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Hāngi

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Hāngi is a traditional New Zealand Māori method of cooking food using heated rocks buried in a pit oven still used for on special occasions.

Left: A hāngi dinner.

To "lay a hāngi" or "put down a hāngi" involves digging a pit in the ground, heating stones in the pit with a large fire, placing baskets of food on top of the stones, and covering everything with earth for several hours before uncovering (or lifting) the hāngi.

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There are many variations and details that can be altered. Hangi "experts" have improved methods that often, like the stones themselves, have been handed down for generations.

Left: A hand-drawn picture of a earth oven, used by the Maori.

A hāngi pit doesn't need to be particularly big, but must have room for all the food that will be cooked, plus the stones that will be used to hold the heat. Wire baskets hold the food, and are used as a sizing guide for the pit.

Hāngi stones must be able to withstand high heat without chipping or crumbling. For this reason, igneous (volcanic) rocks are better than metamorphic or sedimentary rocks (e.g. sandstone). If striking the stone with a hammer produces a ringing noise rather than a thud, then the stone is probably good to use in the hāngi. Large stones of brick size or bigger are better as they hold the heat needed. Bricks are sometimes used if no appropriate natural stone can be found.

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The stones are normally heated in a large wood fire. Building a lattice of strong wood beams that can support the stones until they fall in is important, as stones buried in ash (as compared to hot coals) are losing heat, not gaining it.

Left: Hangi hot rocks with spuds that fell through.

The total burn time depends on the size of the hāngi being laid, but is usually between one and a half hours and two and a half hours.

When the fire has burned down the ash and coals must be removed or they dominate the flavour, but leaving a few coals gives a smoky flavour which some people prefer. Spraying the rocks very briefly with water produces a rush of steam that removes any loose ash.

Hessian cloth sacks, soaked in water overnight, are laid atop the stones to give extra protection to the food, and provide more water for steam. The food-filled baskets are then placed atop the hessian sacking, and covered with more wet hessian sacks to keep the dirt away. The whole arrangement is then rapidly covered with loose soil from the original pit to seal in heat and steam.

Once the hāngi is buried, any escaping steam is sealed by applying more soil.

This process goes on for three to four hours, depending on the quantity of food being cooked.

Traditional hāngi food is pork, mutton or lamb, and chicken, with generous portions of root vegetables such as kumara (sweet potato), pumpkin, carrot, potato, onions and cabbage.

With a hāngi no special preparation of the food is needed besides peeling the root vegetables, but adding herbs such as rosemary, garlic, or stuffing the chicken can add exciting flavors. A Polynesian addition of taro leaves wrapped around some of the food gives it a peppery spice.

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The food is placed in muslin lined wire baskets. If muslin is not available, clean white cotton bedsheets are fine. This cloth is soaked in water to prevent burning and provide water for steaming the food.

Left: Preparation of a traditional Hangi.

The wire baskets are there to hold the food and protect it from the weight of earth piled on top and beside it. The baskets also create space for steam to circulate.

Prior to colonization and the introduction of metals and wire, food was laid out on clean sticks, bark, large leaves and other vegetation to minimize direct contact with the hot rocks and reduce burning. Carved bowls and flat rocks were also used for this purpose. Leaves, sticks and vegetation were used to cover the food and to prevent crushing from the weight of the earth on top.

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