Rewi Spraggon and his team from the Māori Kitchen had no idea how popular their food would be when they initially lit their hāngi pit in Takutai Square at the beginning of Matariki 2019. But that popularity became as clear as that starlight pre-dawn sky just a few hours later, when a lunchtime queue snaked all the way around the lawn and this year, from Tuesday 30 June to Saturday 4 July, Rewi is back and will be serving delicious manuka-smoked hāngi lunchboxes and hāngi pies. Here, Rewi talks about indigenous people’s deep understanding of sustainability, and the pleasure of holding a community celebration in the heart of the city. 

JEREMY HANSEN You laid a hāngi pit on the lawn in Takutai Square. What was it like for you to cook there?

REWI SPRAGGON Cooking in the middle of Britomart was an eye-opener for people in the precinct and in the wider downtown area. It was like the smoke from that first morning signalled everyone. You could see people were fascinated with the fire in the square. I’ve never seen a line for my food that big in my life! We were getting a lot of Kiwis that hadn’t had a hāngi for 20-30 years. And there were a lot of immigrants from other cultures who were really keen to physically see the hāngi pit and smell the aromas and taste the food. It was humbling to see what people were really interested in it. When you physically have the pit on site - the physical presence of fire, rocks and soil – then that becomes something new and exciting. 

What was it like for you, cooking in that space?

It was like being on stage and showcasing the art of Māori cooking to the world. I would walk over towards the pit and all the cameras would come out. You just have to make sure from a tikanga perspective you are upholding and maintaining the integrity of your culture. So it was humbling when we had kaumatua and elders there, and you could tell they were proud of us, proud of our culture, proud that we were doing this in the middle of the city.

We’re talking about the sustainable aspects of an event like this today.  Can you talk about that directly?

Indigenous cultures have always been sustainable. We’ve been doing it for centuries. There was never any choice but to be sustainable back then, because without being that, there was no survival. Nowadays, we’re also paying attention to things like serving our food in potato starch plates, but the most important thing at Matariki here at Britomart was that we fed people and ate as a community in this square. As a society, we don’t do that enough: We don’t sit out on a long table and talk as we eat and share food and stories. We’ve been so isolated from our communal style of living. This is the oldest style of cooking in this country. Sometimes you have to go back to the source of that, sharing knowledge, sharing everything about the future: local knowledge, local produce, all that sort of stuff. Aotearoa is getting better at that.