The Politics of Boil Up
By Briar Pomana (she/her)
Illustrated by Yi Jong (she/they)
A boil up is a staple in many households throughout Aotearoa. Its contents differ from whānau to whānau and there is much debate about what ingredients make up a ‘proper’ boil up. However, most agree that you need a few pieces of meat, some starchy veggies, and some sort of greens. Doughboys are also a common occurrence – which are basically balls of water and flour smashed together and dropped into the pot. In its truest essence, a good boil up is one that is made to warm the insides and soothe the soul. Whether eaten all at once or devoured the morning after, boil ups can be as versatile and multifaceted as the families that make and enjoy them.
All I could find on the internet regarding the origins of the boil up point to it being an inexpensive meal that was made mostly by Māori families with offcuts and earthy vegetables. Some sources say that the boil up was an iteration of the Irish boiled dinner. Others say that Māori have always been making some form of boil up, albeit without the iron pots and meat, and that it has always been a staple in our diets. At its core, boil up is our survival and resistance. There hasn’t been a revolution in this country without a good boil up to accompany it. However this salty hearty dish came about, it has been simmering on our stoves for generations and will probably continue to do so.
My mum has her own way of doing boil ups which differs slightly from how my Nanny does hers. I love both dearly and will happily oblige to either. Both will first slowly cook their meat on a steady boil and this process usually takes most of the afternoon. They’ll cook our potatoes, kūmara, and sometimes pumpkin separately so as to not over-starch the meat broth. They’ll add the greens and doughboys towards the end, closer to an hour or less before serving. Mum and I also will have a raw onion and a few slices of white bread and butter on the side. And if Nanny knows we’ll be over for dinner, she will make sure to leave these out on the table. Most of the time after we’ve finished our first feed, we’ll throw whatever potatoes or kūmara we have left into the pot with everything else. Personally, I am quite fond of a second day boil up for breakfast and even prefer it over a freshly made one. I’m a fan of that point in a day-old boil up where the kūmara and potato have broken down and are mashed up among the greens.
The only difference between my Nanny’s and mum’s boil up is that my Nanny makes the biggest doughboys you will ever see in your entire life! They are the size of a child’s palm and are fluffy as bread inside. My mum’s are smaller, about the size of a golf ball, and are made with more water so they’re much more dense and chewy. I prefer these doughboys but again, each to their own.
In our family we prefer a lamb neck chop boil up with watercress or puha. Unfortunately, we live in Tāmaki Makaurau so often we have to compromise and have spinach instead. We really felt the distance from our small town roots last year when Mum and I were feening for a feed and were on the hunt for some watercress. We had bought a few bunches at a locally owned fruit and veg shop - even saying that makes my rural Māori-self shudder to think Mum and I actually paid for watercress when I’ve grown up my whole life picking it from storm drains and riverbeds. The bunches were decently sized and smelt like home so we were super hyped that we were finally going to have an old school boil up. Our excitement was dramatically obliterated when we got home and ended up having the most bitter watercress I have ever tasted in my entire life. I didn’t even know watercress could taste like that. It was horribly sour and because we hadn’t tested it beforehand the kawa of the plant seeped into everything. Mum reckoned that the grocers must have picked the little yellow flowers that appear when watercress is no longer safe to eat. We forced ourselves to finish the pot out of pure shame and were even too embarrassed to tell Nanny what we’d fallen for. As you can imagine, the stomach cramps were next level and it served us townies right. I vowed from then onwards that I would never trust watercress that I hadn’t picked myself or that hadn't come in some old plastic shopping bag that someone of reputable picking skills had dropped off to my house.
Growing up, it wasn’t uncommon for us to have a cabbage and sausage boil up. This version was generally used when there was a lot of whānau to feed on a more limited budget. Buying a bag of 20 sausages stretches a lot further than even a value pack of bacon bones from the Mad Butcher. The same applies for cabbage. Every time we had a cabbage boil up I would reenact that scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when Charlie says something along the lines of “Cabbage soup again?!” I once met someone who had only ever had cabbage and sausage boil ups - which wasn’t anything to sniff at, but the only imagery I associate cabbage and sausages with are grey skies, sludgy muddy paddocks, layers of jackets, and cups of tea. Sometimes I will crave a cabbage boil up just to be transported back to those times because although we were dirt poor, we were together. Now that my brothers and I are older and all living in different cities, it’s that closeness I reminisce on.
Sometimes I will crave a cabbage boil up just to be transported back to those times because although we were dirt poor, we were together. Now that my brothers and I are older and all living in different cities, it’s that closeness I reminisce on.
When I went to boarding school at thirteen I was introduced to carrots in boil ups - something I had never considered before. In theory it made sense. Our hostel matron Whaea Marama would cook one big boil up every year and only as a treat or for a special occasion. Not only that, it was the only time that we would get to have fresh white bread and butter with our dinner. A massive treat in our eyes. When you were a junior at school, you were roped into the kitchen to help Whaea Marama prep. Jobs included peeling spuds, kūmara, and, again, to my surprise carrots. Sacks upon sacks of these huawhenua would slump on our kitchen countertops, and you had to be a skilled acrobat to move around in our hostel kitchen. Which in part ensured that when Whaea Marama assigned you a job, you stuck in that same place she set you until your job was done. The hum of the old radio we had set up in the corner and the flow of gossip and laughter reminded me of home, being in the kitchen with my own mum. For many of the girls that came to our school, home was a turbulent place and some were not fortunate enough to have mothers let alone stable environments, so I feel that being in that kitchen with all of us would have been a great comfort for them too. It’s the ways in which food can heal and bring us together that makes it so relevant in Māori culture, and I’m sure other cultures worldwide.
The politics of boil up are apparent. Not only in the ways in which we each bring what we can when we can, but also how it is enjoyed. A boil up is not a single person's meal, it is something to be shared and passed down. It fills and fuels us no matter what ends up being thrown in the pot. We each bring something different to the table and a good boil up recognises this. It brings us together and mirrors our own existences. Boil up is a cultural reference to us as people living here on these lands. It places us in our individual identities and binds us and these diverse experiences. Life is so much better when we’re all boiling away together.
A good boil up is one that nourishes, strengthens, and unites the people. Anything else is a stew.