Mitai Maori Village

Maori dancers showing off their quick
reflexes in a stick-throwing dance
One of my earliest memories about New Zealand must be singing the English version of Pokarekare Ana or Hurry Back to Rotorua, a Maori folk song during school campfires.  Its lyrics are so vividly remembered that I started to sing it as we drive towards Rotorua from our lodgings in nearby Taupo.  Its catchy tune is so familiar that the others in the car join me in the chorus, lustily belting out, “Please hurry back home love, I miss you so!”

Another thing that I always associate with New Zealand must be the protruding tongues and eyes of the All Blacks rugby team when they perform their traditional haka chant before each game.  So for me, a visit to New Zealand is not complete without a Maori experience.  With dinner reservations already made with the Mitai Maori Village in Rotorua, I’m eagerly anticipating, not just the taste of traditional Maori food but also an authentic Maori cultural experience. 

Minarirapa Mitai-Ngatai is the
Mitai family patriarch

As dusk falls on this wintry night, the temperature is dipping fast while more guests arrive to join us in the banquet hall.  Of course, John, our host plays a vital role to warm us up for the evening and he is quick to “break the ice” among the guests.  He welcomed us to the village of the Mitai tribe and named us the Tribe of Many Nations.  From his ice-breaking activities, I learn that besides our family from Malaysia, there are guests from US, UK, several European countries and from Australia or “Across the Ditch” – the way Kiwis say it to poke fun at their neighbours! 

The lady at the reception told me that this is a family-run business that started in 2002 and Minarirapa Mitai-Ngatai, their 79-year old family patriarch, is still involved with it.  His shoulder-length snowy white hair clearly reflects his years and he’s seated at the rear of the hall, playing his saxophone to provide jazzy background music.  Later when I met him, I told him that I’m from Malaysia and he pleasantly surprised me by saying that the Maori have many words that are similar to our Malay words like mata (eye), telinga (ear), langit (sky) and ikan (fish)!

Hangi and Hongi

It is still light outside as John leads us outdoors to a small shed to see their traditional cooking pit or earth oven they call, hangi.  (It struck me that this word sounds so similar to how we pronounce, wangi, the Malay word for sweet smelling!)  

John introducing the hangi buried
under the sheets of damp gunny sacks!
John said the Maori traditionally line the cooking pit with hot rocks and place their food wrapped in large leaves, on clean sticks and tree bark to reduce burning from direct contact with the hot rocks.  Then more leaves, sticks and other vegetation were used to cover the food to protect it from being crushed by the weight of the layer of earth on top.

As John introduced the structure of the hangi, my eyes are riveted to the large sheets of damp, dark gunny sacks spread out in a heap on the ground.  He said the wet sacks are used to trap the heat around the food to bake it in the ground.  However, in modern times the Maori have substituted the use of large leaves with wire trays lined with aluminum foil to cook traditional hangi of chicken and lamb and root vegetables like potatoes and kumara or sweet potatoes. 

John peeled open the layer of gunny sacks to reveal trays of food under a white sheet that was baked in a slow-cook process for about three to four hours.  It dawned on me that this food from the pit will be prepared and served for our dinner later and I just couldn’t wait to taste it. 

Hangi, traditional Maori food for our dinner
Later at the dinner buffet, I recognised the hangi items cut up and served with stuffing and an array of gravy, mint sauce and cranberry sauce.  When I sink my teeth into the chicken and lamb, I’m delighted with its smoky, earthy aroma and how the meat is fall-of-the bone tender!

To explain the difference between the words, hangi and hongi, John shared a few funny anecdotes about how guests often mistake hongi, the traditional Maori greeting of touching the nose and forehead, for a kiss on the mouth.  Such errors of course, resulted in much embarrassment!  So once he picked a volunteer to represent the Tribe of Many Nations, John practiced doing the hongi with him before we went into the village to meet the Mitai village chief.

Culture and Ceremony

It’s bitterly cold and darkness is creeping in as we follow John on a short trek into the bush to the Wai-O-Whiro stream to watch Maori warriors sail in on a waka (war canoe). 

Maori warriors sailing in on a war canoe!
At first I can see lighted torches moving among the trees on the slopes high above the stream but they swiftly disappear.  In a few moments I hear the distant sound of traditional chants and it gets louder as warriors, garbed in traditional outfits, paddled in on a canoe.  As the brawny warriors alighted to stride into the village, I caught sight of bold tattoo patterns on their faces, arms and legs.

A traditional village is recreated on a stage under a shelter with overhead heating and seats for guests to watch the cultural show in comfort.  Speaking with wit and eloquence, the Mitai village chief interacted with the guests and shared more information about the Maori heritage.  While members of the cultural group demonstrate the various arts, he told us about ta moko or tattoo art and discussed several types of traditional weapons, the poi dance and the haka or war dance.

I’m intrigued to see that not just the warriors but even the women have tattoos on their lips and chins.  My curiosity is satisfied when the village chief explained that these tattoos traditionally reflect the person’s ancestry and personal history, his or her social rank, knowledge, skills and even marital status.  

Maori warriors performing the traditional haka
As the warriors whirl around to perform the haka with fierce foot stamping and rhythmic thigh slapping, I can also see a lot of protruding tongues and eyes.  In many cultures, sticking out tongues and widening the eyes are considered rude gestures.  But even though these expressions may seem intimidating, I learn that the Maori are emphasizing a point or expressing their passion and are not necessarily being aggressive. 

Facial expressions or pukana are indeed an important facet of Maori performances.  It’s interesting to see that while the men widen their eyes, bare their teeth and stick out their tongues, the women will open their eyes wide and jut out their tattooed chins.  

Doing the hongi with the Mitai village chief!
As I soak in the village vibe, I’m swept away by the mesmerizing rhythm of the haka and can’t help being captivated by the Maori’s rich culture and their pride in the poetic descriptions of their ancestry and heritage.

Fast Facts

The Mitai Maori Village is at 196 Fairy Springs Road, Rotorua Central, Rotorua, New Zealand.  For more info and reservations, visit website:

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 12 December 2013


After my article, Meet the Maori, was published in the NST Life & Times on 12 Dec 2013, I received an email from my boss at the Travel Desk.  This is her message of 16 Dec 2013:

Hi Peggy

Just got a call from a fan all the way from Terengganu/Kelantan!

His name is Tan Ee King and he was touched by your story on Rotorua.  He remembers the song but can’t remember the lyrics and was wondering if you could share the lyrics with him.  


. . .
Hello Mr Tan, 
You asked for it!  Here are the lyrics:

Pōkarekare ana

Pōkarekare ana
ngā wai o Rotorua,
Whiti atu koe hine
marino ana e.

E hine e
hoki mai ra,
Ka mate au i
te aroha e.

Hurry Back to Rotorua
(English Translation)

Hurry hurry hurry
Hurry back to Rotorua
To the mountains and the valleys
Hurry home to me.

I know I know
You had to go
Please hurry back home love
Hurry home to me.


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