Nāku te rourou: Pūhā Pesto (And History) On Lazy Afternoons

There’s as many paths to cooking as there are cooks, I’m sure. But last weekend I found myself in the unusual position of starting a recipe because I’d been spending some time with our library rauemi on World War One.

Here at Te Matapihi ki te Ao Nui we’re gearing up, like the rest of the country, for the anniversary of WWI, the Great War as it was known. And we kaitiaki pukapuka who look after the Māori and New Zealand sections, well, we’re researching. Less famous than the 28th Māori Battalion, the “Native Contingent” of Māori men were sent in the Great War to Egypt, to Malta, to Gallipoli, to France and to Belgium. You can read more about this here at New Zealand History Online, or come in to browse our collections on the subject (start here).

Reading about all this got me thinking about the food the ope taua must have eaten on the move in the Mediterranean. I’ve heard stories before of soldiers finding pūhā ki tāwāhi, and a  quick search confirmed for me that pūhā, the sow thistle (and endemic New Zealand variety, sonchus kirkii), is found all over the world. It’s part of Italian peasant cuisine as “Minestra con Pollenta”, and is used as a salad herb in Malta and Greece, where it’s called zohos. Though I have no records, I can well imagine army rations being supplemented by sweet, fresh pūhā, or even combined with more traditional Mediterranean cuisine. And since I hankered for something new to spread on my rēwena bread, Sunday afternoon had me pulling out the blender to mix up an experimental batch of pūhā pesto.

Pesto is a mediterranean spread that can really have anything in it, but in its most common form, it’s a paste made from basil, pine nuts and parmean. Quantities are approximate, but make sure you have:

1 bunch of pūhā (when I was eating it in the rohe o Hauraki, pūhā was always what we called the sow thistle sonchus. I learned, talking to other people since, that watercress (wātakirihi) is sometimes called pūhā as well. But for this recipe I used the less bitter, spikier thistle pūhā)

50g parmesan cheese
50g pine nuts
Juice of ½ lemon
Oil (I used rice bran, but olive oil is standard, and goes with pūhā in Crete)
You’ll also need a blender, unless you want to be shredding leaves and pounding them up for a while.

I only used the tender leaves of the pūhā, and dicarded the stalks and spiky leaves, because I wasn’t about to cook them, which softens their sting. So I plucked off all the leaves and blended them up until finely shredded.

Then, because I wanted to keep a close eye on proportions and what I was doing, I transferred the shredded leaves out of the blender into a measuring jug before adding the pine nuts, grating in the parmesan and, because I don’t have a mortar and pestle anymore, smashing the three ingredients together with the end of a very solid rolling pin. Use your number eight wire ingenuity, and something in your kīhini will work.

Then I added the oil, a drizzle at a time, and mixed it in til it was a nice, spreadable consistency. When I tasted it, the flavours of the pūhā and pine nuts made a very nutty taste, so I squeezed in the juice of half a lemon to help counteract that – it worked nicely. Now is when you can adjust the ingredients as you see fit – more tīhi, more nuts, a little more lemon for the sour taste – I spent a while playing around with the taste. But in the end I had about half a jar of delicious pūhā pesto. The leaves worked really well and it tastes fresh – definitely my new favourite way to eat pūhā!

This I’m sure will go well with rēwena – but since my potato bug (which I’ve discovered is called a kōtero) was in recovery mode when I made the pesto, we had to be contented with crackers. They were both eaten very quickly – the only downside to mahi kai!  But if you’re on the lookout for inter-cultural recipes (or a good reason to make more food) while we commemorate Māori overseas, here’s a starter for you.


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

Māori words used in this blog entry:
rauemi – resources
Te Matapihi ki te Ao Nui – Wellington City Libraries
kaitiaki pukapuka – librarian
sope taua – troops
ki tāwāhi – overseas
rohe o Hauraki – region of Hauraki (the Hauraki plains and Thames Valley)
kīhini – kitchen
tīhi – cheese
mahi kai – cooking

Nāku te Rourou: He Rewena Reka / Delicious Rēwena Bread

Judging by my last adventures in mahi kai, a casual reader might have doubted my ability to turn out a rēwena bread. And to be honest, so did I. But dear readers, the fantastical has happened: we have achieved rēwena.
I loved rēwena when I was a pīpī manu. But I’ve never tried to make it myself until my attempt, a fortnight ago, to develop my own fermented potato starter and use it bake my own rēwena bread. Well, my potato bug, which I showed you in my last blog entry –

