What is a Hangi?
Simply put, a hangi is cooking method used in Maori tradition. It is a huge part of New Zealand culture. One of my favouraite and most memorable times at school was when we dug an enourmous hangi i the back field! It fed hundreds of students, teachers, friends and families! I can still smell the tantalising steam rising from the earth as all of us kids sat in classrooms barely attentive to the lessons.
There are variations of hangi used all over the world by other cultures, such as throughout the pacific islands. A Hangi involves heating rocks, then burying them with food such as meats and root vegetables.
Hangi in Maori Tradition
In more traditional times, Maori people used to cook a hangi when a large group of people came together for a meal. In fact, even today hangi is usually reserved for larger groups: a hangi is an effective way to cook large quantities of food. And with so many people around to lend a hand, the work becomes minimal.
There are a few differences between modern day hangi and traditional hangi. For starters, flax and other tough vegetation was used to hold and protect the food from the dirt rather than metal baskets and cheesecloth. It also added to the flavour! Instead of pork, chicken and potatoes, which weren’t available at the time, fish, native birds, and root vegetables were eaten. In some places where geothermal activity was abundant, such as Rotorua, the hangi was cooked using the naturally occurring thermal steam. A fire wasn’t always necessary!
If you would like to learn more about the Maori culture, these links may be interesting. Also let me know in the comments, and I’ll talk about it in later posts!
Maori culture – New Zealand.com
New Zealand Government – Maori History
If you want more information on how to lay a hangi, I found these resources quite useful:
Tamaki Village – Hangi
Hangi History – a post
Why am I making a Hangi in Spain?
I thought it would be a fantastic idea to share a big part of kiwi culture with my spanish family! Although the resources are a little different here, it isn’t too difficult to achieve the same results. At the end of this post you can see how it went! Don’t miss my last two posts about Christmas in Spain if you like reading about cultural experiences!
My fourth Christmas in Spain
Spain vs New Zealand: Christmas edition!
How to lay your own Hangi:
Step One: get organised!
You will need all the resources ready BEFORE you begin. Trust me, the last thing you want is to run around searching for a sack while the rocks are cooling in the pit. Make sure you have the following on hand:
- An awesome community of people to help out. The number of hands needed depends on the size of the the hangi. Which depends on the amount of people you’re feeding. Remember, a hangi should be a shared experience, so the more the merrier! That goes for preparation as well as devouring it!
- The food. This usually includes meats such as lamb, pork and chicken as well as root vegetables and others that will hold their shape. Sweet Potato (Kumara in NZ), pumpkin, potato and carrots are a popular choice! For our mini hangi, we used chicken and lamb for Carlos’ parents. Carlos and I don’t eat meat, so that was all for them. For the four of us was pumpkin, sweet potato, regular potatoes and a type of starchy root vegetable I had never seen before but looked interesting so I had to try it. It was bland but good.
- Sacks. Hessian sacks. Something clean and absorbent that win’t catch on fire or melt into your food. We had a lot of trouble finding these! Nowdays people use plastic or paper sacks, as they’re cheaper than hessian. Ask around, you’ll find something.
- Sheets. At least one. Preferably three to five. These should be completely clean, never slept in. It’s also best if they are white, as the ink from coloured sheets could leak into the food.
- Baskets. Or a basket. To put the food in so it’s not loose and getting dirty. Preferably made of a safe metal that won’t poison anybody when heated with your food. You can also use tin or aluminium take-away trays, or improvise with tin foil (aluminium foil). We didn’t have a basket, so we balanced the food layered with berzas (a kind of spanish cabbage) and tinfoil trays on top of an iron grill.
- Wood. You will need lots of it, and it needs to burn for a long time. Check what kinds you have available and use the most long-lasting.
- Rocks or irons. You can use a variety of different materials as the heating elements. I used iron scraps from a nearby sawmill. People often use old rails or fireplace bricks. The most common and traditional material is volcanic rock. Try to find fresh riverstones that have no cracks or air pockets. They have to be volcanic, not sedentary, otherwise there could be explosions! Flying shards of hot rock is not what you want when you’re preparing a hangi. Make sure you have enough! at least enough to cover the bottom of your pit.
- Shovels. Both to dig the hangi pit and to move the white hot rocks quickly into it. Rakes and poles also work for the latter.
