The Forgotten Art of Sustainable Foraging

Photos taken by Bridget Davis and Bill Mehana

Some people do it because they  want to, other people because they can.  Certain folks  do it out of necessity, and for many its instinct.  I’m talking about foraging, the simple art of collecting food which was once the foundation for sustaining  human life.

Growing up, I sat in this category for all the above reasons. Foraging for food was natural part of childhood, and what once seemed like a chore I know thank my father whole hearted   for passing down his wisdom for understanding, acknowledging and respecting  the world we live in. We foraged to eat the freshest, seasonal organic produce out of love for the land and sea, love for food and for our survival.

Not only were we taught what to look for,  but the most important lesson was respect for the environment. Without realizing  it, I was learning from a young age the importance  of sustainable harvesting which is the respect for the land, sea and sky. Lessons that  have  been  passed down through generations of my family.

We as Maori, the indigenous peoples of Aotearoa (New Zealand) believe we are the Kaitiaki or the caretakers and guardians of the land, sea and sky. No one person owns it, we are in-trusted with its up keep and preservation through the understanding and passing down of cultural lores  that govern how, when, where and how much of  natures offerings are we allowed to harvest at any one time. In other words, we believe strongly in sustainable practices.

A trip to the beach was not a leisurely pursuit when we were kids. Buckets were used to collect pipi and cockles, not for making sandcastles and rock pool exploration was for the spiky sea urchin or Kina.  But how glorious these memories are of being knee high in  chilly water, doubled over with fingers burrowing in the sand searching for pipi. If I found one that had its “tongue” out I would bite off the sweet muscle before it scooted back into the safety of it shell. Not safe for long because as soon as we got home they were thrown in a  pot or on the fire for a satisfying, warming dinner with  family and neighbors

Kina is  a highly prized delicacy, eaten raw straight from the shell. The yellow roes that hug the interior of the shell should be fat with a milky residue, sweet and not bitter. Dependant on where they are foraged and what time of year it is will determine how sweet and fat they are, words that are a symphony to Maori ears.

It is with great respect that we take our seafood from Tangaroa (the god of the sea) and only take enough to feed our bellies and those of our neighbours that are not fortunate enough to be able to travel to the ocean to collect seafood. Wastage is unacceptable, and what you cant finish in one meal, you share with your community.

We were also taught to forage for weeds!  Tasty weeds of Puha and dandelion tops, or cold water dips for watercress. Puha or sow thistle can be found in many New Zealand backyards and is generally given the old heave hoe as its considered by most to be a weed. We would pick our weeds, wash carefully through a few sinks full of cold water to remove any bugs or grime and then lovingly rub to release the essential oils found naturally occurring in the leaves. The rubbing also helped to get rid of the prickly feeling of the leaves and as my Auntie Daisy would say, “It makes it taste sweeter babe” The job of rubbing the puha was not taken lightly as some rubbers were better than others, producing sweeter Puha once it was boiled  with pork and potatoes.

Living now in an Inner city apartment, far away from home I long to be able to take my children into the backyard and teach them how to forage. To give them the same understanding and respect for  nature that I learnt as a child. To give praise for pristine oceans, clean air and green forests. Until recently I took this wisdom for granted and what was once toil has now become instinct and art.

What foods have you foraged for?




  1. Liss said…

    We are lucky that not only do we have a variety of edible plants/herbs/vegetables in our garden, but we border national park. In and around us we regularly happen upon anise and mulberries, but I'm sure if I knew more about identifying foods, there would be more we'd be foraging for!! <3

  2. jeroxie said…

    I have very little knowledge of foraging. I guess… the only time was when i was at Byron and they were loads of clams everywhere. I did grow up in Asia…. there isn't anything to forage!

  3. Ken Burgin said…

    It can be a pleasant surprise to see what’s hanging over back fences in lanes – right now it’s mulberry season and there are trees all around the city sharing their fruit. Also cumquats and lemons.

  4. internetchef said…

    What a wonderful world we live in that we still have freshness on our doorstep. I challenge all would be foragers to learn, educate and then partake in this beautiful and rewarding pastime of foraging : ) 🙂

  5. chandraisgreat said…

    I know a few things about foraging back home in Arizona where I'm from but since I have moved to NYC and visited beautiful upstate NY I have wanted to forage now more than ever to prove to my city slicker bf that it really can be done! I'm glad to know I am not alone!

    • internetchef said…

      You keep it up now! It's such a rewarding journey when you start to explore all that is around you.

      All the best!

  6. Gorgeous post – and great insight on the Maori culture… Thank you for sharing, Bridget!

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