Delights of kamokamo less well known in South

Kamokamo. Photo: ODT files
Kamokamo. Photo: ODT files
Travelling round the North Island east coast over summer, I noticed kamokamo everywhere.

Boxes of the fat, ridged vegetables were piled high at farmers markets and were sold at roadside stalls from the Bay of Plenty to Gisborne and Hawkes Bay.

Kamokamo is a greenish-yellow summer squash, a bit like a large, swollen courgette or melon in shape but with ridges running down its length. They can grow to pumpkin size.

I asked a woman at the Gisborne farmers market who was selecting some what she looked for and how she cooked them.

They were sweeter than courgettes, she said, and recommended choosing some that were not too big. She liked them sliced and stir-fried, but they were also good steamed, roasted or cooked in a stew.

Back home, I found a couple of stalls selling a few kamokamo at the Dunedin market. One of the stallholders said they were a Maori vegetable, which would account for why they were so popular in eastern parts of the North Island.

So I asked emeritus prof Helen Leach, expert on the history and archaeology of New Zealand food and gardening, about their origin.

Before contact with Capitan James Cook and other early European explorers in the 1770s, Maori had a shortage of edible plants, particularly carbohydrates, although there were plenty of birds and fish which provided fats and oils as well as protein, she said.

The vegetable plants they originally brought with them, such as taro, tropical yam, and tropical cabbage tree only survived in the north, although kumara could be grown as far south as Banks Peninsula. The native bracken root, which grew in most places where they burnt off forest, was their main source of carbohydrate, although it caused a huge amount of wear on the teeth. It could also be dried and was light to carry on long journeys, she said.

Captain Cook, who had picked up potatoes at the Cape of Good Hope on his way to the Pacific in 1769, gave a chief at Mercury Bay in the Coromandel two handfuls of them and told him they were a type of kumara, a high-status crop. On his second trip, he planted gardens in Queen Charlotte Sound which included potatoes, cabbage and turnips.

French explorer Marion du Fresne also planted a garden with maize, potatoes, wheat and some nuts in the Bay of Islands in 1772 but it is not certain if his introductions survived as he did not endow them with mana as Cook had, she said.

However, by 1801 Maori were growing potatoes at Foveaux Strait in little mounds, the same way kumara were grown in the north. In the Bay of Islands, Maori were trading potatoes with visiting sailing ships by 1806.

The increasing use of potatoes is reflected in Maori words for the vegetable, she says.

From seven words for potato in Kendal's 1820 dictionary, by 1848 in Williams dictionary there were some 29 or 30 different words for potato, some of which may have been regional or referred to different varieties, but it shows how important they were.

Graham Harris, of the Open Polytech of New Zealand, researched the various sorts of ''Maori'' potatoes still extant in the 1990s and many of the knobbly old varieties, some of them with purple colouring in them, are still grown by enthusiasts around the country.

Kamokamo, pumpkins and other cucurbits probably came to New Zealand by a different route, as the British did not eat them much at the time, regarding them as cattle food, according to Prof Leach.

''Maori particularly went for plants that were related to ones they knew, and they were familiar with growing gourds which they treated by a complicated process to make water containers or calabashes,'' she said.

''They would have known exactly how [the plants] behaved and would put in all the right sort of structure in the garden for them to grow up over a mound, and twine their way round. That wouldn't have been a problem.''

They also took to cabbage as the leaves were a useful substitute for taro leaves for wrapping food in a hangi as there were few large-leaved vegetables growing in the South.

It took them a little longer to learn how to grow less familiar types of vegetables such as maize, wheat, peas and beans, she said.

Like many other pre-European Maori vegetables, gourds did not grow well in the south.

Prof Leach tried growing one for a calabash in Dunedin one summer.

''I got it to fruit and it would have been edible except they are not very nice to eat, but I couldn't get the skin thick enough for it to dry. It simply rotted,'' she said.

The introduction of kamokamo can be traced through the meanings of the word, she said.

In Williams' 1844 Maori dictionary, ''kamokamo'' meant an ''eyelash'' and ''paukena'' was the word for pumpkin. However, by the 1852 edition, ''kamokamo'' meant both ''eyelash'' and ''vegetable marrow'' and by 1871 ''kamokamo'' was only a vegetable marrow and other meanings were dropped.

Prof Leach originally thought American whalers might have introduced pumpkins and squash, as they are native to the Americas, but when she looked up the numbers of ships she found few American ships visiting, although there were a lot of British ones.

However, she discovered Spanish missionaries had introduced maize, pumpkin, melon, squash and potatoes to Tahiti by 1772. They provisioned in South America after rounding Cape Horn, she said.

''I think a lot of plants get into the Pacific via those connections between South America and Tahiti. Then the Tahiti shipping ends up in Sydney and by 1803 there are advertisements in the Sydney newspapers, that boats were leaving Kissing Point wharf in Parramatta for Sydney with pumpkins, maize, potatoes, poultry and melons.''

Samuel Marsden, who brought missionaries to settle in the Bay of Islands in 1814, lived at Parramatta from 1794, and in the early 1800s there was increasing traffic between Sydney and the Bay of Islands. By 1815, Hall, one of the first group of missionaries to settle in New Zealand, had squash and pumpkins growing in his garden, she said.

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