Charlie Rahiri rang me to see if I’d like to see behind the scenes of an annual royal marae feast.
“We’re feeding four hundred,” says Charlie, who oversees the April banquet at Huria Marae. “Two hundred and sixty are seated in the dining room, and we’ll have an overflow. Everything’s getting prepped. Two pigs, two sheep, a beef and a whole lot of seafood.”
Charlie works for Te Puni Kokiri, the Government ministry for Maori Development, and is one of the senior advisers in the Bay of Plenty region. In his own time, he’s also a very friendly version of chef Ramsay.
“My focus is on marae revitalisation and housing,” says Charlie. “And I’ve been running the kitchen here for the Poukai for 11 years.”
This is the 61st year that the Huria Marae has hosted the Poukai. Flags are hoisted at dawn, and the Māori king Tūheitia Paki and his wife Makau Ariki Atawhai, along with a large contingent of visitors are ceremonially welcomed onto the marae at 10am for a day of speeches, performances, music and a large banquet.
Since the 1880s, during the reign of King Tāwhiao, the marae affiliated to the Kīngitanga have been held together by traditions such as the Poukai, an annual circuit of visits by the Māori king to marae around and beyond the Tainui region, that includes feasting and cultural performances.
Started in 1885 by King Tāwhiao, at the Whatiwhatihoe Marae, it was intended for te pouaru, te rawakore and te whanau pani (the widowed, the destitute and the bereaved).
Pou relates to a gathering, and kai is about food and a place to come together as one. Poukai is about remembering those who have passed on, eating together, and dining with the head of the Kingitangi movement.
Preparations at Huria marae began days before with one of the key components preparing the large feast. On the day of the Poukai I found about 20 people busy in the kitchen, another ten outside, and more looking after the hangi.
“I changed it when I first came on,” says Charlie. “There was unhealthy stuff, so we flipped it around, and made the unhealthy stuff the option, and the healthy the main. It took a couple of years for everyone to get used to it but they did. No more fizzy drinks.
“The hangi is getting prepared up the road, probably one of the biggest hangi pits in Tauranga.”
There are four separate preparation teams in the kitchen, taking care of the king’s menu, the seafood, the meat, and Charlie overseeing the rest.
“The king has a separate menu,” says Charlie. “He’s going to many Poukai around the Waikato, so he probably has hangi all the time.
“I’m just the one to bring it all together and make sure it’s on time and on budget.
“We started on Wednesday with the cleaning of the marae, mowing the lawns, painting, making it look nice, prepping the food. We probably won’t finish our part until Tuesday.”
Kylie Willison is in the dining room overseeing the table settings with about 15 girls helping.
“The mahi began on Friday,” says Kylie. “Today the girls will be waiting on all our manuhiri - our visitors that come onto the marae. Most of them are from Tanui waka.
“The girls will make sure our visitors have enough kai on their tables, and cup of teas. After the kai is finished they’ll clear the dishes away and then reset to give our whanau from here kai afterwards.”
It’s a long day for the girls, who are following in the tradition set by their mothers, aunties and grandmothers before them.
“We’re very grateful to have them,” says Kylie. “There’s generations of children that have been brought up on the marae here and have learned to do it as their parents and grandparents have done it before them.
“It’s a very special thing and we look forward to it every year. It’s probably the biggest event our marae holds and prepares for.”
There are only a couple of maraes that host Poukai outside of Waikato.
Poukai were established by the second Māori King, Tāwhiao, who said “Kua whakatūria e ahau tēnei kaupapa hei whāngai i te pouaru, te pani me te rawakore, he kuaha whānui kua puare ki te puna tangata me te puna kai” - “I have instituted this gathering to feed the widowed, the bereaved and the destitute, it is a doorway that has been opened to the multitudes of people and the bounty of food.”
Dr Maharaia Winiata, who lived from 1912 – 1960 was instrumental in bringing Poukai to Huria, through his friendship with Princess Te Puea Herangi (1883 – 1952). The Huria meeting house Tamateapokaiwhenua was opened in 1956 by Kingi Koroki, who had visited Tauranga several times.
Maharaia once said “Ina aro atu te oranga ki nga mea pai, ka rere te wairua, ka taea nga mea katoa” which means “When our lives and heart are attuned to good things, life is clear, the spirit flows freely. Everything is possible.”