Photographs by Adrian Malloch

To celebrate Matariki 2019, we’ve invited hāngi master Rewi Spraggon to lay a hangi in Takutai Square. This is how he creates an authentic feast of Aotearoa kai.

For Rewi Spraggon, retaining the authenticity of the hāngi process is an essential part of honouring his ancestors. From the volcanic stones that are heated in the hāngi pits and the manuka branches that are burned as fuel for the fire to the sealing over of the earth oven with dirt, if the traditional steps aren’t followed, it’s not really a hāngi, he says.

The first step in a hāngi is to dig a pit. If you’ve got the depth of earth, around half a metre is ideal – too deep and it will start to become hard to get the stones and food in and out.

At Britomart, Rewi and his team would have hit the concrete roof of the underground train station if they went down too far, so as well as digging into the lawn of Takutai Square, he built up the sides of the pit to get the depth they needed to feed a hungry crowd.

Once the pit is dug, you need to lay a bed of fuel for the fire. Rewi’s traditional fuel is manuka or kanuka branches, as these impart a unique flavour to the food. Next, heavy stones are placed in the pit to add intensity to the heat, and preserve it over a long time once the fire is out.

Having the right kind of stones is critical. As the hāngi pit can heat up to over 600 degrees Celsius, the stones need to be volcanic in order to withstand the high temperatures without cracking or exploding. Some of the stones Rewi uses have been in his family for over 100 years. When the stones are white hot (after 3-5 hours of burning), the pit is ready for cooking.

One concession to modernity is the use of stainless steel baskets to hold the kai during cooking, used because they don’t make any difference to the flavour. The baskets are lined with large puka leaves and/or flax, to help keep in moisture and retain the flavour of the meat, seafood and vegetables.

Rewi seasons his meat – usually chicken or pork, though he has also put beef legs and seafood in a hāngi – with salt and the spicy native leaf kawakawa. Meats are layered at the bottom of the baskets, with vegetables on top (to avoid overcooking them). The pit is covered with a layer of wet cloths and sacking to keep the steam in, and earth is shovelled over the top.

Now it’s just about giving the heat from the stones time to cook the kai (about three hours), infusing the flavours of the leaves, earth and smoky timber as it does. At our hāngi lunchtimes, Rewi and his team will serve up hāngi pies, hāngi burgers and hāngi lunchboxes, so if you like the taste of New Zealand’s most traditional feast, you can try it a different way each day.