A Hangi is made by digging a large pit, lighting up a fire, laying out some stones (which retain heat once the fire goes out), then placing the food on top to be steamed for approximately three hours. Foliage, followed by soil, was also placed on top of the food to keep the steam inside. In places with ongoing geothermal activity, like Rotorua, early Maori used the natural hot pools to make their meals.
The origins of this cooking method can be traced as far back as early Maori settlement. New Zealand’s indigenous population are believed to have hailed from a small island in Central Eastern Polynesia. Before embarking on their Pacific voyage, early settlers identified root crops and starchy fruits as “kai”, or the foundations of a meal – and the word is now used in modern parlance to mean food in general. Accompanying this “kai” was usually fish or shellfish, as well as bananas, apples and a starchy pudding. On special occasions, larger animals like turtles and pigs were cooked in the Hangi.
The method prevailed as Maori made New Zealand their home, though archaeologists have found that the newer earth ovens were much bigger than their early counterparts – mostly due to the fact that food options were much more diverse. Moa and seals became part of the offerings, and smaller ovens were dug up separately to cook other staples like fish and kumara (sweet potato). Once the moa and seal numbers started to dwindle, Maori began diversifying their dishes to include pumpkin, mutton, pork, chicken, cabbage, and whatever tree roots and vegetables they could find.
The Hangi’s effectiveness and ease made it a popular choice for larger family gatherings and traditional celebrations. Maori are spiritual people by nature, and their preferred cooking method reflects this. Each item that was hunted or gathered was thought of as a gift from Tangaroa (the God of the Sea) and Tane Mahuta (the God of the Forest). As such, they only ever took enough food from the land and the sea, always ensuring to say a prayer of thanks after retrieval.
Once the Hangi was laid and the cooking commenced, nobody is allowed to walk on it – otherwise, Maori believed, the food would become spoiled and inedible. Additionally, a Hangi that is not properly cooked was seen to be a disgrace to the community. Even to this day many Maori still believe that a badly prepared Hangi signals that a disaster is about to occur.
European settlement brought an even bigger selection of foods for Maori to cook in their pit ovens. With new foods also came new cooking methods. Eventually, Maori began using camp ovens alongside their customary Hangi, as they were much more adequate for preparing smaller meals. The move actually influenced the way the Hangi is viewed today: as a method more appropriate for larger gatherings and special occasions.
A present-day Hangi uses the typical ingredients you would find in a New Zealand roast meal: pork, mutton, chicken, kumara, potato, pumpkin, peas, and carrots. Along with being reserved for special gatherings, the Hangi cooking method has also been preserved in Maori communities that host cultural encounters for the country’s visitors.