Nāku te rourou: Rēwena Starter Diary: Or, a Bewildered Beginning

Nāku te rourou is a fortnightly food blog focussing on Māori food and recipes. Don’t think Julie and Julia. Think kihini chaos, kānga pirau, and kai for the soul. Nau mai ki tāku kihini… Welcome to my kitchen.

4.24 pm Monday afternoon: I am not entirely calm about this week’s kai blog. Having volunteered (foolishly!) to get this food blogging ball rolling, I’m confronted with the sad fact I haven’t so much as seen a proper, hole-in-the-ground hangi in years, my kitchen is the size of a cupboard and, since moving to urban Pōneke five years ago, I’ve no idea where or from whom to get pūha, gather kaimoana, or find a decent eel. I’m not starting with much know-how, is what I’m saying.

But hei aha! I hate to pass up a challenge, and I’ve the great advantage of working in the whare pukapuka. This manu has an easier job ki te kai mātauranga when it’s all searchable via our catalogue. Our kai Māori books here at the library are diverse and there are some real taonga in the mix – I could (and will, at some later date!) write a whole blog just about them.

For starters, I decide to try a rēwena mix. This potato bread uses a fermented potato water mix as a rising agent rather than yeast, and the mix is called a ‘bug’. The bugs can live forever (it seems) and recipes and bug cultures are passed down families. Since my whanau’s not big on bread, I’ll be starting from scratch, and after some research, I’ve chosen two separate tohutao paraoa from our Māori cookbook collection at the library, calmed down a bit, and I’m underway.

Tuesday night, at home in my Aro Valley eyrie: I’ve equipped myself with a bag of rīwai from the dairy and I’m ready to try my first recipe. Recipe #1 is from David Fuller’s 1978 Maori Food and Cookery, which is full of delightful, archaic line drawings.

Fuller’s recipe calls for much more flour than potato, and a small amount of sugar, and needs to be mashed to a ‘fairly firm texture’ after the potatoes boil, then left in a warm place ‘to prove’. Oh no, I thought, here comes the wild yeast. Anyway, I duly follow the recipe, leave the starter on a warm shelf to ‘prove’ (read: ferment), and come back to check it a day later. It looks like a sludgy lump of dough and doesn’t seem to be rising. I don’t know what I did wrong. Aaaaaaargh! There will be no picture of this; it’s too humiliating. Also, too sticky. Time for plan B.

Cooking with Charles Royal (2010) is one of the latest heirs to the (rather small) genre of published Māori cookery books David Fuller pioneered. It’s a much more modern volume, and the rēwena starter recipe is quite different. After boiling, you remove the potatoes and only use the water they were boiled in (perhaps this was my mistake in the first recipe?), adding enough flour to make a ‘thin batter’. Then you prove it by leaving it for, according to Charles, up to two hours. I don’t have a hot water cupboard, so I put the covered bowl on the deck under the BBQ for shade before I left for work. I’m a bit dubious about leaving my baby bug to develop on its own while I toddle off to the wharepukapuka, but needs must.

Thursday evening: When I get home there’s a lovely surprise waiting for me. The bug has grown, and smells lovely and yeasty. It’s not super bubbly yet, which worries me a bit, but there are bubbles on the surface, and it’s early days yet.

The Bug
I hope you can see the bubbles. There are bubbles there, honest.

I’m just happy to have made something vaguely ferment-y! The bug is meant to be fed with sugar (again, for the recipe, see the book here) the night before it’s used. I’m hoping to get started on step two, making the bread, tonight or tomorrow night, so I wake up early on Friday morning to check on the starter. The whānau all arrived last night from the Coromandel and they’re keen to try anything that might have food value, but their stuff fills the entire house and I have a heart-stopping few moments when I can’t find my starter bowl! After a couple of minutes of screeching, I mean searching, I locate it perched on top of the heater after someone’s re-arrangement of the lounge. I feed it with a spoonful of sugar, get my teina to take some photos, and settle the bug on the window sill for the day.

Bug on Window Sill
Are you quite comfortable, my little bug?

Come tonight, I hope it’ll be bubbling and ready for the next step – the step in which I get to make delicious bread! I have to admit to some nervousness. I’ve never made rēwena before and neither has my Mum, so I’m flying blind here. But there are as many rēwena recipes, it seems, as there are cookbooks or rēwena cooks, so I’m by no means out of options! Next blog, instalment two of rēwena in which, fear not, photos of bready goodness and success will come.

Rārangi kupu:
“Nāku te rourou” – part of a well-known proverb (whakatauki) reading “Mau te rourou, nāku te rourou, ka ora ai te iwi”/ “with my food basket and your food basket, the iwi will thrive”. This emphasises cooperation between individuals for the wellbeing of the group.
Kihini – kitchen
Kānga pirau – sour corn
Kai – food
“nau mai ki taku kihini” – welcome to my kitchen
Hangi – a Māori earth steamer oven
Pōneke – Wellington
Pūha – sow nettles, boiled leaves used in Māori cooking
Kaimoana – seafood
“hei aha!” – whatever!
Whare pukapuka – library
Manu – bird
“ki te kai mātauranga” – “to consume knowledge” – references a well-known proverb, “Ko te manu kai i te miro, nōna te ngahere, ko te manu kai i te mātauranga, nōna te ao” – “the bird that eats the miro berry has the forest, the bird that eats of knowledge has the whole world.” (see also ‘manu’).
Taonga – treasure(s)
Paraoa – bread
Hinengaro – mind
Kōhanga – Māori language pre-school education
Pīpī manu – baby bird
Rēwena bread – potato-yeast bread
Paraoa poke – fried bread
Whānau – family
Tohutao – recipe
Teina – younger sibling of same gender