A Guide To Māori Hāngī: New Zealand
Hāngī is a dish cooked in an earth oven by the Māori people of New Zealand, typically containing a variety of meats and vegetables. We were so lucky on our trip to be able to spend time with a group of Māori people who looked after us, taught us their traditional ways (including the Haka and basket weaving) and of course, cooked a traditional Hāngī for us!
We stayed at Lake Aniwhenua which is an experience reserved for Stray passengers but there are many more Māori experiences open to the public such as this one in Rotorua. Remember, Māori groups are predominantly found in the North island of New Zealand so if you’re only travelling to the South island you won’t find many (if any) Māori experiences.
What is Hāngī?
Hāngi is a traditional Māori method of cooking food on heated rocks that are buried in an earth oven called an umu. The umu is essentially an underground pit and has been a traditional method of cooking food for inhabitants of the Pacific Islands and further afield such as Peru (pachamanca).
Originally the umu would have been used to cook fish and sweet potatoes but over time the range of ingredients diversified and so the ingredients you will likely find in a Hāngi today include chicken, pork, mutton, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and carrots.
After the umu is prepared (see preparation below), the Hāngi is cooked for 3 or more hours (the longer the better) before being uncovered and served. Hāngi is an incredibly popular meal for celebrations or welcoming guests, it is not typically eaten often and so is reserved for those special occasions.
We watched in fascination as the very welcoming Māori people prepared the Hāngi. In the photos below you can only see chicken but we were also served Hāngi pork, carrots, sweet potatoes and peas.
1. Prepare the stones
A fire is started with large stones placed on top to absorb the heat of the fire which will provide the temperature for the entirety of the cooking process. Once the fire is lit, the next process won’t start until it has gone out and the stones are ready.
2. Place a rack of the foods on top of the coal
The next step is to place a rack on top of the coals that contain the meat and vegetables. In the picture above you will see just chicken but more ingredients were added afterwards to allow the juices to merge together for flavor.
3. Cover with a sheet
The next step is to cover the Hāngi with a big white sheet which will help to keep the food free from dirt and lock in the heat.
4. Cover with dirt
Finally, dirt is shovelled on to the Hāngi to completely lock in the heat for the duration of the cooking process. The Hāngi can be cooked in 3 hours but the longer it stays cooking, the more tender the meat and flavors will be. When it is cooked all day the texture and taste is just outstanding!
5. Remove the Hāngi and serve
Once you pull the hangi out of the ground it is ready to serve hot! All of the ingredients were placed on to a table along with salad and the most delicious fried bread (I have the recipe somewhere).
The Hāngi is eaten by simply filling your plate or stuffing the fried bread with the delicious meat and sauces.
Hāngi in Māori Culture
As mentioned, the traditional method of cooking Hāngi goes back to the alleged initial indigenous groups from Central Polynesia before they voyaged over to New Zealand, bringing their methods of cooking with them. In those early days, fish, root crops and fruits such as apples and bananas were prepared. Bigger meats such as pigs or turtles were predominantly reserved for special occasions.
As Māori people made their way across the continent to New Zealand, new sources of food helped to make up the traditional ingredients of the Hāngi which is what we’re more familiar with today. Māori believe that each ingredient is a gift from the God of the Sea, Tangaroa and they say a prayer of thanks to the God after the food has been collected.
Māori are spiritual and so the preparation of Hāngi is enveloped in traditions and beliefs. For example, no one must walk on the umu earth oven else the food will be considered spoiled. And what’s more, Māori take a poorly-prepared Hāngi to be a sign that something bad is about to happen. So if you are to contribute to preparing a Hāngi, make sure not to mess up!
If you do wish to try a traditional Hāngi on your trip to New Zealand, you will need to take part in a Māori experience. When we were in Rotorua, many of our group took part in this experience and had very positive reviews! We decided to wait until Lake Aniwhenua so I can’t personally comment, but if you’re travelling outside of a tour group then booking ahead is recommended.
How to Cook a Hāngi
Here’s an excellent video guide to cooking a Hāngi which should give some extra insights into exactly how it is prepared. Whilst Hāngi is labor-intensive, it’s definitely quite straightforward so you can even try cooking it for yourself.