New Zealand's traditional Māori kai festivals

Māori kai food festivals are popular in Aotearoa New Zealand for international tourists and Kiwis alike, as they showcase the best of local food and culture.

For centuries Māori - the indigenous people of New Zealand - have had a great love and respect for the fertile land of their ancestors, believing that the earth is the giver of all life as from the soil comes food, and the same food is cooked beneath the ground in hangi style.

Traditional Māori food was once reserved for Māori functions and events, but now tourists can sample these delights at New Zealand’s growing calendar of Māori kai festivals. Here are some kai festivals to put in your itinerary.

February: Kāwhia Kai Festival - Hamilton Waikato 

What: The annual Kawhia Kai Festival on 6 February celebrates authentic Māori food and culture. Omimiti Reserve, in the heart of this coastal town, is transformed into a food court with a selection of Māori food from the land (kai whenua) and sea (kai moana), showcasing indigenous delicacies and the ever-popular hāngi.

Where: Kawhia, North Island.

Acknowledged by Lonely Planet as one of the top Māori attractions in New Zealand, the Kāwhia Kai Festival is a full celebration of the indigenous culture with particular focus on native Māori food. Held in early February, the festival is timed to coincide with New Zealand’s national holiday - Waitangi Day - on 6 February.

Kāwhia, a coastal town in the central North Island of New Zealand, is the spiritual home of the Māori Tainui tribe and the resting place of their waka / ceremonial canoe. Locals call Kāwhia "kai food heaven" because of the plentiful supplies of seafood and wild game. Festival-goers feast on wild pork, a wide array of New Zealand shellfish as well as mud snails.

Each year more than 2500 kono / traditional flax baskets are specially woven to serve up portions of delicious hangi kai which has been cooked in a series of gigantic underground ovens - often required to feed more than 10,000 visitors.

On the menu: toroi / marinated mussels and puha / watercress, inanga / whitebait patties, kanga wai /pirau fermented corn, wild pork and puha spring rolls, koki / shark liver pate, and mud snails.

February: Te Ra o Waitangi - Wellington 

What: Wellington celebrates Waitangi Day (6 February) each year with a festival to celebrate the partnership between tangata whenua / the local people and the Crown.

Where: In Wellington, at Waitangi Park, and on the waterfront at the lagoon and Wharewaka.

Te Ra o Waitangi (Waitangi Day) begins with a dawn ceremony for invited guests and involves traditional kapa haka, story-telling and contemporary music. There are food stalls selling Māori and kiwi-influenced kai, and freshly cooked hangi is available from midday onwards.

Visitors can take part in water sports on the lagoon and play ki-o-rahi, a traditional Māori ball game. The event includes displays by waka ama / canoes.

On the menu: Traditional Māori kai including hangi food, fresh kina / sea eggs and rewena - traditional Māori bread made with potatoes.

February: International Kai Festival - Nelson 

What: The South Island city of Nelson celebrates the national day (6 February) with a family day out at Founders Heritage Park that features a market selling traditional and international foods, variety stalls and cultural entertainment.

Where: Founders Heritage Park in Nelson, South Island.

Founders Heritage Park and Whakatu Marae work closely together to stage the Kai Fest event which provides visitors with an authentic experience of New Zealand’s indigenous culture. Nelson is a region rich in wine production and locally grown and gathered foods, festival visitors can wander the many stalls sampling a wide range of kai served up in small, reasonably priced portions.

Cultural performances are an added attraction and include powhiri / welcome and kapa haka / Māori dance. Traditional Māori massage is also on offer throughout the day and arts and craft stalls showcase traditional Māori crafts.

On the menu: Mussels and watercress, kumara / sweet potato, kina / sea urchin pate, marinated fish.

March: Hokitika Wildfoods Festival - West Coast 

What: The biggest day out of the year in the small West Coast town of Hokitika is the chance for festival goers to sample some typical kai along with gourmet bush tucker that's likely not seen anywhere else in the world.

Where: Hokitika, West Coast, South Island.

Listed among the "world’s unmissable festivals" by US travel guide Frommers, the Hokitika Wild Foods Festival is a unique food celebration inspired by some of the more weird and wacky ingredients provided by New Zealand’s bountiful landscape. The festival has been running since 1989 and each year attracts a capacity crowd of up to 15,000 appetites.

Popular kai includes: New Zealand whitebait fritters, ‘westcargots’/ garden snails in garlic butter, gorse flower wine, mountain oyster / sheep testicle, ponga fern pickles and huhu grubs (an endemic New Zealand beetle). Traditional Māori fare such as muttonbird - a seabird, considered a delicacy - is another rare treat on offer.

On the menu: Wild pork, pickled / barbecued / or live huhu grubs, eel, pukeko / NZ swamp fowl, kebabs, muttonbird, whitebait, wasp lavae icecream, mountain oysters.

April: Motueka Kai Fest - Nelson Tasman 

What: Motueka Kai Fest is a community harvest (autumn) celebration held in a small town that's surrounded by fertile productive lands and rich marine reserves. 

Where: Decks Reserve, Motueka, South Island.

Motueka grows great food, thanks to outstanding water, soil, climate and people, and the Kai Fest brings together a community of many cultures to learn more and honour the one thing that everyone has in common - kai.

The festival day includes a parade through town and a pageant that's a colourful tribute to the four elements - earth, water, air and fire, food stalls and entertainment. It kicks off a week in which the regional community group, Our Kai Motueka, hosts a series of workshops, tours and talks aimed at expanding people’s understanding of kai. 

Mid-June - July: Matariki – across New Zealand

What: Matariki is a key event in the Māori lunar calendar and occurs when the star cluster of the same name appears in the night sky during mid-winter, bringing the old lunar year to a close and marking the beginning of the New Year. Traditionally, festivities were held following the harvesting of crops when the pātaka (food storehouses) were full, freeing up time for celebrating life. 

When: Mid-June to July - the dates may differ between years and regions as these are determined by the period of the rising of the Matariki or Pleiades star cluster.

Where: Most of the marae (Māori tribal meeting grounds) around Aotearoa New Zealand hold feasts, and there are special celebrations in the major cities.

Wellington City presents a programme of events in conjunction with local Māori tribes and Te Papa Museum of New Zealand.

Eat New Zealand provides a platform to co-ordinate Matariki Māori kai events throughout the country.

Auckland Council co-ordinates the Matariki Festival in New Zealand’s largest city and in 2019 there will be a major new festival called Elemental AKL which will take place over a month during the Matariki period. 

Background: Kai Moana Māori

Kai is the Māori word for food. Moana means sea.

In the past, New Zealand's Māori people were hunters, gatherers and crop farmers who harvested their food from the forest, rivers and sea. Contemporary New Zealanders still enjoy traditional Māori foods and delicacies, and Māori kai continues to develop in popularity with greater availability on the open market.