Spinach and Sweet Potato Cannelloni and…Haere Mai

Translated, that’s ‘Welcome’ in Maori.  I did experience a Haere Mai when I was eight years old and it was an experience I’ve never been able to forget.

When I was growing up in New Zealand I went to Waiwhetu Primary School and it wasn’t multi-cultural because there were just two cultures – the Maoris and the Pakehas (white people).

Spinach and Sweet Potato Cannelloni

My teacher was Maori and a lot of his time in class involved playing the guitar and singing in Maori, smoking at his desk, listening to Muhamad Ali fight Joe Frasier on the radio or talking about rugby and telling the boys in the class if they were tough they’d play in bare feet.

He also accused me of talking too much so as a punishment I was moved away from my pakeha girlfriends and sat next to a Maori boy, Rua Tapatoru.  Well that shut me up not because he was a Maori but because he was a boy and therefore not interested in my rainbow pencils, my pink pencil case or my perfumed erasers.

I remember Rua had been at school on the Friday but on the Monday his desk was empty.  That’s when the teacher came into the room and told us Rua was dead.  He said he had bled to death on his way home from school.  I was terrified and visualised Rua walking home with blood pouring out from his body like a river.  But then the teacher said he’d died of leukaemia and they ‘couldn’t stop the bleeding’.  I had never heard of leukaemia and didn’t know what it was and I wondered, as I had been sitting next to him, if leukaemia was contagious.

Still reeling from the news, the teacher then told us we were going on an excursion.  Back in the day there was none of this palaver of permission slips and OH&S nonsense.  If the teacher decided we were going somewhere he just went ahead and marched us out the front gate.  Parents found out later.

He told us we were going to the Maori Pa which is the Maori meeting house for the Maoris in that village.  ‘Rua will be there so you’ll all get to say goodbye’.  I was stunned.  What did he mean, ‘Rua will be there’, he’s just said he’s dead.

Rolling up the cannelloni

We were put into two straight lines and walked out the school gates and headed towards the Maori Pa.  Just before we entered the Maori Pa the teacher told us that it was Maori custom for the dead person to be placed in an open coffin.  Rua would be in the meeting house in a position of honour at the head of the Maori Pa.  For three days and three nights his parents would sleep on mats on either side of him with all the relatives, friends and other mourners bringing their mats and sleeping in the Maori Pa with them.  At the end of the three days they would have the funeral.

We entered the meeting house in one line.  It was crowded and noisy and filled with mats covered in brightly crocheted blankets.  Kids were running around, men were playing guitars, women were singing and others were helping themselves to an enormous buffet.  It seemed like a party and I was confused as to why no one was sad.  But the teacher explained that these three days are treated as a celebration of Rua’s life but they will all grieve terribly when they have to say their final goodbyes.

In our single line we had to file past the body.  I had never seen a dead person before and I was anxious and nervous.  As my turn approached I could see what must be Rua’s parents sitting on mats on either sides of the coffin that was made of dark wood and lined with shiny white ruffled fabric.

Everyone managed to move past the coffin without incident but when it was my turn the teacher told Rua’s parents that I was the one who sat next to Rua in class.  His parent’s faces lit up and I’m sure they thought we must have been good friends.  His mother reached out her hand to me and asked, ‘Would you like to sit next to Rua and hold his hand?’  The teacher prodded me in my back to move forward and Rua’s mother started moving over creating a space for me to sit right beside the coffin.  I looked at Rua and he was lying there with his eyes closed looking pale, grey and ashen.  He was a horrible colour.  I was horrified.  I wanted to move away but his mother still had her hand outstretched towards me and was giving me this lovely smile but I couldn’t do it.  I shook my head and took a determined step backwards and said, ‘No.’ Rua’s mother gave a look of great disappointment.

When I was six a friend of mine that I used to do ballet with was killed right before Christmas in a car accident.  It was considered too traumatic for me to attend the funeral.  Eighteen months later I was not only at a funeral of sorts but was being asked to sit beside the body and hold the dead person’s hand.  I’d gone to school that morning to discover Rua was away, then told he was dead, then told he’d ‘bled to death’ which created terrible images in my mind, then told we were going on an excursion to see him so somehow I thought he must be coming back from the dead to say goodbye and now I was in front of the open casket with his mother asking me to sit beside him and hold his hand.  No one had prepared me for a moment like this.  I retreated to another part of the meeting house and didn’t go near the coffin again.

