When it comes to eating the right food for health, there are so many different opinions and recommendations out there that it all can get a little confusing. One minute something is bad for you, and the next minute it is good. As the science in this area continues to develop, so too does our scientific understanding of particular foods and their impact on our tinana (body). However, traditionally as Māori, we had our own system for making sense of the world around us, or in this case, our relationship with food and how certain foods are good for our tinana.
Understanding our food environment developed over many years of observation, and was passed on to successive generations through various oral traditions such as pūrākau (stories), waiata (songs), whakatauākī (proverbs), and karakia (incantation, prayer) to name a few. The messages contained within these oral traditions helped us to create, transmit and preserve a body of knowledge that enabled Māori to thrive here in Aotearoa. As a result, each iwi and hapū developed their own practices that reflected their unique environment. Hence, the traditions for Ngāti Tūwharetoa differ to Ngāpuhi in the north; and these two iwi differ again to Ngāi Tahu in the south. Despite the differences that exist across the motu (country), there are still many similarities.
Kai Moana by Lucy Bowen
Tangaroa is widely known as the atua or the guardian of the ocean, and this is true not only in Aotearoa but also across the Pacific. Tangaroa is described as one of the sons of Rangi and Papa. From Tangaroa we trace descent down to Ikatere, the ancestor of all the various fish, and also to Tūtewehiwehi, the ancestor of amphibians (or reptiles to some iwi). After the separation of Rangi and Papa, Tāwhirimātea the atua of the various winds, attacked Tangaroa for his role in supporting the separation of their parents. During this attack, Ikatere fled to hide within the depths of Tangaroa, while Tūtewehiwehi sought protection from Tāwhirimātea inland. It is through legends like these that we begin to recognise from a Māori perspective how our world came to be. In particular, the whakapapa (genealogy) of fish and amphibians through Tangaroa helps us to understand the origin of the food we eat.
To dive in a little deeper, there is a unique connection between Tangaroa, the fish that we eat from the ocean, and the human body. There is a belief that the components of the body have an association to various atua. Our lungs and the movement of air are represented by Tāwhirimātea; Tāne is associated with the brain, our store house of knowledge; Rongo the atua of peace is connected with the heart; Tūmatauenga the atua of war and man represents the structure of our body and its flesh and sinews; the stomach is related with Rūaumoko; while Tangaroa represents the water that flows within us. The rhythmic flow of the ocean’s waves mimic the pulsing blood that runs through our veins.
This relationship between Tangaroa and our internal flow of water is significant, because it highlights the potential benefits that the descendants of Tangaroa can have on this part of our tinana. Interestingly, fish oil has been shown to have a positive impact on lowering blood cholesterol and blood pressure, reducing the risk of a heart attack or stroke. Fish oil is also credited with improving brain function. Therefore, reconnecting with the descendants of Tangaroa by adding fresh fish to the menu, or taking a high-quality fish oil supplement, can positively impact cardiovascular health. This is just one example of how traditional Māori knowledge can carry subtle cues that can help us navigate the world we live. It also provides a Māori rationale for eating fish not for circulatory health, but for enhancing our tinana through Tangaroa. So, when you come to sit down and eat your next meal, you might wonder what whakapapa it has, and what stories you could tell of its origin? There is so much out there to entice you, but if you want to thrive like our tīpuna did, you might have to think twice about the whakapapa of that mince and cheese pie!