and prayers for the birds' safe return. So the birds finally flew homewards to Hawaiki, but were waylaid by evil spirits Tunuioteika and Huataketake, who attacked in the form of great birds of prey. They arrived back to their master Ruakapanga thin, torn and exhausted.

To avenge the maltreatment of his birds and the negligence of Pourangahua, Ruakapanga sent three pests to attack the growth of the kumara: the anuhe to eat the buds, the mokoro to eat the shoots, and the mokowhiti to eat the leaves. The pests ravage the kumara crops of Aotearoa to this day.


Sources

Coleman, B. P. Kumara Growing. New Zealand Department of Agriculture. 1972.
Crowe, Andrew. A Field Guide to the Native Edible Plants of New Zealand. Godwit. 1990.
Hart, Roger and Reed, A. W. Maori Myth and Legend. Reed. 1983.
Orbell, Margaret. A Concise Encyclopedia of Maori Myth and Legend. Canterbury University Press. 1998.
Taiapa, Pine. How the Kumara Came to New Zealand. Te Ao Hou. Vol. 6 (No. 3). Department of Maori Affairs. 1953.

Tomorrow is Australia Day. And there will be countless barbies smokin' away around the country. I hope there will not be too many burnt snags - and blessedly, people seem to have a better understanding of cooking a barbecue.

You will find prawns and other seafood, onions and mushrooms, well-marinated steaks, and gourmet sausages these days on barbecues. This little trick (seems more like a trick than a recipe to me) is a great starter for your barbie. As guests arrive, they are greeted with the surprising, yet pleasantly sweet aroma of cinammon - and then they know they are in for a special treat.

Ingredients
(4-8 portions)

Method

Slice the kumara into discs about .5cm wide. I leave the skin on... but for the faint of heart, you could peel the vegetable.

Mix the cinnamon, salt and pepper into the oil. Then toss the kumara through the oil to coat evenly.

Place the kumara on a hot BBQ as the first item, before guests arrive. The aroma of the cinnamon will start the barbecue off on a great start, and people will love the novelty.

Kumara can be prepared a day in advance and kept in the fridge.

Of course, any barbie can start this way - not just an Australia Day one.

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