A touch of seasoning then into the oven

As we walked back to school I knew Rua’s mother had been disappointed with my reaction.  It was too late now to fix the situation.  But what I will do, I thought, is when it’s my turn to go to heaven, I’ll find Rua and then I’ll hold his hand.’

Has another culture ever put you in a situation that is completely out of your comfort zone?

The maori people eat a lot of kumera (sweet potato) so here is a recipe using one of their favourite ingredients.

Spinach and Sweet Potato Cannelloni

Serves:  4

Degree of Difficulty:  2/5

Cost:  This is an inexpensive family meal.  My children loved this dish and asked why I didn’t cook more!

Spinach and Sweet Potato Cannelloni

350g orange sweet potato, peeled, chopped

400g can butter beans, drained, rinsed

1 packet frozen spinach, thawed with as much liquid squeezed out as possible

2 tbspns finely chopped fresh basil leaves

1 egg yolk

1 packet fresh cannelloni sheets

700g jar tomato pasta sauce

1 cup grated tasty cheese

Preheat oven to 180°C (375°F).  Place sweet potato in a saucepan filled with cold water and a tspn of salt.  Bring to the boil and cook until soft, drain.

In a large bowl combine sweet potato and butter beans and mash until smooth.  Stir in spinach, basil and egg yolk.  Season well.

In a large baking dish pour in half the pasta sauce.

Put the cannelloni sheets on a board.  Take 2 tbspns of filling and spread along the long edge of the cannelloni and roll up to enclose filling.  Place in the baking dish seam side down.  Repeat until all mixture is used up.  You should have 8-10 cannelloni rolls.  Pour remaining pasta sauce on top of cannelloni.  Spread cheese on top of pasta sauce.  Season.

Place in oven and cook for 30 minutes or until golden on top.

Serve with a green salad and some fresh Italian bread.

I found this recipe on the Delicious Magazine website but I have made some changes.


Related Post


  1. What an incredible story, I can’t imagine how frightening that episode was for you. When children understand so little, the gaps can be filled in with very scary thoughts. Your recipe looks delicious, I’ve never made cannelloni perhaps I should give it a try. GG

  2. What a great post. How difficult it must have been for a little girl to go through that without any adult support. I love the connection to your recipe. While I am not one for using recipes I find on the internet (especially in blogs because I can never remember which one I saw them in) this does sound delicious and worth having a go at.
    Have a great day !

  3. What an amazing story!

    There is such a difference in cultures and how they handle death and grieving. I loved that you remember the teacher smoking at the desk!!! So many of the things you mentioned reminded me of school when I was a child.

    Such a touching and well told story.

  4. It is incredible how much life has changed in such a short time , re the permission note thing and the way children are treated don’t you think?. I love the kumera recipe for it is a New Zealand staple ingredient to be sure. Thanks for the story

  5. Bit surprised that the class was taken to see the body, and in an open casket. At least you got to spend more time with him!
    I guess that nose rubbing greeting does not happen at funerals.

  6. looks so mouth watering

  7. this looks delicious – and very similar to traditional Jewish potato recipes.

  8. That’s a beautiful story Charlie-I teared up reading it. From my experience, the Maori culture is an amazingly embracing culture and I could really picture their faces lighting up when they met you.

    Congratulations on the new gig too 🙂

  9. looks soooo delicious 🙂

  10. My mother is Maori, but growing up in Aus I have practically no connection to my family in NZ and i never really experienced anything like that. A very touching story – and the spinach and sweet potato cannelloni looks lovely 🙂

  11. What a sad, but beautiful story.

  12. What a wonderful story, and a delicious recipe to boot!

  13. Wow! I have to admit, I was so engrossed by your story that I completely skipped the recipe. Looks great though. 🙂

  14. the differences that can exist between two cultures is incredible and baffling and awe-inspiring, all at the same time. what a story, and what a dish!

  15. I’ve never thought of combining sweet potatoes and spinach before, but I like the idea. 🙂

  16. What a lovely, touching story. Thank you for sharing. And thanks for the recipe as well–it looks delicious!

  17. I would have reacted just like you; how horrifying for such a young age to see that and hear such graphic details of death…bled to death! Oh my…but you made me smile to think you will find his hand to hold in the end. Touching. And as for your recipe….delish! Interesting combination of flavors that just seem to blend together perfectly!!

