Puaka Kai Rau, Matariki Huka Nui!

An Overview of Te Hopu Tītī (Muttonbirding)

nā Mike Stevens (Kāi Tahu – Awarua)

Pōhā tītī | Credit: Mike Stevens 2006.

Te hopu tītī – the harvest, preservation and trade of juvenile tītī (sooty shearwaters or muttonbirds) – is a cornerstone of Kāi Tahu culture. This seasonal activity, commonly known as muttonbirding, pre-existed British colonisation. Remarkably, the harvest survived settler colonialism and continues to flourish in the present-day.

Adult tītī, of which there are tens of millions, undertake an annual migration of the Pacific Ocean. However, they nest in burrows on islands throughout the Southern Hemisphere. Some of these islands are dotted around Rakiura (Stewart Island). Kāi Tahu whānau and individuals maintain homes on these 36 islands. Family groups visit them each April and May to harvest and process tītī chicks.

Tītī were traditionally cooked and preserved in their own fat on the islands. The name of this process, and the resultant product, is tītī tahu. However, since the late nineteenth century tītī have been progressively salted and thereby preserved in a brine. In either instance, the preserved birds were packed into a pōhā – a receptacle made out of rimurapa (bull kelp). These kelp bags are then placed into kete and sheathed in tōtara bark. By such means, tītī were transferred to the mainland for subsequent personal consumption as well as trade.

Pōhā were largely superseded by metal tins in the 1950s and, in turn, plastic buckets in the 1980s. Likewise, waka were replaced by clinker dinghies in the 1820s and fishing cutters from the 1860s. Over the last 40 years, helicopters have been used alongside large commercial fishing boats to ferry people and cargo to and from the islands. The introduction of diesel generators have also enabled some people to freeze tītī instead of salting them. These so-called fresh-birds are roasted, whereas the salted birds are boiled.

A very small number of people continue to use pōhā. The Metzger whānau is probably the best known. Whānau members harvest harakeke in December and January to make kete, and then harvest rimurapa in February. They take this to their Tītī Island in April along with tōtara bark that they quietly gather throughout the year. In other words, a lot of work goes in to preparing pōhā in the lead-up to the actual tītī harvest itself. Consequently, when whānau members return to the mainland in May, they come to the end of a busy four month period.

In addition, because the mainland is noticeably colder than when they left for the islands in early April, this period underscores autumn’s departure and winter’s arrival. By such means, the tītī harvest marks the end of one year and the beginning of another.

Basic Tītī Recipes

Cooked salted birds – about to be removed from the pot | Credit: Mike Stevens

Salted tītī are most commonly available. The easiest way to cook these is to place some in a pot of cold freshwater and bring to the boil. Once boiling, turn the temperature down to a decent simmer for about 1 hour 15 minutes. If you are only cooking 4–5 tītī, it might only take just over an hour to cook them. But if you are cooking 10 or so in large pot, it will take closer to the 1 hour 15 minute mark. Some people like to change the water during the cooking process – as a way to remove some of the saltiness. But that can also dilute the tītī flavour. Another option is to wash the tītī under fresh water prior to cooking, or even soak them in a pot of cold water that is discarded and refilled immediately prior to cooking.

Cooked and quartered fresh birds | Credit: Mike Stevens

Some people serve boiled tītī hot, others serve them cold. They are delicious either way. Some serve them whole, other people cut them in half or quarter them. If the tītī are to be quartered, it is better to cook them whole, then cut them once they cool. The tītī cook more evenly this way. Moreover, if you can (i.e. if you have a deep enough pot), cook the tītī “standing” in the pot neck first, feet up. This also promotes even cooking and allows for easier retrieval of the cooked tītī. It is also possible to add vegetables to the pot as with an ordinary boil-up. Kūmara, potato, carrot and cabbage are especially good.

Phase one of three – cooking fresh birds with veges | Credit: Mike Stevens
Phase two of three – cooking fresh birds with veges | Credit: Mike Stevens
Phase three of three – cooking fresh birds with veges | Credit: Mike Stevens

Fresh birds come frozen and are cooked by roasting. A standard roasting dish easily holds three tītī. Some fresh birds come split and gutted, but most need to be gutted after they have defrosted. In either instance, each bird’s cavity can be filled and cooked with a bread stuffing. If the breast-hook has been split, each bird will need to be tied up with cotton or string. Alternatively fresh tītī can be cooked with a simple vegetable medley (e.g. cubes of potato, kūmara and pumpkin mixed together with onion and mixed herbs). Place the roasting dish in an oven preheated to about 180°C for about 1.5 hours. You can of course cook ‘lower and slower’. Likewise, you can also remove the tītī and turn the heat up to crisp up the vegetable medley in the large amount of hinu that derives from each bird. As with the salted birds, fresh birds can be eaten hot or cold, whole or halved or quartered.