Meat-free and Māori
Mana, liberation. Chicken crafted from peas. Joel Maxwell blends observation, opinion and the voices of fellow vegans, including Ta¯me Iti, in a quest to uncover the trials and tribulations of being a Ma¯ori vegan.
A translation of the reo Ma¯ ori portion of this story was included in the preceding English section.
Up until the 1980s, New Zealand’s favourite flavour was bland, our favourite texture was boiled, our favourite ingredient was indifference. But much like each person’s individual growth, Aotearoa collectively dissolved over time and reformed into something unrecognisable to its old self. I can’t put my finger on when it happened exactly, but we must have become a foodie nation sometime after 1990.
I still remember the conversation of two guys, larval hipsters, bemoaning the lack of cafe life in Hamilton while strolling its main street in the early 90s. I remember only because of the scorn I felt for these weaklings as I walked behind them those 30 years ago.
You have to understand, I was an idiot. My brain was squeezed between a non-ironic mullet, toxic masculinity and provincial conformity that was soon to be left in the dust by the rest of the country.
New Zealand fell in love with food. We courted good wine, interesting beers, new ingredients from different cultures and actual decent coffee. But despite the change, or perhaps because of it, we are reluctant to quit our traditional proteins, or as I call them, my friends.
My iwi is Te Rarawa, from Te Hiku o te Ika, the Far North. My name is Joel Maxwell, and I am – this is embarrassing – a Ma¯ ori vegan.
I have read on more than one occasion that veganism is an agent of colonialism and of racism. Ma¯ ori as indigenous people should not become vegans, or attempt to become vegans. We are, apparently, required by our culture to kill stuff – even the island on which I’m writing this was hauled out of the sea in a famous fishing expedition.
Our whakapapa demands blood on our hands and saturated animal fats clogging our arteries, or so we are told.
So, can you be a real Ma¯ ori and try to pursue a vegan diet? I hope so.
I didn’t know if this was a story about that question, about cuisine, about culture, about the environment or health or indigenous identity. But, as I spoke to Ma¯ ori pursuing the ideal of veganism, I think it was about the simple human desire to make our own choices. Or, as artist Ta¯ me Iti says, it was about finding liberation. And a sweet amount of weight loss.
Jasmine Taankink speaks at a table at a vegan-friendly cafe in Porirua, north of Wellington. Her favourite vegan dish is Samoan chop-suey, Sapasui, but with Sunfed ‘‘chicken’’. This is a New Zealand-brand poultry crafted from pea protein. They do a good ‘‘beef’’ too.
She thinks veganism itself isn’t necessarily a Ma¯ ori kaupapa, but Ma¯ ori, as a people, care for the land and the water: the very things for which veganism offers benefits. There are health benefits for Ma¯ ori too: ‘‘Just look at us,’’ she says in te reo. We both laugh.
JM: He kaupapa Ma¯ ori, te¯ nei kaupapa veganism, te¯ nei kaupapa karohuarehe? Kei te rite nga¯ whakaaro o nga¯ mea e rua?
JT: Ehara i te mea he kaupapa Ma¯ ori, veganism. Heoi ano¯ , he iwi tiaki whenua te iwi Ma¯ ori, he iwi tiaki wai te iwi Ma¯ ori. Koira¯ e¯ tahi o nga¯ hua o te¯ nei mea, veganism.
I nga¯ wa¯ o mua ko nga¯ mı¯ti i kaingia e nga¯ tupuna ko nga¯ kai moana, nga¯ manu – ka¯ ore ko nga¯ kau, nga¯ hı¯pi, e¯ ra¯ atu. Ki au nei, ka¯ ore i te pai e¯ ra¯ kai ki a ma¯ tou, nga¯ i Ma¯ ori. Ka¯ ore i te pai ki te whenua, ki te tinana, ki nga¯ awa. Ahakoa ki au nei ehara i te mea he kaupapa Ma¯ ori – kei te kite au i nga¯ hua o veganism kia pai ai to¯ ta¯ tou noho i te¯ nei ao.JM:
He hua ano¯ mo¯ nga¯ i Ma¯ ori, te¯ ra¯ pea, mo¯ te hauora o nga¯ i Ma¯ ori? Mehemea e whai ana ta¯ tou nga¯ i Ma¯ ori i nga¯ whainga o te veganism?
JT: Titiro ki a ta¯ ua! [he katakata ‘ironic’ na¯ ma¯ ua]
Taankink stopped eating meat about 12 years ago, ‘‘the main reason was cruelty to animals’’. Two years later she stopped eating dairy and eggs as well, she says, because of cruelty and the environmental impacts of the dairy industry and battery-farmed hens. (She now eats the occasional fish caught by wha¯ nau.)