The Bug –  is no more. It fizzled into non-being. I followed the recipe faithfully (I think) and fed my bug regularly, but mea rawa ake, both mixes were flat as pancakes, and out they had to go. This was discouraging. But I’d promised rēwena in my next blog, nō reira, me whakawhiti te awa rā – this was a river that must be crossed. Luckily, Suezanne, who works with me at the whare pukapuka, has a rēwena bug that’s been passed down her whānau – for as many as 70 years. Kā mau te wehi! I gratefully accept her kind offer of a portion of this kaumatua bug, and on Monday afternoon, I am walking quickly home through a snap thunderstorm, cradling my newly-acquired bug. It’s active and is bubbling up to the top of the peanut butter jar I’m carrying it in. I clutch the bug closely to me and rub the jar to try to keep it warm. I look very strange.

Thursday night is baking night. I’m pretty nervous, and wondering if the bread will show it (yes, I do think baking happens by magic). When I open the jar, the pressure built up from the healthy bug bubbling makes a loud pop! and I almost scream. But to business.

Rēwena recipes tend to the simple, but there’s a multiplicity of them. As in China, where proverbially there are as many ways to make dumplings as there are dumpling cooks, I suspect each rēwena baker in Aotearoa has their own method. For tonight, I’m making “Nanny Hine’s Rēwena Bread” from Charles Royal’s cookbook, the same one I got my failed bug recipe from. I mix my dry ingredients and my bug together and, as instructed, knead them into a stiff dough. I interpret “stiff” to mean a long kneading time, and knead on a heavy wooden board set across my knees while I watch Being Human with the flatmates (excellent series – see here in our catalogue). Halfway through the episode, the dough is smooth and springy and I decide it’s had enough handling. First, I take a small handful of dough and set it aside to germinate the next bug. Then I roll the remaining dough into four equal rounds, press them together, and position them inside a buttered ceramic dish with a lid.

Usually, you’d make rēwena inside a camp oven – a heavy metal dish with a tight-fitting lid – but I don’t have one, and Suezanne assures me rēwena will cook fine in a casserole dish. But first, it has to rise in a warm place, and double its size. This is Aro Valley on a cold night, and I don’t have a hot water cupboard, but the bug and I are undaunted. I tuck it up for the night in its dish, covered with a tea towel, sitting on top of a hot water bottle inside the microwave.

“Sit there, grow well,” I tell it. “tipua, tīpuna”. Before I go to bed, I catch a flatmate opening up the microwave. She peers inside and says “goodnight, bug!”.

On Friday morning I wake up early to check the bug, before the sun’s reached over the lip of the valley. When I open the microwave there’s a pleasant surprise waiting for me. The bug knew its business, even if I didn’t , and the bread has easily doubled in size, risen beautifully to the top of the dish. The new bug, which I put next to it, has also bubbled healthily half-way up its jar.

I’ve pre-heated the oven to 180 degrees, and I slide the bug in its dish inside. It should cook for 2 ½  – 3 hours. I check it after one hour, and it looks on-track – the top turning golden nicely. The sun rises. I hang out the washing.

After 1 ¾ hours, I check again. The top of the bread is totally golden and developing a firm crust. There’s no way it should be ready yet, but I check the bread anyway by sliding a knife through the crisp crust. It comes out clean. I squeak a bit with excitement, and pull the dish out of the oven. There’s a crust right round the bread, and when I slide it out onto a board, it looks cooked already. I am almost as shocked as I am delighted.
The bread breaks apart easily into quarters, along the lines of the dough rounds. It has a nice, light texture inside and is evenly cooked. Yes!!

I take a few photos, then get right down to business. That is, a breadknife, lots of pata, and kiwifruit jam. I skipped adding sugar, so this rēwena isn’t a sweet bread, but I can confirm it is delicious, especially eaten outside in the sun.

I pack it up and take it round to my flatmate at work, and the others at the whare pukapuka. I give half away to my whāea kēkē, meeting her for lunch in Newtown. Before long…

Rewena bread

Kua pau.

It’s gone. With my food basket and your food basket, the family’s been fed, and rēwena’s on the menu to stay.

Nāku te rourouis 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.

Māori words used in this blog post:
mahi kai – cooking
rēwena – fermented potato yeast bread
pīpī manu – baby bird, child
mea rawa ake – next minute
“nō reira, me whakawhiti te awa rā” – “so it’s a river that must be crossed”.
whare pukapuka – library
ka mau te wehi – amazing!
kaumatua – grandfather
“tipua, tīpuna” – grow, grandfather!
pata – butter
whaea kēkē – auntie
“kua pau” – “it’s gone/ used up”

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