Rotorua: Cooking Kiwi Style.
Saturday 3rd March.
Finally, Brunyfire gets a taste of indigenous cooking traditions and the ideal place for this was Rotorua – situated centrally in Aotearoa’s North Island. Rotorua is the heartland of Māori culture as well as the centre of the island’s geothermal earth forces. A land of fire and ice – what a country of extremes.I was particularly interested in discovering more about the Māori tradition of cooking in an earth oven, or hangi. Traditional Māori believe that the earth is the giver of all life – from the soil, comes food or kai and that same food was, and still is, cooked beneath the earth.
The definition of a hangi is best described as an organic pressure cooker. Basically, a hangi consists of a hole dug in the ground that is stacked with carefully loaded firewood, on top of which sits a pile of rocks. A fire is then lit beneath the fuel, which heats the rocks above to white heat. The ash and some of the coals are then removed, the hot stones laid at the base of the pit and the food, pre-wrapped in fresh leaves (these days in the ubiquitous aluminium foil) and placed on the hot rocks, which are dampened (to create steam). The whole lot is then covered in more dampened greenery, and covered over with soil. (Check out Curious Kai).
Setting up a hangi best illustrated below: Traditionally, the hangi would have looked something like this to begin with……..…… but nowadays, tourist demand is high, and the methods have been streamlined – the men by the way, as is still the tradition, are responsible for digging the pit and firing up the hangi. The womenfolk prepare the food. However, to cater for the multitudes, instead of digging a pit in the ground each time, a brick lined cavity is used in most of the tourist hangi hot spots. The fuel, instead of the wood of choice being Manuka, is now packing cases, and the stones, a mixture of metal elements….The metal baskets atop the stack of fuel are to hold the food which are then straddled across the top of the pit on a couple of metal bars…….(the above image illustrates the bed of hot rocks, once the food baskets have been removed.) Chicken, lamb, stuffing (wrapped in separate foil bags) and vegetables, are all placed in the wire baskets, covered with a damp cloth and then damp sacking. The stainless steel lid (seen above) is then placed firmly over the top, fitting snugly to prevent steam escaping. The process usually takes 3-4 hours, and once done, the sacks are removed and the feast begins!!
These events can differ in quality from the extremes of a Butlin’s Holiday camp experience, to more authentic events – Brunyfire was a bit fed-up at what was promising to be a right old knees up evening. It was really hard trying to decide from Tas which was the best of these tourist events, and in retrospect, it would seem that the hangi and performances (that usually go along with the feast), would have been better at the Te Puia, New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute. Shouldn’t complain though – the food from the hangi pit was delicious – a genuine smokey taste and the meat was pretty succulent.
Desserts, however, were worth a miss…………
Māori traditionally used the natural hot pools to cook in, and I eventually found the Ngararatuatara cooking pool that I knew existed somewhere in the Te Puia grounds. This ancient Māori cooking pool has a surface temperature of around 98°c……..……and currently, mussels, sweet corn and eggs are cooked in the pool, using the traditional flax bags or tukohu………..that are still created in the Weaving School.
Whilst the hangi or earth oven is most commonly associated with traditional Māori cooking methods, indigenous New Zealanders also exploit the natural geothermal activities that are so prevalent around Rotorua. In Whakarewarewa village, for example, cooking devices are prepared by placing wooden boxes on top of a newly created vent.
Food is then placed inside the steam box – this includes a full meal, including desert in the form of steamed puddings (as illustrated above – the covered tin cans contain the steamed pudding mix). The lid is then fixed firmly to ensure a snug fit, and the steam allowed to do its work.
Back on Bruny, the firepit that I had built from a dismantled kiln with re-cycled kiln ports, was always designed in such a way that I might develop it into an above groundhangi. Scrabbling around in a deep pit with red hot rocks is not something I relish……..