New Zealand's traditional Māori kai festivals

Māori kai food festivals are popular in 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.

February: Kāwhia Kai Festival - Hamilton Waikato 

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 

Wellington celebrates Waitangi Day each year with a festival held on the waterfront and in Waitangi Park to celebrate the partnership between tangata whenua / the local people and the Crown.

It begins with a dawn ceremony for invited guests and involves traditional kapa haka, story-telling and contemporary music. A variety of food stalls sell Māori and kiwi-influenced kai, providing breakfast and lunch.

Visitors can take part in water sports 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 

Waitangi Day is also marked in the city of Nelson, at the top of the South Island, with a special celebration of both Kiwi and international food flavours.

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.

February: Maketu Kaimoana Festival - Bay of Plenty 

This authentic celebration of local kai is set in New Zealand’s pie capital - Maketu, in the North Island’s Bay of Plenty region. While the emphasis of festival food is on kai moana / seafood, the festival also has a reputation for rewana paraoa or Māori potato bread.

Held each February, the festival is renowned for being more than just about food - it is a celebration of people, culture, entertainment and fine wines, and has continued to grow in popularity being unique in its situation and cultural significance. Cooking demonstrations add to the culinary appeal of the festival.

On the menu: kaimoana / New Zealand seafood basket, prawn salad, seafood kebabs, curried mussels, paua / abalone fritters, seafood pizza.

March: Hokitika Wildfoods Festival - West Coast 

Visitors can try some gourmet "bush tucker", or native New Zealand food, at this annual festival held in March in Hokitika - on the rugged West Coast of the South Island.

Listed among the "world’s unmissable festivals" by US travel guide Frommers, the wild foods festival is a unique 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 around 13,500.

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.

November: Kai in the Bay Festival - Hawke's Bay 

The Kai in the Bay festival - staged in Hawke’s Bay in mid-November - serves up pre-European and contemporary Māori fare, as well as some unusual wild foods native to New Zealand.

The festival is held in Napier (known for its Art Deco architecture and palm tree-lined streets), and aims to promote the culinary arts around preparing and serving traditional Māori foods for the 21st century. Guests include talented Māori and Pakeha / European chefs.

The event includes more than 50 food traders selling mouth-watering treats such as whitebait fritters, pig on the spit and crayfish, along with more unusual items like huhu bugs, weka birds, parengo seaweed, and titi / muttonbird.

On the menu: koura mara / rotten crayfish, shark liver pate, kanga piro / fermented corn, huhu grubs, and kina / sea eggs.

November: Tauranga Moana Seafood Festival - Bay of Plenty 

Held in late November, the Tauranga Moana Seafood Festival - in New Zealand’s fastest growing city - offers fresh seafood, fine wines, beer and top entertainment.

Most of the seafood and wine is locally sourced from the Bay of Plenty region, and for the environmentally-aware, the festival is a green event that aims to have zero waste. Entertainment highlights on five stages include kapahaka / Māori dance and shows, cooking demonstrations, fish filleting and mussel opening competitions.

On the menu: fresh crayfish, oysters, scallops, mussels, seafood kebabs, whitebait & paua fritters, salmon kebabs, curly prawns, wild pork, venison, coconut fish and kina.

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.

More information

Kai - Traditional Māori food

Kai - indigenous Māori food ingredients

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