In the beginning, Taankink did feel pressure to eat meat at family or social events. ‘‘And then ultimately I just thought, actually, I would never try and force someone to eat something that they don’t want to eat, so I’ve got the mana over what I put in my body.’’
It’s about finding ways of doing things in te ao Ma¯ ori without trampling manaakitanga, she says. ‘‘Because that’s a big thing, showing up to the marae – you should eat something.’’
Nevertheless, ringawera (marae kitchen workers) are becoming more aware of different food requirements, such as gluten-free or veganism, Taankink says.
When she goes home to Taranaki, she has a simple strategy to combine respectful marae life with veganism. ‘‘I’ll take something [and say], ‘Oh look, here’s a nice chilli we could bake.’ Something that we can make, so it’s not me just saying, ‘You have to do this thing for me, you have to cater for me’.’’ Be involved, Taankink says.
Pa¯ keha¯ vegans don’t face these types of challenges, which is why she and a friend started a Facebook group for Ma¯ ori and Pasifika vegans. Ma¯ ori would often get nasty responses in mainstream groups that didn’t understand the deeper conflicts at play in Ma¯ ori lives.
‘‘If somebody would write a post ‘I’m going to my marae this weekend, how do you navigate that?’ Or ‘I went back home for the weekend and ate some meat because my kuia insisted’. People would just shut those people down, stop those conversations and say, basically, they’re a horrible person.’’
Taankink thinks people switching to veganism need to plan well. Get some good recipes, get some good friends – and be prepared to have to explain stuff to people, she says.
I’m explaining things to Ta¯ me Iti over the phone – a complaint couched as a question, actually – about how vegans are often ridiculed for being uncool. This is not necessarily the case, Iti says. There were hardcore vegan anarchists arrested with him in the 2007 armed police raids across Aotearoa. (The closest I’ve come to vegan anarchy is eating an entire can of organic baked beans, cold, over the sink.)
I’ve never met Iti but he’s happy to ko¯ rero about switching to plant-powered kai six years ago for health reasons. ‘‘I’m in my early 70s and I never really had problems with weight until middle age – 40s – the old body shape starts to form something I’d never experienced before.’’
Iti was also diagnosed as a diabetic about 18 years ago, which started putting limits on the foods he’d always loved to eat.
But phasing out meat, eggs, dairy – and sticking to a good diet – had genuine health benefits. ‘‘My body, I tell you, my body has been transformed. My
heaviest I’ve been is about 114kg, I’m down to around 82, 80kg now. I feel like a 30-year-old.’’
He did plenty of reading before the switch, and prepared himself. ‘‘The first part of our liberation is to liberate ourselves,’’ Iti says. This means making the changes, and ‘‘once you pass over that, everything just comes smoothly’’.
And his food sounds pretty delicious: ‘‘Our kai’s more than just veggies, which means that the kai that we use is a lot of Indian food, a lot of Thai food, beans, protein, all of those kinds of foods.’’
Iti will, however, occasionally need a ‘‘kina blast’’, eating the velvety roe of the sea urchin that is a traditional kai for Ma¯ ori.
What does Iti think about the idea that traditional Ma¯ ori ways and veganism don’t really mix? ‘‘It’s an opinion,’’ he says. ‘‘All indigenous people eat different food.’’
Kai, it seems, has never stood still for anybody. Iti says when the ma¯ ta¯ waka – in this case, the first big migration of people from Hawaiki – arrived in the 1300s, they met the original people, the likes of Te Hapu¯ -oneone, ‘‘children of the mist’’, (who had already settled here, and would become Nga¯ i
Tu¯ hoe) and brought new kai to Aotearoa.
They brought ku¯ mara, they brought rı¯wai, they brought taro, ‘‘so there’s a big shift in their diet’’. Then, Iti says, from the 1700s, 1800s, there were more newcomers bringing new kinds of food.
‘‘So we got introduced to goats, dogs – all of those meats: sheep, cattle, horses.’’
Iti himself, who loves cooking, has eaten these animals. He ate rat, he ate dog; he’s tried horse, crocodile, frog – ‘‘anything that can walk’’, including bugs. ‘‘I ate all of that and have a taste of it; so I know all about food.’’
He had a great run of meat-eating, a gastronomical adventure across a lifetime, but in the end he was more interested in the adventuring than the ingredients.
‘‘I just wanted to prolong my life a little bit longer. And live another day, so I’ll get to spend a bit more time and be an artist. I’m still active mentally, physically … still able to be creative.’’
For the general health of Ma¯ ori, some marae decisions might have to change too, he says.