  18. I had no idea I’d be reading such an intriguing yet sorrowful story, while checking out your recipe (which looks terrific, —I love the ingredient combination) Death is such a difficult, illusive subject, especially for children–I can remember that being one of my great fears. Thanks for sharing your experience with the Maori people.

  19. Oh my goodness that would be a difficult situation for anyone let alone someone at such a tender age.

  20. Thats certainly a lot for a child to take in! When we had a florist I was delivering a casket cover to an ethnic funeral and the funeral director asked me to place the flowers on top of the coffin in the church as usual. What wasn’t usual though was the fact that the relatives popped the casket top off just as I approached. Certainly not something I was expecting!
    Yummy recipe, and I certainly think you should make it more often too 🙂

  21. I am such a huge spinach lover, but I never thought about making it within a cannelloni with sweet potatoes. Yes, I say this is a new dish for me that I would love to try out. It just sounds amazing

  22. Thank you for sharing this recipe – I like the combination of sweet potatoes and spinach.

  23. What a sad story. I can just imagine you as a little girl, that would have been incredibly hard.

  24. A completely absorbing story, what an experience for you at such a young age! I’m glad you were able to share it with us, Charlie, thank you.

  25. Oh dear you poor thing! I can see how that would be traumatic to a little girl! I remember seeing my grandma in her coffin when I was a little girl and being so confused about what it was all about…

  26. Another fabulous story – and tasty-looking recipe! Thanks for sharing – I can’t imagine putting children through that without their parent’s permission. Wow.

  27. This is a great story, Charlie.
    While I admire the very healthy attitude towards death that the Maori have (I’m an Irish Australian – we adore a good funeral) I can only imagine how horrified your mother must have been when she found out what you had been through on that day. No wonder you haven’t forgotten the experience.
    I’m also very fond of sweet potato, so thanks for the recipe!

  28. What an interesting story, and at that age, I would have been mortified to hold the hand of a dead person, though much later in life I did hold my father’s hand as he died and it was a transformational experience. The combo of ingredients in this dish is new to me, but I love how it sounds and a new way to use sweet potatoes, too!

  29. There’s nothing quite as tragic as the death of a child, is there? Thanks for the recipe.

  30. I can’t believe nobody prepared you for what you might experience at the funeral. I bet that was traumatizing. It would be for any of us at that tender age. I hope time has helped you come to peace with that situation. You did nothing wrong. Your reaction was normal. So, don’t blame yourself for it.

  31. What a story! I think you handled the situation quite well. Had it been me, I probably would have bolted from the room. Maybe permission slips aren’t such a bad idea, after all. These aren’t the cannelloni that Mom used to make but I’d love to give them a try. They sound delicious!

    • hotlyspiced says:

      I’m sure John that you would make your own pasta and pasta sauce. I’m afraid I’ve taken a few shortcuts in order to feed the starving before they riot.

  32. Wow, what a story! So different to today! I can imagine how traumatising that must have been for you. I wonder what your parents thought? On another note, that recipe looks delicious.
    Don’t forget to email me as soon as possible (or DM me on twitter) with your address, your Disney Live prize needs to be sent out ASAP or you will miss out. Thanks.

  33. That is just incredible – WOW! I am kind of speechless really. You should never have been put in that situation – how awlful for you! xx

  34. I probably would have been slightly traumatized if I were you…but I love the way you’re looking back on the situation. And commemorating it with food. Amazing food, by the way.

  35. What an experience as a child! It’s hard for small kids to understand the cultural difference and all they can do is to learn quickly. Kids tend to be more flexible and absorb new things quickly, but I can see it became traumatic experience. Each culture has some unique things, and easy to understand if you are in it but not to others. The sweet potato is my favorite and I love this cheesy dish!

  36. What a beautiful and heart-warming story — thanks for sharing, Charlie 🙂

    I’ve never sampled or baked canneloni before — yours turned out supper yummy looking.

    Also, congrats on your new gig 😀 So exciting!!!

  37. I admire the positive approach of Moari’s cultures towards death — my previous comment was meant to emphasize on this.

    But for you to experience such trauma, its shocking! I am glad you handled it well beyond your age.

Speak Your Mind