Not everyone experiences lockdown the same way. For some, it's a time of extreme hardship. That's why the hāngi master has fired up his pits in Te Henga to cook hundreds of meals a day to feed people in need

Rewi Spraggon is no stranger to hard work. During Matariki, he was lighting his hāngi pit in Taktuai Square before dawn before serving meals to hundreds of eager eaters at lunchtime. Just a week later, he organised Tohunga Tūmau, a massive Matariki dinner at Shed 10 featuring an all-star cast of Māori chefs cooking food and serving wine grown or harvested by Māori producers around Aotearoa (you can find them on the Eat New Zealand website – note that many of them deliver!). The Tohunga Tūmau events are now being held across the country – or they were, until Alert Level Four intervened. That’s led Rewi to shift focus, firing up his hāngi pits at home in Te Henga to churn out hundreds of meals a day for the homeless and others in need. Britomart is proud to have sponsored 600 lockdown meals from Rewi’s hāngi pit. Here, Jeremy Hansen talks to him about the initiative and how it’s all working. 

Kia ora e hoa. How does this lockdown compare to earlier ones for you? 

Last time I was working hard in Level 4 supplying hāngi meals for essential workers, doctors and nurses at Middlemore, Auckland and Waitākere hospitals. Logistically it was pretty challenging for our little family bubble here. And essential workers are of course amazing, but this time I was conscious of how hard-hit the homeless and others are by lockdowns. I have had a cousin who was homeless, and who chose to remain that way despite a lot of family reaching out to him. Like a lot of other homeless, he was eating out of rubbish bins at the back of restaurants. When the restaurants are closed like they are now, that option is gone and there’s more pressure on them. 

So you saw a gap there you could fill. 

Well, lockdown means there’s a lot more pressure on organisations like the City Mission and food banks. So anything I can do to lighten the load and give these people a taste of hāngi is awesome. I’ve just called around supporters of the Tohunga Tūmau events and organisations like Britomart to ask for their financial support, and the response has been great. I’ve worked with the food banks before, and with Darryl Evans at the Māngere Budgeting Services Trust. At Christmas we’ve done food parcels that we’ve taken out, and it’s been really humbling to see a lot of families struggling. There’s no better feeling than seeing the gratitude on their faces. So we’ve done quite a bit of that over the years, but this is the first time I’ve taken hāngi to them. Giving people a bit of good kai and a bit of aroha, that goes a long way.  

How is the Māngere Budgeting Centre a conduit for your efforts here? 

Māngere Budgeting Centre is dealing with a lot of families who are struggling to pay bills and put food on the table. Some of these parents are working two or three jobs and doing the best they can, but some of the jobs they’re working at are under the table and can’t happen with Covid. Big families have been seeing more and more pressure, overcrowded housing, all that sort of stuff, rents are really high. They’re a hidden part of our community, as a lot of them are too embarrassed to even ask for food. The Budgeting Centre knows who they are and has been acting as a conduit to distribute the meals we’re cooking. They know where the food needs to go. 

What have you been cooking? 

On the menu we’ve got chicken, pork, kumara, potato, cabbage, and stuffing. There’s something for vegetarians, and we cook the chicken in a different pit to the pork for anyone who is concerned about that. My son Julian and I cook the food in our hāngi pits here at home in Te Henga for 350 people at a time, which is as much as the two of us can manage. We start the fire at 6am, pull it up around 12 and start packing all the food into big trays, then into hot boxes that are delivered to the facilities, they then portion out the food. Hāngi has always been good for feeding a crowd. It’s a cheap way to do it. It’s wholesome and it is the oldest dish in Aotearoa. The whole idea of hāngi is to feed multitudes. Our ancestors lived in communities and cooked for communities. It’s been there forever. That’s the beauty of hāngi. 

You had a number of your Tohunga Tūmau events scheduled around the country, ticketed dinners featuring a lineup of famous Māori chefs cooking Māori produce. What’s happened to those events?  

We’ve postponed one that was coming up in September. In the meantime, my friend Grant Kitchen in Palmerston North is doing what I’m doing, working in with all the different women’s refuges and the homeless to supply food to them and a couple of food banks as well. And two of our other Tohunga Tūmau chefs, Karena and Kasey, are using the commercial kitchen in their marae to get food to as many people in need as they can in their area. So we’re all helping out where we can.  

How long will you do this for? 

I’ve now got enough donations to do five weeks of supplies, and if we carry on then I’ll go and hit up a few other sponsors. The main thing is that people are going to get a good kai and they’re gonna appreciate it. It’s a lot of aroha. 

Rewi isn’t accepting individual donations for his efforts, but encourages those wanting to donate to charities such as Auckland’s City Mission to support those in need during lockdown and beyond.