‘‘My criticism with ourselves is that we put too much kai out there. And I know it’s all about maintaining your mana, but maintaining your mana … we can still do that in a different way.’’
Ross Himona, 79, was doing things differently when it came to kai, as far back as the 1980s. He is reluctant to speak to the media, but sends me a written account of his life since he switched to vegetarianism 36 years ago, and veganism for the past 16.
Himona is a self-described health-nut vegan, ‘‘not a political or animal rights vegan’’. ‘‘I still wear leather shoes, belts and jackets. And a lot of wool.’’
He is, however, a save-the-planet vegan, saying if we stopped breeding and feeding the ‘‘countless billions of animals’’ consumed every year, we might save ourselves from global disaster. ‘‘I don’t go on about it though. I don’t proselytise either about health and veganism. I just do what I do, and the people around me watch curiously, and some of them change and adopt healthier eating habits.’’
A Vietnam War veteran who served in the New Zealand Army for 20 years, there was a time back in the 80s when Himona felt like he was the only Ma¯ ori vegetarian in existence.
He remembers travelling through Gisborne to Tokomaru Bay, stopping at a hotel. He ordered a meat-free breakfast in the dining room but the Ma¯ ori waitress came back with a vast mixed-grill, eggs and chips breakfast. ‘‘The Ma¯ ori chef stood beaming in the doorway.’’ Something about the nomeat request had simply been unthinkable.
By the time he reached Tokomaru Bay, word had gone out about the ‘‘strange Ma¯ ori vegetarian’’.
‘‘Come kai time, all the women stood around in amazement watching me eat a kai with no meat.’’ Himona retired from the army in 1982, joined a harriers club and ended up competing in the over35s Masters’ class. He read that eating meat took a toll on the body – using up energy during the lengthy digestion process. Quitting meat alleviated that stress. ‘‘I tried it and it worked. Immediately. I felt healthier and better for it. People around me noted that I became calmer.’’
Research into the causes of glue ear, a nasty problem afflicting many Ma¯ ori tamariki, led to Himona’s next step in the 1990s. The research showed northern European and some African populations were genetically predisposed to digesting cow’s milk, but Ma¯ ori, Pasifika and Asian populations – who had never traditionally consumed it – were not, ‘‘hence the accumulation of mucus in ear, nose and throat’’.
Himona pushed ahead with a simple experiment – what would happen if he dropped dairy? It worked, he says. He was less clogged up with mucus.
Over the years he phased out all animal products from his diet (and quit smoking, drinking, sugar, salt, caffeine, tea and coffee). ‘‘My journey to veganism has been a decadeslong experiment of one.’’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, that experiment sees Himona pushing 80 and in good shape. And if I might insert some context here: while reaching 80 might not seem like much of an achievement as it’s the average life expectancy for men overall, it is more of a rarity for a Ma¯ ori bloke. Our average life expectancy is 73. Ma¯ ori die on average seven years earlier than non-Ma¯ ori – we die at higher rates from cancer, cardiovascular disease, you name it. So Himona is already beating the curve. ‘‘Given my family history of ill health and early death – mostly before 60 in my father’s generation – it seems that I have staved off what might have been inevitable. Even so, my aim is not necessarily to put off the inevitable, but to stay healthy for as long as I do live.’’
‘‘I just wanted to prolong my life a little bit longer... so I’ll get to spend a bit more time and be an artist. I’m still active mentally, physically … still able to be creative.’’ Ta¯ me Iti
Throughout our lifetime, if we’re lucky, we outlive a succession of pets. What a pain our animal companions are. We give them our generosity, our home, and they eventually go and die on us, confront us with deep feelings in a scene that is both the dress rehearsal for, and the main event of mortality.
At that moment we hold our friend for the last time, register the gradual deceleration of breath under their fur, the confusion in their eyes, and worst of all we are sunk by that look of imploring trust that persists till the end.
The death of animals is mundane and profound to me. Never more so than when we’re doing the killing. Cattle listen to Mozart and yet we want to boot them from this world with all its emotional highs and sensual pleasures, its breathtaking connections between everything, up to and including the stars, just to manufacture hamburger patties.
For this we want to rob animals of the most powerful of life’s imperatives: the need to exist in the universe for another day. We should probably think carefully about why we do this – Ma¯ ori and Pa¯ keha¯ – if we have a choice in the matter. That’s why about eight years ago I chose to be vegan.
And if I’m honest, the reason I remember that time back in 1990, those two proto-foodies slumming it on Victoria St, was that it gives me a clean snapshot of what I used to be. I left myself back in the dust too. I just needed to tell myself back then that it was OK to cry and feel sad – to care about stuff – and share those feelings with others. And it’s OK to just choose a salad.