I’ve been fascinated by all these stories of Maori food for the Matariki festival. I find the thought of just steamed or boiled pork or veges with no spices a bit bland. I know you have made some great hangi feasts in the past, so wondered what twists you gave to add flavour and punch? Also, I’m not about to dig holes in my backyard; is there something I could do in a kitchen that would give me that smoky hangi taste?
I know what you mean in regards to bland hangi food — too often it can taste the same and it can be hard to tell the pork and the chicken apart, although a good hangi will always be a little smoky, moist and juicy, and that can be a very fine thing indeed. I have been cooking hangi for the past four years now, and although I am pretty good at marinating the meats and fish, I do leave it to the experts on the marae to actually dig the pit, set fire to the wood and heat the irons and rocks, load the pit and then break it all down. That doesn’t mean I don’t help, if asked to, but if left to me I’m sure it would be a very inferior meal. The skill and attention to detail required in building the hangi pit and cooking the food is fairly strict, just as it is in any good cuisine.
My entree into hangi cooking was that initially I was asked to cook the main course kai at a fundraising dinner in support of the Hineraukatauri Music Therapy Centre in Auckland, at a feast for 700 at King Tuhetia’s marae Turangawaewae, on the mighty Waikato River.
As I tend to never say "no" to anything (a trait of mine I’m working hard to change as I like the idea of a day off every now and then) I immediately said YES PLEASE, especially as my cousin Hinewehi Mohi was organising it. It really wasn’t until I arrived at the marae a few days before the event that
I began to wonder why it hadn’t occurred to me that I was completely out of my depth with hangi cooking, never really having experienced it much except at Dad’s club picnics when I was a kid, helping the other kids helping the fathers.
However, undeterred, and with the confidence of years of cheffing behind me, I ploughed on in. I considered that in reality the challenge was simply the "oven" (the hangi pit) and that just because, traditionally, food hadn’t really been marinated it might only be because old Maori didn’t grow rosemary and garlic, or have pantry shelves lined with spices and chillies.
It was when I was wrapping my whole lamb rubbed with smoked paprika and fennel seeds in a huge amount of banana leaves that someone on the marae began to laugh. They asked what on earth was
I doing, and — I have to say – I couldn’t really answer. To cut a long story short, the various meats I marinated, from the wagyu beef short-rib in miso and ginger (cooked in oven bags), the chickens in saffron, honey and lemon, and the pork belly stuffed with apples, walnuts, sage and soy sauce, all came out incredibly well and super-delicious.
The flavours didn’t jump around the hangi pit making everything taste the same (which I’d become nervous about), and the food — cooked over intense heat like a wood-fired oven but sealed like a pressure cooker — was simply spectacular.
So, if you are ever asked to participate in a hangi, treat the food just as you normally would by marinating and flavouring. But, if you want to cook your own hangi at home and don’t feel like digging up the wet earth, buy one from Blackdog Steelworks. I recently cooked in one on the shore of Lake Tarawera and it worked a treat. Easy to operate, simple to set up, and wonderfully authentic tasting results for your kai!
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you’re stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.