21 / Kūmara

Ipomoea batatas

The kūmara, a sweet potato, was a major food crop for Māori prior to the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand. While the Endeavour was at Cook’s Cove, Coromandel, in October 1769, the expedition’s artist Sydney Parkinson noted ‘plantations of Koomarra and Taro’, which were ‘cultivated with great care, and kept clean and neat’. The origin of the kūmara is a subject of much debate, one popular theory being that it originated in Central America and was taken by voyagers to the various islands around the Pacific. Today, most of New Zealand’s kūmara are grown in Northland, around Dargaville, while nearby Ruawai has proclaimed itself ‘Kūmara Capital of the World’. The kūmara has entered the New Zealand vernacular, too, with colourful turns of phrase such as ‘tip of the kūmara pile’ in place of ‘tip of the iceberg’, and ‘sucking the kūmara’ meaning to leave this mortal coil.

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