- Cabbage. You can cook some to eat as well if you’re into that, but most of all the cabbage leaves are to protect the food from burns and dirt. It also serves to add flavour and steam to the mix. Banana leaves, flax, tin foil and other material also works well here. We used berzas (related to cabbage) and tin foil.
- A bucket of water. Or three. A hose wouldn’t go down badly either. These are useful to put out any out any unplanned fires. Mostly, however, the bucket of water is to soak the sheets and sacks before they are placed on the hangi.
Dig the hole. This can be done while the fire is burning as long as it’s not too close to the fire. I recommend digging the pit first, since you want it as close to the fire as possible so the hot rocks loose as little heat as possible when they’re moved. The pit should be about half a metre deep, depending on the amount of food you want to cook. The depth doesn’t matter so much except when it comes to getting the hangi out of the hole. When it comes to that, you want easy access as it will be hot!
Stack the fire high. Disperse the rocks and/or irons evenly throughout the fire, where they will receive the maximum amount of heat. Light the fire and wait patiently until the rocks or irons are WHITE HOT. Not red hot, white hot. Somebody should always be nearby to watch the fire. This is to prevent the fire from becoming out of control, but mostly to put the rocks back into the middle if any fall out. While the fire is burning, you should also make sure you have everything you’ll need later on hand. Close by. At this point you should have the sacks and sheets soaking in the bucket of water, and you can start preparing the food.
Food. Make sure everything is big enough to keep it’s shape after hours of cooking but small enough to cook through with the steam. if you choose to season anything, add a LOT of seasoning. Most of it will be washed away by the condensation during the steaming. For meats, you can cut pockets or use the skin to stuff herbs into. Wrap everything in edible leaves, tin foil of cheesecloth bags. I used a mix of rosemary, oregano and pepper. Most of the flavour however, will come from the earth and smoke underground.
Put everything in the hole. Start with the hot rocks. The moment to do so is when they are white hot. The fire should have burned down a lot, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to use a long-handled tool to drag them out and into the hole. Be careful, everything is hot! This is the most difficult part, everything is easy afterwards. Make sure a little of the smouldering charcoal and wood gets into the hole. Just a few pieces, enough to add a little smokey flavour.
Next place the food basket(s) on top. Carefully. Layer cabbage on top of this, especially around the edges so that the sacks don’t come into contact with the hot rocks. After that comes the wet sacks, the wetter the better. On top of the sacks, the sheets. These will help to remove the majority of the dirt afterwards, so spread them out to make this as easy as possible.
Cover the hole with dirt. Make sure no steam escapes from the hangi. if you see any, dump more dirt over the area.
Wait! Someone should keep watch over the hangi to stop any escaping steam. Just check on it every now and then at this point.
Dig it up! Remove the top layer of dirt with shovels. When you reach the sheets, lift them off carefully, taking as much dirt with them as possible. Do the same with the sacks, being careful not to get any dirt on the food. Lift out the basket (we used wire previously tied to the grill tray and hoes to balance it).
Eat the hangi!!
I have to admit, the Spanish Hangi didn’t work out very well. It didn’t cook. The meat was perfectly done, but the heat didn’t reach the vegetables or pudding! So we put them in the over for a while and it turned out just fine. There was still the smokey earthy taste to everything which I found delicious! It was a little strange for the Spanish family though, cooking food in the dirt!
So what went wrong? This is where you and I learn from my mistakes. Firstly, there was a miscommunication where I understood that Carlos’ parents had all the resources at their house already. They did not. It was the day before the hangi and we frantically searched the small village for everything we needed. Then we couldn’t find enough of many things. We only had two sacks and one sheet. There was a lack of wood to burn. The amount of irons we found in the end was wanting.
Secondly, there was the issue with the fire. I wasn’t around when it was started, and had to stack it haphazardly over the irons after it was already burning!
Here are my tips. My learning curves.
- Be prepared! Be organised! Be sure of what you have and what you need to find!
- Make sure you have enough of everything. Especially the rocks or irons, or your food will not cook.
- Don’t leave the rocks or irons until the fire burns down completely. Move them as soon as you see that they are white hot.
I hope some of you have a go at at kiwi hangi! If you do, let me know how it goes!
Here are all of the photos: