Lauraine Jacobs

Food & Wine Writer

29 October 2017

A HANGI 25 YEARS AGO

(In 1992 the NZ Guild of Food Writers invited Gourmet magazine’s food writer, Fred Ferretti, to travel from New York to Auckland for a week of feasting. To welcome Fred and his wife, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo we invited them to join the committee for dinner. We dug a hāngi pit in my backyard with the help of a couple of mates. Fred wrote this story for the much loved but now defunct Gourmet magazine and it was published in early 1993.)

"If you do not have manuka wood to burn, if you cannot get stones from a river, then you might just as well forget about having a proper hangi," Ruben Oneroa was saying one afternoon in a backyard in Auckland, New Zealand, as he watched wisps of smoke seep through a large mound of freshly turned soil and up into the leaves of the lemon trees.

We were in the yard belonging to our friends Lauraine and Murray Jacobs, in the Remuera section of Auckland, on an incline of Mount Hobson. Ruben and the Ihaka brothers, Daga and Dave (all three are Maori) had dug up the earth so that we might experience a true hangi, a tradition of those Polynesian first settlers of New Zealand, an outdoor feast with which they mark salient events in their personal lives and their history.

The stones that Ruben was talking about — between swallows of beer (another ingredient absolutely necessary for an honest hangi) and occasional tastes of green-lipped mussels lifted from a nearby barbecue — were of lava. "And you cannot have stones that have been in salt water," he said. "They will crack and split when you warm them. They will sound like guns. You have to have proper stones from fresh water. And manuka." Manuka is an extremely hard wood from the tea tree that burns slowly and with great heat.

Ruben, Daga, and Dave had excavated a rectangular hole about four feet by two and almost three feet deep and piled in it logs of manuka, which they ignited and covered with lava rocks. After two hours the rocks and wood ashes were removed and the hot lava re-bedded in the hole. On top of the rocks the men placed a tray of open metalwork onto which were layered, in ascending order, slabs of fatty pork; whole chickens; racks of lamb; jacketed potatoes; chunks of kumara (pronounced CUE-mara), a marvellous yellow sweet potato; and slices of pumpkin. The loaded tray was covered with lengths of linen, the linen with bolts of thick sailcloth, the sailcloth with burlap, and the burlap with the pile of loose dirt left from digging the hole. The food for the hangi thus "steams" under the soil, Ruben said.

The hangi, a culinary treasure, exemplifies much that is good about New Zealand's cuisine: its simplicity and lack of adornment. In my visits to Auckland and to Wellington I ate lamb and venison, grilled and roasted; fat mullet, kingfish, snapper, trevally, salmon, and tuna (all just pulled from the water, fish that tasted as fish ought to, whether steamed, panfried, or smoked); and thick pea soups with ham. I also ate fine vegetables and fruits — leeks, small sweet tomatoes, parsnips, tangelos, Braeburn apples, and "drinking nuts," which is what coconuts are called in the Saturday Polynesian market at Otara, near Auckland.

As we waited Ruben showed me an old lithograph in Lauraine’s kitchen, of an 1844 hangi wherein the Maori baked nine thousand sharks, one hundred pigs, and eleven thousand baskets of potatoes in a celebration of amity with new English arrivals to their country. "It was a major hangi," he said, "the kind we usually have to observe an important event like the accession or funeral of a leader, any occasion when we would have a hui," or important discussion.

Would we have a hui at our hangi, I asked?

"We are having one," said Ruben. "Have a mussel."

For about three hours, the buried food cooked, and then Ruben bent over the pile of smoky dirt, sniffed, and pronounced the food done. He and Daga and Dave shoveled the earth away and asked me to help shift first the burlap, then the canvas, then the linen. Finally the four of us lifted the enormous metal tray up and onto a table, where the meat and vegetables were sliced and served.

Into the night we ate pork, chicken, and lamb; softened potatoes, kumaras, and pumpkin; and all manner of greens and salads that others had contributed to the hangi. Moist and sweetly aromatic with the flavour of the kumara, the meats, tubers, and roots had cooked through perfectly. A glorious introductory hangi it was.

"You have learned a lot today, have you not?" Ruben asked.

Indeed I had. In the course of my afternoon hui, as the foods steamed, I had learned about lava rocks from fresh water and manuka wood; about the need for fatty pork to be the foundation of a successful hangi; that a little smoke will not harm lemon leaves; that good beer is necessary for the orchestration of a hangi.

"Good," said Ruben. "Now the haka."

A haka, he explained, is a Maori dance that concludes every hangi. To participate, one waves one's arms about while jumping from one foot to the other, up and down, back and forth, scowling and sticking one's tongue out to ward off enemies and unfriendly vapours.

"I'll watch," I told Ruben.

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