The hāngi is a New Zealand custom that is known almost as well as the haka and the similar sounding hongi (the traditional Maori greeting that involves two people touching foreheads and noses, while sharing a breath). This ancient custom that involves the Maori sharing food and coming together is worth learning more about.
Preparing the hāngi pit
Like anything in life, if you want to achieve optimal and delicious results with your earth oven, then the key is to make sure you’re prepared. Think about how many people you’re cooking for, what you’re cooking and how big you need to dig your pit. Huge families often gather for an all-day hāngi. If this is the case when you come to lay yours, remember that it’s easier to control and cook with multiple small hāngis than one enormous hāngi. This way, if one hāngi doesn’t work or is under-cooked, at least not all of the food is ruined.
You also want to make sure that you’ve gathered the correct stones to cook with, and the right wood to build your fire with — you’re going to want a nice hardwood that’ll burn for three to five hours, depending on what you’re cooking. You can’t just go grabbing rocks willy-nilly; you’ll need volcanic rocks, as normal rocks will potentially explode when they reach peak temperature, and nothing ruins a family get-together like a bit of rock shrapnel embedded in Granny’s ear.
The pit should be just deep and wide enough to fit your stones in. There is a common misconception that you need a particularly deep hole for a hāngi. This isn’t the case. What you want to aim for is a wok-shaped hole that gets more shallow at the edges.
Equipment-wise, you want to have some sort of windbreak to protect your hāngi from the wind if it picks up. Also, you have to make sure that you have either some plain white sheets or non-flammable sacks.
Setting the fire
There is only one aspect of the fire building process that you need to decide before putting match to wood: whether to build your fire over the hole so that the stones drop down into it as the fire burns, or to the side. The second course of action means less admin in the long run, as you won’t have to remove ashes out of the hole before you place your kai in it. If you don’t remove these ashes, you’ll get a hāngi that tastes like you’re eating burnt wood. With the fire on the side, you can let the wood burn down at its leisure, keep an eye on the stones, and make sure they’re all heating, then move them into the lovely clean hole when they’re ready. You just have to make sure that when the time comes for moving the stones, you do it fast.
Kai (food) preparation
You’ve got three to five hours — depending on what you’re cooking — to prepare the food whilst the fire burns down. When it comes to what tasty treats you can put in your hāngi, the sky is the limit — with the exception of seafood. Root vegetables, like potatoes, and kumera (sweet potato) should be peeled, portioned and put into a sack, then soaked in water. Beef, pork or chicken are all hāngi friendly and were traditionally wrapped in banana leaves or cabbage, but mostly people use tinfoil. When the prep is done, it is time to kick back, whack the food in the hāngi baskets, grab a beer and keep an eye on the fire.
Laying the hāngi
When the fire has burned down and you can see that the stones are burning white and, generally looking like they’re at optimal thermonuclear temperature, it’s time to cook! This is where that difficult equilibrium between speed and safety must be found. The ashes must be cleared from the rocks and preferably, placed somewhere your drunken uncle isn’t going to stumble over and fall into. Once that has been done as quickly as possible, it’s time to get those roasting rocks into your earth oven. Place them side-by-side and as neatly as you can to focus the heat. Then, using some wet sacking or sheets, give them a bit of a slapping so that you create steam.
Then the food baskets go in. These should go in quick-sharp, with the meat normally going on the bottom to get the best of the heat, and the veggies stacked on top. Then a wet sheet should be placed over the whole pit, right to the edges. Follow this with a damp sack directly over the food — this is important, as it will be the last sack to be removed and will protect the hāngi from falling dirt. After the safety sack, you should layer up with more damp sacks until the hāngi is covered. Then, on with the dirt! Be careful when covering, and make sure that if there is any steam leaking out of your dirt pile, you fill in the gaps.
Uncovering the hāngi
After the allotted three to five hours, it’s time to unwrap this big, deliciously dirty culinary present! Go carefully, unless you want your slow-cooked feed to be garnished with soil. Scrape off the dirt, remove the sacking piece-by-piece, and then pull out your authentically prepared Maori feast. There’s only one thing to do after that. Tuck in!
If you want to see — in a nutshell — how to make (sort of) a hāngi in your own garden, then here’s the video for you:
He manako te koura i kore ai!